Inside ...: Less is more ... but where do you put your stuff?

The minimalist revival is, er, everywhere. Oliver Bennett meets the new space cadets
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In The 1960s, Minimalism was an artistic movement: reductive, hard-edged and sternly intellectual, supported by much hot air about "negative space" and the tabula rasa.

In the last few years it has returned, and crossed over to the world of interior decoration. In the late 1990s, the word "minimalist" is freely applied to any uncluttered, ornament-free space which has the requisite sharp-cornered, white (or, more dangerously, off-white) walls. They fill the glossies, and mega-restaurants and loft conversions and lounge bars alike follow the minimalist cue, guided by quotation-cum-cliches such as "Ornament is crime" from early 20th century Viennese architect Adolf Loos, and "Less is more" from Robert Browning via Mies van der Rohe. The words "Zen" and "contemplative" are plentifully aired, and there is even a sub-canon of minimalist decoration - if the phrase is not oxymoronic - usually consisting of reduced nature: a single orchid, a rock, three twigs against a light source.

Fine, but the first thing the grubby hordes think is: "Is it possible to actually live in one of these palaces of purity without becoming a buttock-clenching neurotic?" The answer is yes, though you have to have a predisposition. Design historian Libby Sellers, 25, who lives in a white box in west London, lives the "less" creed quite happily. Inspired by the interwar Modernists such as Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, she aims to have a flat with function and purpose. There may well be conceptual baggage but the main point, she says, having grown up in an atmosphere of chintz, is to enjoy the bracing aesthetic. "I simply gain pleasure from clean, simple, white, natural materials."

There is work to do, for the price of minimalism is eternal vigilance. "You have to have a bit of discipline," she counsels. "Yes, I have to clean a lot, and I have a lady who comes once a week. When you have a completely white flat with a lot of surface on show, you find yourself walking around with a damp J-Cloth. I even find myself polishing the underneath of the table. It can inspire obsessiveness and, partly for that reason, I've chosen to live alone."

But any sacrifice that Sellers has to make - and fate has helped by making her a "naturally tidy" person - are more than made up for her by the flat's dramatic mise en scene. "I'm privileged to live this way," she says. "It's like being in an art gallery." It also helps that Sellers works at home, for she displaces mental blocks with frantic tidying sessions.

Further assistance to Sellers comes from shops such as Muji and The Storage Company, which cater for the minimally minded by offering bright new product ideas such as magazine boxes. Indeed, Sellers has given storage top priority and has stashed away tedious necessities like stereo, TV, washing machine, dryer, fridge and freezer in cupboards. If there are to be objects and furniture displayed, she would rather they were Modernist classics, or in some way transient and dynamic. "I don't want to think that something's there for ever; that's become a block."

When friends come round, she makes them sit on the floor, which "can be difficult". But she hopes they're "blown out by the power of the place" as she was when she first set eyes on the space, designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Orefelt.

Architect Claudia Silvestrin, a minimalist of many years standing, describes himself as "partisan" in that he lives how he builds, which is to say minimally. But he does not appreciate the more affected aspects of the current boomlet. "I read somewhere that minimalism's a cult," he says. "Total bullshit". If people ask him if it is a philosophy, he replies that it is more an attitude. And the supreme raison d'etre of this attitude is that it should radiate serenity and calm - the opposite of recent projects like the palpably uptight Hempel hotel - "Missing the point," he says.

Nor, he adds, should minimalist domestic life be the mixture of effort and denial that some of us think. "It does require discipline, but I do not see that as a negative virtue," he says. "It's not like being in the army. But it is not a recipe for everyone. If, like me, you are the sort of person who hangs their coat up and stores your shoes when you get in, fine. If not, maybe it's not for you. It's entirely up to individual taste."

Indeed, it is probably true to say that minimalists are born, not made. "You can't say, I've decided to be a minimalist. It just doesn't work," says Tyler Brule, of decoration magazine Wallpaper. "If you like to collect things, and display objets trouvees or family heirlooms, then maybe you should get a lock-up garage or a spare room where you can throw things."

Storage is key, but Silvestrin finds the most significant aspect of the minimalist interior is "a visual awareness of greater space" - a message that can only arise from ruthless culling of objects and attention to spatial relations. "I prefer to see less objects; more space," he says. "It has a knock-on effect, for by doing this the objects get magnified. The ugliness of a crappy object will be emphasised, while a good object will stand out."

Despite its emphasis on surface, the minimal interior does not necessarily demand higher maintenance; at least, says Sylvestrin, "no more than any quality building or interior. If something is white then it shows up the dirt much more, so it needs cleaning. But if it makes you tense, forget it. If my child draws on the walls, then that's fine."

Meanwhile, could the minimalist style have peaked? "There is a stream of minimalism which isn't minimalist," says Brule, in approximation of the koan paradoxes which drove the early artistic minimalists like Ad Reinhardt. "There are faddish elements to it, and there are both bastardised and purist forms of minimalism. There comes an uncomfortable point where minimalism can be uninviting - like the Hempel Hotel. That turns people off. They don't want to live like that."

But, he adds, the bigger concept won't go away, and he also thinks that minimalism will filter-down so that you will see more reductive pieces at Habitat and IKEA. Minimalism may never conquer the duster-wielding masses - but its sparse creed may yet sweep through a broad swathe of the public imagination.

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