SORREL DOWNER

Journalist, film producer, and media consultant, mixing it up for TV, online, newspapers and magazines. I cover travel & tourism, lifestyle, and design. Mainly. This is the HQ for previous work, and an introduction to current projects. I work all over the world and live on a farm in Cadiz which I write about at www.somewheresville.org.

Simple | FT

Minimalism: It’s the haute couture of housing: striking, radical, beautifully clever, not designed primarily for comfort and generally expensive. But where do you sit your filthy kids? Where do you put your stuff? 

Base practicalities aside, minimalism is a style that endures. John Pawson, one of the world’s leading practitioners in the style, defines it as “the quality that a building or object possesses when every component, every detail and every junction has been reduced or condensed to its essentials”. This is not to be confused with pseudo-minimalism: the featureless flat, the white room, the garden of concrete and gravel; anything inoffensive, done on the cheap and left unfurnished. Minimalism is the simple expression of complex thought, not no thought at all. And, at its purest, its most full-on, the real thing stops people in their tracks.

Architects such as Pawson, Alvaro Siza, Luis Barragon and Yoshio Taniguchi deploy the style in banks, churches and corporate headquarters but they bring the same oomph and purity to private homes. Tadao Ando created the Church of Light in Osaka but also the tiny Azuma House; Claudio Silvestrin the Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin, but also the Neuendorf residence in Mallorca.

Yet in applying minimalism to a domestic setting architects can produce homes that are far from easy to live in. Now preserved and admired as one of the earliest and most radically minimalist houses ever designed, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, built outside Chicago in the late 1940s, was far from a roaring success as the weekend retreat it was meant to be. The owner, Edith Farnsworth, raged from inside her glass box against the cost, the cold, the rusting steel pillars, the barrage of insects thwacking against the lit windows at night.

For most of us, a home is a refuge in which to collapse and recuperate; it’s primary function is to accumulate our paraphernalia. Indeed, there’s a suspicion that uncompromising minimalism is for “advanced” homeowners; people with a refined sense of aesthetics, an inner life and standards that the rest of us don’t reach.

“If you look at ads for home improvement or furniture, they nearly always feature minimalist properties but look in the property pages and you never or rarely see minimalist interiors,” says filmmaker Gary Tarn, former owner of a Pawson-designed house in Notting Hill, London. “It’s as if advertisers believe minimalism is something everyone aspires to. Hardly anyone’s got the balls for it.”

His own home was small and extreme, with two benches and a table, a wooden sofa-cum-day-bed, one long clean neat stainless-steel surface with square sink and single tap and no pictures (or indeed light switches, plug outlets, thermostats or skirting boards). “People came in and were gobsmacked. They could never work out whether it was an office or I lived in it. I got teased a lot by friends telling me to buy some cushions, asking when it was going to be finished.”

Yet, in spite of the challenges of living in such a pared-down manner, minimalism’s allure appears to endure. Rap artist Kanye West has commissioned Silvestrin to design a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, due for completion in May. “Kanye was amazed by my work,” says Silvestrin. “I received an ‘out of the blue’ call from him, giving me carte blanche. I designed his apartment as if were mine.” Although, as Silvestrin points out, “the apartment is not radical because it contains furniture”, it is nonetheless a striking sleek, luminescent space complete with what appear to be stone troughs.

Minimal living appeals to a certain type of homeowner. Architects and “certain other creative types” are predictable candidates, says Simon Harris of Cityscope, the specialist property agency. “There’s no particular logic but whatever their background, they’re specific in what they want and make instant decisions.”

Most are also naturally fastidious, he acknowledges. “With one big canvas, you’ve got to be careful, dedicated, pay attention to detail. I’ve never been round a minimalist home where there’s been washing up in the sink or stuff on the floor.” That doesn’t mean owners have to be reverent. He recalls arriving at one 3,500 sq ft, top-floor space to find the owner playing five-a-side football in the reception room.

