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Can you be a minimalist in today’s maximalist world?
Last November, one email stood out in my ever-expanding inbox. The subject line included the phrase "We Do Less" – and it seemed curious because it was an invite to the launch of a new hotel.
"We do not have caviar canapés," the invite went on. "We do have world-renowned speakers." Experts like design guru Karim Rashid would join 150 guests for a "gathering of minds" and discuss "the essentials" of lifestyle, technology, well-being and design.
While many hotels are trying to outdo one another with posh perks like pillow menus (and champagne-fuelled launch parties), ALT hotels-including its latest outpost, ALT Hotel Toronto Pearson, which hosted the conference – actually promote the fact that they have no valets, no doormen, no room service, no pools, no restaurants and – in Toronto, anyway – no launch parties.
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What they do have is free Wi-Fi, 24-hour gyms, grab-and-go cafés and two minimalist room styles (both featuring Egyptian-cotton sheets and feather pillows) – all for a flat rate of $149.
"I’m not someone who likes lots of stuff, so I am very at ease with less is more," Christiane Germain, co-president and co-founder of Groupe Germain Hospitalité, which operates the ALT brand, tells me as we await the start of the conference from a comfy lobby banquette.
"This is not a religion; it’s a great movement that forces us to make choices, and if we make the right choices, we should have time to do other things for ourselves."
The ALT concept is just one example of a new, richer version of minimalism that’s being embraced everywhere from the fashion runways to rural Montana – where two 31-year-old American guys, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, relocated after quitting their corporate jobs. They’ve christened themselves "the Minimalists" and live and preach a pared-back lifestyle that they believe leads to heightened experiences.
And they’re not the only ones. In an opinion piece for The New York Times entitled "Relax! You’ll Be More Productive," author and consultant Tony Schwartz argues that "the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less."
He cites numerous new studies on the benefits of "strategic renewal" – how working fewer hours, taking more vacations and sleeping longer can boost performance and improve health. Canadian stress counsellor David Posen’s new book, Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress, advocates much of the same as a way to help everyone slow down and be happy in a world of work overload.
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The idea of scaling back to achieve more also extends to exercise, where the latest fitness trend is stair racing – touted for its simplicity and full-body workout.
When it comes to food, many menus at trendy restaurants have been edited down to focus on a limited selection of quality ingredients. Case in point: the six-kinds-of-tacos-only offerings at Toronto’s La Carnita. Even app developers are debating the need for countless extras.
PBS MediaShift writer Susan Currie Sivek recently wrote about several magazine publishers who now create minimalist magazine apps that don’t "interrupt" the reader experience. But don’t be scared away by the term "minimalism" – which has often been belittled for not being enough.
The 2013 minimalism – let’s call it "minimalism plus" – has evolved past the "less is more" definition that architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe championed in the ’30s and ’40s with the extreme simplicity of his steel-and-glass facades. It’s also not the brutally stark minimalism of the ’90s – exemplified by Kate Moss in a sleek Calvin Klein shift and slicked-back hair.
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"I believe there is a trend away from the tired archetypes and/or very cold, sterile minimalism," says Rashid. "But I don’t like the term ‘new minimalism.’ I think you could call it purism. I call my work ‘sensual minimalism,’ or sensualism, because it is not laboured with embellishment yet has a more human, more sensual connection with us. The works of [architect] Zaha Hadid and [industrial designer] Ross Lovegrove are also good examples of sensual minimalism."
Rashid describes the spaces he creates – everything from hotels to subway platforms – as full of organic curves so they "have a pulse and come alive around you so that you feel inspired and revitalized." You can see it in his work: It’s full of intense colours and has a friendly futuristic feel, yet it retains a clean aesthetic.
The Spring/Summer 2013 runway version of minimalism in fashion certainly had more of a pulse than it has had in previous iterations. Even a stark minimalist like Jil Sander, who returned to her namesake label after an eight-year absence, tapped into what Rashid calls sensualism with futuristic pearlescent polka dots, tangerine pants and two-tone boots with a zipper that curves around the calf.
At Dior, Raf Simons’ debut collection of iridescent flowered ballerina skirts paired with black sweaters was inspired by "sex, freedom, movement, sensuality [and] minimalism," according to the show notes.
At Céline, Phoebe Philo gave the brand’s traditionally minimalist vibe a softer, more comfortable twist with frayed hems, flowy trousers and mink-lined sandals (a.k.a. "furkenstocks"). Backstage, Philo told journalists that the collection was about "beauty, friendship and journey. It’s about supporting each other, being kind to each other."
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Even Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi opted for fur insets that form diagonal "Fs" rather than bold logos. "The ’90s minimal mood is coming back," Ennio Capasa, designer for Costume National, told Noreen Flanagan, ELLE Canada‘s editor-in-chief, backstage after a toned-down show in Paris. (Think less avant-garde than usual.) "I think that this new generation is discovering the power and modernity of minimalism. Today, however, it’s different: It’s more creative; it’s warmer. There is more technique and couture, but the essence is innovation. People want innovation. The planet needs innovation."
That last statement about seeking innovation – in a minimalist way – is something Nicodemus and Fields Millburn can relate to. In 2010, they were high-powered high-paid (yet very unhappy) sales leaders at a telecom company in Dayton, Ohio. Following the death of Fields Millburn’s mother and a divorce and Nicodemus’ struggles with addiction and a divorce, the two found inspiration from everyday people online.
In particular, they turned to 39-year-old San Francisco-based Leo Babauta’s zenhabits.net and Colin Wright’s exilelife.com. Wright is a 27-year-old American who writes a travelogue about moving to a new country (voted by his readers) every four months.
