history of minimalist design movement

The history behind the minimalist design movement & tracing its roots

We built Loft You on a foundation of respect and admiration for minimalist design and the people who demonstrated consistent innovation on a groundbreaking scale (Tadao Ando, Frank Lloyd Wright and Jil Sander spring to mind). What’s interesting about these figures is that they’re not limited to minimalist design as a sole discipline. In fact, minimalist design has had a hand in everything from fashion to furniture and we’d like to take you through it all.

In this article we’re going to look at the history of minimalist design, starting from its conception and looking at its varied cultural touch points along the way until we reach minimalist expression in the modern day. 

But first: how do we define minimalist design?

Online definitions are littered with phraseology like ‘less is more’ or ‘doing more with less’ (the first phrase coined by famed architect Ludwig Miles van der Rohe, and the second by designer Buckminster Fuller). These phrases certainly apply to minimalist design, but by this point they have become a little overused. 

We prefer to think of minimalist design as an expression of the most essential and necessary elements of a product or subject. It is the essential end product of one’s creativity, stripped of superfluous elements. As a rejection of past art forms that were in comparison gaudy, vulgar, and in bad taste, minimalism is form and function and aspires to be nothing more. 

It’s also present in everything! The stripped back and simple websites we browse are a nod to minimalism, as are the cute packaging of our favourite brands. 

So, how did the minimalist design movement come to be?

The very first demonstrations of minimalism can be found in the early 20th century, around the 1920s. Ludwig Miles van der Rohe was at the forefront of a burgeoning new architecture scene that favoured modern materials like glass, steel and concrete. He broke new ground with his bold and stripped back pieces, using only a handful of materials for simplicity. Although minimalism had a long way to go yet, its very roots can be found with van der Rohe and his contemporaries. For example, his Barcelona chair (1929) was a standout moment for minimalist design and would come to inspire the world of minimalist furniture.

Looking further on, minimalism as we know it today can be traced back to a rejection of abstract expressionism and its overcrowded sensibilities. Abstract expressionism was chaotic, and characterised by an overstimulation of the senses. Minimalist design therefore serves only the form and function by distilling the object down to its essentials. 

The movement itself began in the late 1950s and bloomed in the 1960s and 1970s with a group of young New York-based artists, namely: Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris and more. Pictured here is a 1972 work by Donald Judd, the name of which is ‘Untitled’ (very minimalist).

Donald Judd – Untitled 1972 – Tate. © Donald Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2020.

This school of artists experimented with ‘geometric abstraction’, playing with shapes and forms that leave a lot to imagination and how you interpret them.

“Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity; back to simplicity” – Dieter Rams

Minimalist furniture comes into its own…

Dieter Rams in the 1960s and 1970s

As the New York school continued to innovate with minimalist design, many artists turned to interior design and furniture to express this new modern perspective. Namely, the German designer Dieter Rams. Rams was essential to minimalist design making its way into our homes, and through the 1960s onwards his work paved the way for future generations of furniture designers (Loft You included!).

Not only was Rams a keen furniture designer, he also designed electronics which bear an uncanny resemblance to today’s hyper technical electronics (simple, clean, and elegant). Dieter Rams’s influence on the minimalist movement cannot be understated, and it proved strong throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Shiro Kuramata in the 1980s

We couldn’t finish the article without at the very least referencing Japanese influences on the movement, so we’ll focus on Shiro Kuramata in this section. Kuramata worked with an even smaller handful of materials, mostly glass and transparent materials as you can see from the image below (the Glass Chair from 1976 and his Issey Miyake store design from 1983).

Shiro Kuramata’s Glass Chair, 1976, and Issey Miyake shop in Ginza, 1983. Photo © Phaidon

Kumata was inspired by objects that appeared to disappear into the room, or appearing as if suspended in midair. His use of transparent glass and acrylic materials were groundbreaking, and by using even fewer materials than his predecessors Kumata took minimalism to places others had barely dared to venture.  

Maarten Van Severen in the 1990s and beyond

Many would argue that with the brand Vitra, Maarten Van Severen put European minimalism on the map. Belgian born, the designer created iconic and lasting pieces with his pared down and stripped back aesthetic. He experimented with more materials than some minimalists may have liked (mostly aluminium, plywood and steel) but the simplicity remained intact.

Patricia Urquiola, Shin and Tomoko Azumi and the 2000s

As we approach modern day minimalism, the work of Partricia Urquiola springs to mind. This Spanish architect and designer graduated from the prestigious Milan institution Politecnico in 1989 and was mentored by the likes of Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti, two masters of Italian industrial design. Patricia’s work is exemplary of modern minimalist design, using rich and handsome materials to create pared-back designs from scratch. 

Shin and Tomoko Azumi deserve mention, too. The two Japanese designers began their minimalist journey at Kyoto City University of Art before decamping to London’s Royal College of Art. Their experimentation and bold designs paved the way for today’s minimalists. For the furniture world, their influence has been huge.

Where we are today in minimalist furniture design?

These are just some of the many influences within the minimalist design movement. There are many, many more that we could reference! This is a very exciting time for furniture designers, and with such inspiration behind us there is no telling where our experimentations could take the industry. 

Our minimalist furniture comes from the same source as our minimalist lighting: it’s all born from our reverence for minimalist design. As a lifestyle, philosophy, and design movement it is simply the cornerstone of everything we believe in. 

If you enjoyed this, please take a look at our blog. We regularly update it with insights and inspiration that we think you will find useful and of relevance within your own lives.