A few years ago, I happened to park outside Malvern Town Hall when I noticed a sign: Doll Fair.
Recalling the doll fairs my daughter and I attended years ago, searching for tiny items for the dolls’ house we furnished together, I paid the $5 fee to enter.
There were the familiar tables full dolls of all shapes and sizes, dressed in exquisite detail.
But there was something missing: people.
“What happened to kill the doll market?” I asked one seller, as I watched the few visitors stroll past, mostly without buying.
“Minimalism,” she said, firmly. “I’m into bears now.”
But judging by the lack of custom at the bear stall, even bears were struggling.
It’s true, I thought later. It was hard to imagine these dolls and bears finding a home in the sparse and neutral homes that are still featured on lifestyle shows and in real estate ads today.
The popularity of minimalism is understandable. It stems from our global guilt at the destruction of the planet and our desperate desire for some sort of control in the face of uncontrolled consumption. It stems from the need to counter the complexity of modern life through the creation of soothing simplicity in the retreat we call home.
But neutral pallets also neutralise people. Where are the books? Where is the music? Where is the art and the craft – homemade or otherwise? Where is the miscellaneous stuff that tells people who you are?
In the process of “de-cluttering”, we are ignoring what makes us human – the need for connection, engagement and identity through beauty, creativity and culture.
Perhaps the intention is that we may still have beautiful things – just not too many?
But intentionally or otherwise, self-proclaimed minimalists like Americans Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (theminimalists.com) lead by example, and the online tours of their homes reveal bare walls and an institutional starkness that is a reminder of how totalitarian regimes stripped people of their identities.
In his defence, Fields Millburn writes: “No, I’m not opposed to paintings on my walls, but I also don’t feel obligated to hang a frame on drywall to feel complete. I am complete, as are you, even in an empty room. “
Such shaming language ignores the complexity of our humanity. We don’t choose art or ornamentation because we are personally inadequate without it, but because it brings joy, stimulation and meaning to our lives. Our “stuff” not only completes us, it reflects us.
A café or restaurant that simply offered a table and chair and menu, with no décor or ambience, would be deemed lacking character. Why should it be different for our homes?
Beauty and culture also encourage emotional investment in our environment. Chicago Potter Theaster Gates, who has helped revive neighbourhoods through reclaiming abandoned buildings for community use, says beauty is the inspiration and motivation for community and engagement.
“In my city, Chicago, I have seen firsthand what happens when a focus on, say, housing, fails to account for our human thirst for beauty, for the sublime, the emotionally enriching, the spiritual, “ Gates says in an article titled Why Beauty Matters on Ted.com.
Possessions are also reminders of the people who made them and used them, and our shared history.
This is no more evident than in the popular Antiques Road Show, where the value of an item is always increased if there is a story attached.
In May 2016, the Roadshow visited Lyme in the UK, where a lithograph of Sarah Bernhardt that was once owned by Elton John was featured. The picture was purchased in 1988, when the singer auctioned many of the items from his married life before coming out.
As the valuer explained, “He saw it as a way of saying goodbye to the man he pretended to be: this front, this theatre.” In short, it represented a change of identity.
But our stuff doesn’t always have to be commercially valuable to be of value.
As Stephanie Land said in an article in The Straits Times on July 24 2016 titled Why the poor cannot afford to be minimalists, “My stuff was not just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support, of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I had done as a child that my mum had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mum had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska.”
The evangelistic language of minimalism claims that “freedom” can only be obtained from ridding ourselves of things.
But there is freedom in choosing individuality over conformity, and in recognising the difference between materialism and being stripped bare.
What do you think? Comments welcome.