On his website, Wright states that he owns about 60 things but that "a reduction of physical possessions is often a result of minimalism, not minimalism itself." He continues: "What minimalism is really all about is a reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff – the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities – that don’t bring value to your life."
That philosophy resonated with Fields Millburn and Nicodemus. "We just got to the point that we weren’t even questioning why we were doing things," says Fields Millburn. "I didn’t know what was important anymore, and I felt like crap."
Three years later, Fields Millburn is 70 pounds leaner (he has completely changed his diet, eschewing carbs and meat in favour of grains, veggies and intermittent fasting), owns a few essential items of clothing (he gave away most of the wardrobe – including 70 Brooks Brothers shirts – that once filled his former basement) and now spends his time writing (Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, co-authored with trend Nicodemus, was published in 2011), taking a lot of walks and promoting minimalism.
This doesn’t mean that his life is not full – TheMinimalists.com gives this summary of their 2012 activities: They toured 43 cities, tutored 120 online students and wrote four books and 100 essays.
When I point out that this doesn’t sound very minimal, Fields Millburn replies that "minimalism is not deprivation. I do a lot less, but I get a lot more done." Case in point: To contact the Minimalists via their website, you’ll find a request to "please read this essay before you email us."
In the essay, Fields Millburn explains how his approach to email has changed. Now, among other things, he "think[s] twice before sending an email," doesn’t respond every day, deletes nearly everything and doesn’t access email from his phone. (I ended up sending a very succinct and carefully crafted note.)
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"Emails are like food pellets from the universe. You get a little dopamine burst every time you pull the lever, but most of the time it’s empty food," he says, citing the everyday onslaught of email as a good example of why the minimalism movement is resonating right now.
"To me, minimalism is a response-a pendulum swinging to the other side of ‘need.’ It’s the end of Gen X and Gen Y [a.k.a. the millennials]. This solipsistic generation, which I am a part of, has become so overindulged and stressed out, but it’s almost all internal pressure."
A new Harris Interactive survey conducted for the American Psychological Association found that 39 percent of millennials (aged 18 to 33) surveyed say that their stress has increased in the past year. The top sources?
Work (76 percent), money (73 percent) and relationships (59 percent). According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, in 2011, 23.6 percent of Canadians aged 15 and older said that most of their days were "extremely or quite a bit stressful." That’s up from 22.3 percent in 2008. Posen, a former family physician who has been specializing in stress counselling for the past 30 years, believes that we all need to ratchet back a little bit. He puts much of the blame on companies that demand so much from their employees that they’ve created a "new normal" stress level that can’t be maintained.
One of the four premises of his book is that "workplaces are making people sick." Thankfully, he also thinks that there are some simple solutions. "What I do in my counselling is give people permission to take better care of themselves – including making time for leisure," he says.
The first thing he has patients do is a three-week test that involves reducing work hours to a reasonable level, getting more sleep and exercise and cutting back on alcohol and caffeine, which cause agitation and restlessness.
He also promotes single tasking or sequential tasking. "Multi-tasking is a myth; it’s a trap," he explains. "It takes away the enjoyment – and efficiency – of a singular experience." One of my favourite examples from his book is a quote from a Zen master: "When you eat an orange, eat an orange."
"When you concentrate on the orange, you feel the pleasant release of juice in your mouth. You experience the sweet taste of it," writes Posen. "When you pop an orange slice in your mouth while watching a TV show, you barely notice the taste, much less the pleasure."
In his own life, one of Posen’s most pleasurable daily "immersion" activities is a walk where he can think and reflect. (Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, also takes long daily walks – and credits them for helping him clarify some of his best ideas.)
Posen also recommends frequent breaks – and vacations. I spoke with him during his regular January visit to Sarasota, Fla. I started off the conversation by apologizing for interrupting his holiday.
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"I really appreciate that you are conscious of that," he said kindly. He went on to explain that he normally doesn’t do any work during his
vacation. "This call is the only work I’m doing this week – I don’t even check emails. But life is a balancing act. You have to find the middle ground, and sometimes that means it’s okay to allow exceptions."
Fields Millburn also advocates finding a happy medium. Last year, for one year, he did an experiment where he didn’t buy anything new. Six months in, he spilled tea on his laptop.
He spent the next four weeks going to friends’ houses to use their computers. "But at a certain point, I decided that this experiment was making my life more difficult. So I bought a new laptop. The experience made me really appreciate the value of my computer – and it changed my psyche about material possessions," he says. "The impulse to buy new things doesn’t completely go away – I’m tested every day. But I’m grateful that now I stop and ask the question ‘Will this thing add value to my life?’"
One object that many people passionately credit with adding value to their lives is a smartphone. It connects us with the world and streamlines our lives through apps – but the flip side is, it also makes us constantly accessible so it’s difficult to tune out.
"The iPhone is in form a purist object but rich in experience. [The old] minimalism was never rich in experience," says Rashid. "We are in a new humanism, a digital age, and an age of sensualism. It’s a time of addition by subtraction where we can have more experiences with less, where the digital brings us more heightened experiences."
Minimalism doesn’t advocate getting rid of your smartphone (there’s an iPhone docking base in every ALT hotel room); what it does encourage is minimizing the bursts of dopamine that can come from using technology too frequently. That means trying some of the simple recommendations of people like the Minimalists and Posen.
The first one I’m going to try is Posen’s suggestion of setting up a folder in my inbox where I save only the messages that I must respond to – and then delete the rest. It’s a small, simple start. But I feel happier already just thinking about it.
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