Even Minimalists Need Clutter

“Less is more.”
– from Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”

Sweet: Design Within Reach catalogue

Over the past two weeks, my normally quiet mailbox has been inundated with late 20th century home furnishing catalogues. (Thank you, Print, for selling my address for advertising purposes). Personally, I have no desire to live like a monk, but don’t mind browsing the lifestyle.

One of the catalogues I received was from Design Within Reach. Although I’d never heard of it, after scanning the two dozen listed nationwide on the back cover, I inferred that this chain is probably considered rather pedestrian by right and left coasters. DWR seeks to bring modern furniture by world-renowned designers directly to you, the discriminating urban consumer, rather than through some hoity-toity middleman interior designer who thinks he knows more about hip than you do. It’s a mission that would fit a retailer in the sprawling San Marcos Prime Outlets very well, but names can be deceiving. DWR’s $2500 pod chairs do not exactly fit my budget because these goods are the real deal, not some IKEA knock-offs.

But Design Within Reach is not your one-stop late modern shop after you’ve turned over a selfless new leaf and cleaned out your closet or stored junk at your parents’ house. Its sole offerings consists basic furniture and the occasional light fixture, because of the oft-forgotten fact that minimalism is not really about style. It’s about using the smallest amount of what you need and holding on the personal effects that are truly important to you. Monasteries and hermitages have all but disappeared, so why not create your own fortress of solitude and emptiness at home? And without those pesky vows, you can still drink and have all the sex you want. This is why minimalism has endured for over 80 years since the glory days of the Bauhaus. Why else would anyone choose to sleep on what is essentially a queen-size army cot?

Minimalism is best understood by designers, because it’s also about construction, physics, math. What holds something up? How is the weight distributed? What’s it made of? What are the proportions? All of these factors affect the composition of the piece. This is inherent DWR’s catalogue design. Rather than echoing the sterile feel of the furniture lines and room layouts, it’s more like an architectural plan. The rather dull cover features a blueprint of the featured item, but the inside is much more engaging while retaining a simple and clean look. Instead of placing several items in a single photo and assigning them confusing numbers for the product description, most pieces have their own photo with the caption boxed in next to it and an arrow pointing to back to the photo.

Unlike most special interest catalogues, the product descriptions rely on anything but clichés and snapiness to sell the product. Each entry sought to educate the buyer about the product, featuring the name, origin and photo of the designer(s), year designed, materials used and a brief history of how the item was conceived. Even more surprising was that a small number of the pictures actually included real people in them, not models looking bored, hungry and unobtainably cool, but artfully-dressed men and women doing normal homey things, like drinking coffee at the kitchen table or lounging on the living room sectional and thumbing through a magazine.

I find this a refreshing approach to sales in today’s world. Design Within Reach does not seek to dictate what is chic and it does not provide all the answers of minimalism. In fact, this lack of cramming it down your through makes it all the more accessible.

Shameful: Chiasso catalogue

Now that you’ve parted from all your possessions that could be described as “overstuffed” and “licensed,” turn to Chiasso (chee-ahsso or kee-ahsso?) in case you decide you can’t live without fruit bowls and graffiti chess sets.

Chiasso offers home décor items rather than actual furniture. There are doormats, picture frames, media storage, novelty lighting and barware. You’ll find hat racks, door stops, toothpick dispensers, salt and pepper shakers. And, thanks to Garden Ridge Pottery, those horrors of all 21st century clutter: candle accessories. In other words, all the things you were supposed to throw away.

This is trendiness thinly disguised as minimalism. The patronizing product description for a silver landline phone reads, “Answering the call for elegant functionality… But most importantly, it looks extremely cool.” And despite the upscale prices, the corny copywriting makes everything look so cheap. If I’m going to pay $60 for a throw pillow, I don’t want to be coddled, I want to decide for myself if it’s worth it. I can’t help but feel sorry for the person who wrote it, because it seems like they put a lot of work into it.

I have less sympathy for the art director. Although I’m sure this was due to budget constraints for printing, the disorderly layout sharply contrasts with the spare compositions of the product photos. If there was a page limit, there are obvious ways (like putting more than one item in the same picture) and creative ways around those obstacles. Contributing to the muddled spreads was the lack of a page hierarchy and consistent style. An unwieldy typeface similar to Basic was chosen for all of the copy, resulting in poor leading and gaping holes in the ragged edge justification. Perhaps worst of all, the designer incorporated those meaningless [square brackets] in the headers. What can one say except, “Eeew.”

Overall, these misused elements reflect poorly on the items for sale. What could have been appealing to refined minimalists or even consumers with funky, eclectic tastes seemed mass-produced and tawdry. This mail-order catalogue debacle is a fitting example of what happens when the audience is not studied thoroughly. Otherwise, Chiasso would have known that to truly be a minimalist, one must not only live by the mentality of “less is more”, but must also understand the difference between substance and style.

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