productivity :: balance :: freelancing :: notebooking

About a decade ago, I started a blog called “Expurgatory”. It was about getting rid of material objects in the service of simplifying and owning less. (The name was a play on “expurgated” that probably only made sense to me!) Like about 90% of the blogs I’ve started, it didn’t last that long, despite an earnest start — and me taking a ton of photographs of shoes, if I recall correctly.

Thinking back on “Expurgatory” reminds me I’ve had this vocation for minimalism running steadily side-by-side with my seemingly maximalist, rather Victorian, aesthetic urges for many years. It may seem like a contradiction, or at least a dichotomy, but I’ve come to realize it isn’t.

The library

Mr. Sheep in the living room

In some parts of my apartment, it would appear that there are a lot of things. These rooms are, shall we say, rather exuberant with decor. My living room looks more like a (tasteful) Edwardian reading room than a white Scandinavian oasis. But the things are each there by mindful choice, not happenstance or neglect. They are considered and reconsidered and valued. Or else they go. And a lot of them, as it turns out, are plants. I think I have about thirty of them in the two rooms of my apartment that get enough sun. Plants are visually complicated and add a sense of density to a room, but I cannot think of them as clutter. They are living, breathing organisms — making the best of our little arrangement where I water and trim them and they make some oxygen for me.

There are also a couple rooms in my apartment that are fairly outwardly minimalist, aesthetically. My office and kitchen are relatively simple these days, although years ago they were not.

Increasingly, I’m very mindful about the innards. What’s in the drawers and cabinets — not owning more things than I need, or more than one of a thing if it’s not necessary. I’m fairly confident about the kitchen. There may be a few items I don’t use enough to justify, but on the whole it’s fairly streamlined. Everything fits in the few cabinets I have with room to spare. I ditched the improvised extra counter, extra storage and table along the way. Now there’s empty space (and a plant) and it’s much more of a calm space. (And good for parties, when everyone inexplicably hangs out in the kitchen.)

The office looks pretty Ikea-showroom. Except only half a showroom. The rest is empty. Visitors remark on its minimalism — but I secretly know there are still a lot of things that need to be sorted and purged (donated, recycled, etc.) within the tidy Expedit-full of storage boxes. And I will get to them. It’s a work in progress though, like the rest of the house. Like the rest of my life.

It used used to be a maximalist graphic-designer-explosion kind of room, with multiple bulletin boards crammed with stuff, untold items taped or thumbtacked, almost fetishistically, all over the walls (inspiration!), three desks, a huge whiteboard, a big desktop computer setup. I don’t even remember now. At some point I realized that it wasn’t inspiring, it was oppressive. I took everything off the walls (and probably used a whole bucket of spackle fixing all the holes!). Got rid of my desktop computer (that was too old and didn’t work well), got rid of the extra desks, a full bookcase, 2 ill-working printers, and heaven knows what else. I donated heaps of paper samples, art supplies and design-y bits and bobs to a non-profit that lets art teachers come and “shop” for free for stuff for the kids to do cool projects with. I scanned all the papers that were hanging around in folders and inboxes and threw them away. I left a few framed pictures that are important to me in one area, to keep it it from being impersonal, but on the whole I just  stood back and admired my big white walls  (It’s been a few years now and they’re still happily blank).

Simple, functional drafting table (and Big Cactus)

White wall (and big cactus)

I’ve been working on simplifying and owning less for years, and it’s something I’m always revisiting. I think I indulge in mindless consumerism far, far less than the average middle class US citizen. Shopping isn’t a pastime for me, it’s a means to an end, and one that some degree of consideration goes into. Once in a while I do purchase something needless or downright stupid. And I certainly used to do this all the time. Some of that stuff is still around and I have to look hard to really see it and realize that it needs to go. Or at least be evaluated. I think, though, I’m firmly in the habit these days of putting real thought into purchases. Agonizing over whether owning a $7 sweater shaver is something I want to commit to versus how messy my sweaters look all pilled and worn.

All is this is to say that, as much as I am drawn to the philosophy of minimalism, or simplicity, or simplifying, — or, extending the notion more deeply, to mindfulness, it irks me a bit the way minimalism has become a Thing. As in, A Thing on the Internet. Because when that happens, some people like to make rules and other people like to fight about them. There are no rules! I think it would be wonderful if people (well-enough-off people, in rich countries) would chill on the consumerism — for myriad macro- and micro-reasons. But I’m not one to proselytize. People need to do what feels right for them, if they’re in a position to do so.

I used not to think this was the case. I thought one day, I’d wake up and throw away all my art and framed photographs and books and plants and maybe the piano, go shopping at Design Within Reach (or more likely Ikea) and poof! become a stoic, aesthetically minimalist, purist designer person. I thought that was how designers should be. I knew a designer, in fact, who was more advanced in her career than me, and worked for a firm I admired, who lived in a loft just like this. What was wrong with me, with my predilection for crown molding and quirkiness?

Obviously, I’m over that. You can do both. I use the word “maximalist” in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way to describe the number of books, plants, works of art and textiles in the more lush parts of my house. But if it is “maximalist”, it is mindfully so. It is, like the kitchen or the office —which look the part — minimalist at heart. And I’m still simplifying. And enjoying it. Because I do it when the time is right for each project, each bit of change, and then those changes are good.

Oh, this is a ramble. But here’s the point: be true to yourself in your minimalism (and your decor), as in all things.


Also published on Medium.

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