By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer, behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
This week, I spoke to writer Kyle Chayka, the author of the newly released The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism. Kyle's a really great writer whose work has appeared in a number of places I love, and the book is superb.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Walt Hickey: The book is The Longing for Less. It's about minimalism. What drew you to this topic?
Kyle Chayka: It started in 2016 when I just noticed that a ton of different things were being called minimalist. Like you could call a bar "minimalist," you could call a hotel "minimalist," you could call like your outfit "minimalist," you could call cleaning your closet "minimalist." Since I have a background in art history, my association with minimalism was as this radical art movement in the mid-sixties in New York.
What made me want to write about it was there seemed to be no connection between these two things. The people are calling a bar minimalist without knowing anything about what minimalism meant originally. The word seemed to mean nothing, or be the shorthand for empty spaces, essentially.
I wanted to solve that mystery a little bit, and figure out how this radical art movement became a popular lifestyle trend.
You highlight a few names that were kind of, at least in the popular imagination, associated with minimalism, folks like Marie Kondo and Steve Jobs. Can you talk a little bit about like who some of these "minimalist influencers" are and whether they do or don't fit within the framework of what minimalism actually is?
As far as minimalist influencers — which is a great term — I think minimalism is so often associated with technology now. We say our iPhone is minimalist. I think Steve Jobs is really the one who's responsible for that, the Silicon Valley obsession with minimalism. Sure, he was the most successful entrepreneur of all time. But he also weirdly had this very ascetic lifestyle. There's the famous photo of him in the eighties sitting in his living room with like nothing on the floor and only a lamp and a stereo. And he's like, this is all I need to live a happy life, but also he'd be worth billions of dollars. I think he's someone who's really associated with minimalism because I think people associate his ascetic lifestyle with the money that he made and how successful Apple was.
Another minimalist influencer might be Philip Johnson, the architect who lived for most of the 20th century. He was the one who was really responsible for importing European modernism to the United States and kind of the ‘20s and ‘30s. So he would travel in Europe with the founder of MoMA and bring back German modernist furniture, and study architecture, and then do exhibitions about it in the U.S.
Philip Johnson made Glass House, which people may recognize. You wrote that a lot of that modernist stuff was only described as minimalist in retrospect.
Minimalism as a word was only coined in 1965. The word did not exist essentially before that. And obviously like calling something minimal, there's a word, but "minimalism" as a term didn't exist until Richard Wollheim, who's a British art theorist, coined it in '65. It's really funny to me that the modernist aesthetic gets associated with minimalism when really it came long before minimalism proper. Just to clarify people use "modernism" to describe a lot of things as well. But what we're talking about is the art movement that lasted for the first half of the 20th century. In terms of architecture and design, it was really all about industrial materials, empty spaces, and whiteness. It was hermetically sealed spaces of glass and steel that now we see everywhere in skyscrapers and condos and stuff.
That aesthetic is like very much still a thing. Like, I just saw Knives Out and like Glass House is exactly where Chris Evans lives.
Yeah, totally. It's so funny, and it's like that I think because of Philip Johnson, the aesthetic is associated with high end luxury culture and rich, fancy people. It's good taste.
For the book, you spent some time in Japan. What drew you there?
The last chapter of the book is on Japan. We associate Japan so much with minimalism. We think of it as a minimalist culture in some ways. I wanted to go there, and to experience it for myself, and just see how minimalist it feels. Like maybe this is a projection of Western culture. I wanted to test out that idea that Japan was very minimalist.
Again, minimalism is a thing that emerged in the ‘60s. You can't call a Japanese monk from the 13th century a minimalist, necessarily. He's not cleaning out his cave or whatever according to Marie Kondo. To me, what I wanted to do with the book was to expand the idea of minimalism and talk about it in a more associative way, where like we can break down what minimalism is and talk about what goes into it.
Part of that is like definitely Japanese Buddhism, which has some appreciation of the ephemerality of life and the absences as much as presences. That's really what I studied in going to Japan.
One portion of the book made me feel completely roasted. You wrote:
But minimalist marketing usually ends up in one of two ways. The first is simplicity as pricey luxury, like a thousand-dollar iPhone or the iconic Eames lounge chair. The chair, made of three segments of bent plywood upholstered with puffs of leather pillows like piped icing, has become a shibboleth of good taste, a cliche fixture in photo shoots. At upwards of $4,000 for the real thing, it’s not really “for the least” price or “for the most” people. The second is IKEA territory, where every college graduate buys the same geometric side-table in shoddy materials that might mimic modernist style but gets ditched whenever they can afford something better. It promises permanence but ends up ephemeral.
Anyway as a person who covets all of that stuff I felt nuked by this line. Can you expand on it a bit?
Minimalism is often a luxury good. The minimalist ideal is that we can make a product or a thing that's good for everyone, a style that's cool to everyone and is tasteful to everyone. I think what it often ends up as is this.
On the high end you have something like the Eames chair, which is this prized cultural relic and is perfect in every way, shape and form. And it's a beautiful object. But no one can afford it. Like $5,000 for a single chair is like not an easy leap to make.
IKEA approaches the same idea from the other angle, where they make a lowest common denominator aesthetic and that is minimalism. If you make the simplest furniture possible, the most functional, useful object possible, then it can get applied everywhere. I think minimalism has a lot of utility as a style, it can be cheap to produce and it does fit in everywhere. I think that's part of the reason why it's so popular across the world. It just kind of blends into its surroundings.
I mean we all aspire to the Herman Miller minimalism, but maybe like IKEA minimalism is our starting point.
Do you want to talk a little bit about like 4'33'' by John Cage? That's best known as the silent track, so to speak, and you go deep on how oftentimes that's misinterpreted.
The misinterpretation of 4'33'' is that it's like a silent piece, John Cage composed it.
The moment 4'33'' debuted, it was at this concert hall in upstate New York. And you know, the audience is all seated in their chairs. Some people are outside, everyone's nervously awaiting this last song at this avant-garde classical music concert. And then the pianist goes up and unveils the keys and then just sits there and does nothing. And he like continues to do nothing opening, closing the piano for four minutes and 33 seconds.
And by the end of that, obviously the audience is super annoyed. Like, why are we not hearing any music? What is the point of this? Like is John Cage trolling us basically?
And he was trolling, but the piece is not about silence. It's not about like hearing nothing. It's instead about reframing the sounds of the environment as the musical experience. So instead of the piano player making the sound, that's John Cage saying "everything happening around you is the sensory experience that you should focus on, you should focus on the rustling of the leaves and the people mumbling, the environment." He talks about the sound of the rain on leaves and that can be a beautiful sound. So the argument of 4'33'' is not that music is nothing, but that music is everything. We should be maybe less picky about what we see as arts in our everyday lives.
That's a great place to land on. Marie Kondo says that a house basically needs just 30 books. Can you explain to readers why this should be their 31st?
I keep telling people that this book counts for negative five other books. You know, reframe your mind.
To me the utility of the book is not giving you a way to clean your apartment, or telling you how to live, but instead helping you ask deeper questions and be exposed to some ideas that are cool or might help you see the world in a different way. Change your mind, as opposed to just cleaning out your apartment.
The book is called Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism. It's an exploration of all of these different artists and writers and philosophers and architects who make up a wider idea of minimalism, it's published by Bloomsbury. It's out now and you should be able to find it just about anywhere.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.