The decision to go for minimalism tends to mark the start or end of a phase of life. Many minimalist homes are sold, like Tarn’s, with the arrival of children. “No more than 10 per cent are family homes. Parents get nervous,” says Harris. And they are bought when children leave home as a deliberate life-change ploy: “I know two or three couples in their late 40s and early 50s who have downsized from six bedrooms to a two-bedroom space. It’s a kind of detox.”

A high proportion of central London’s minimalist spaces are used as second homes – Harris cites as an example the Mark Guard’s Bankside loft near Tate Modern, which was vacated by a couple who wanted to start a family and then rented by a German banker for occasional use when he was passing through the city. With lighter occupancy it is feasible to keep them paraphernalia-free.

“The English like their stuff,” he says, “but when you sit down and ask, ‘When was the last time you interacted with 90 per cent of this clobber?’ you find they don’t use it; it’s there for reassurance. A lot of people love the idea of minimalism but when it comes to the reality of living with it, making it work, they find it too stark.”

In Scandinavian countries living with minimalism seems natural and effortless. “Most Danish architects would say their style mirrors the way we think and live,” says Jannie Rosenberg Bendsen of the Danish Architectural Centre. “The preference is for the simple and the functional; there’s no interest in decoration or symbols; or for anything that has no purpose.”

Minimalism permeates the Danish capital, Copenhagen, from the Royal Library extension (the Black Diamond), Arne Jacobsen’s gas station, cafés and hotels, to the VM Houses apartment complex in Orestad. It was conceived by design company Plot and won last year’s Forum prize for best Nordic building. Co-founder Bjarke Ingels lives in an apartment on the development’s 9th and 10th floors.

“It’s minimalist in the sense that we’ve boiled down to the essential, limited the fluff, the spam, that wasn’t part of the idea so that the idea stands clear.” The 221 units sold in three weeks, most on the first day to “a big mix: privileged students, gay couples. There are a lot of people in Denmark who don’t want the standard boring three-bedroom house. The first thing most people do is knock down walls and so we saved them the trouble. We eliminated all partition walls. Each apartment is a concrete skeleton, a spatial configuration people are free to use for different things.”

However, to purists such freedom might seem to subvert the style’s mindset. Few minimalist architects seem to draw the line at designing a house; minimalism is after all a lifestyle, not a house style. Arne Jacobsen, regarding every project as a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), created everything from the plates and furnishings to beach kiosks and apartments at the seaside Bellevue complex north of Copenhagen.

And once a home has become separated from its designer’s influence, it can demand an owner who is willing to take on the responsibility of adhering to the spirit that inspired the building, especially if it attains iconic status. Properties such as Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 21 “lie in the space between art and architecture,” says Richard Wright of Wright Auctions.

The house was commissioned by the editors of Arts & Architecture magazine in 1957 as a prototype for affordable modern housing and made famous around the world as the epitome of stylish American life. But Mark Haddawy, owner of vintage clothing stores in New York and Los Angeles (who recently sold the ostensibly affordable property – along with its contents – for $2.83m), took on the challenge with aplomb, furnishing it (sparingly) with modernist pieces, posing good-naturedly for passing Japanese tourists, and even going so far as to buy a 1958 Porche to park in the drive.

Such dedication to the ethos might be admirable but is it practical or even healthy? Minimalist homes lose a little of their cachet if you have the washing out on a clothes horse or let the kids pin up their Star Wars posters. Environmental psychologists, clutter busters and practitioners of feng shui tend to agree with the Mies van der Rohe mantra that “less is more”. Rachel Atkins from Space Renovation, a company that helps people throw things away, says: “We’re a materialistic society, we buy too much and we need to rationalise. Halfway through the first day, clients say they feel the weight lifting, a feeling of freedom.”

But what do you do when one person wants space and the other wants to fill it? Alex Proud, owner of the Proud Gallery in London, has fairly purist minimalist sensibilities while his wife, Danielle, a self-confessed “maximalist” , does not. “He’s half-German, very neat, hyper-organised with an über-tidy mother,” she says. “I’m sillier than him; into colour.” Their solution has been wholehearted allegiance to their respective styles and strict segregation. “I admire minimalism as an art form,” says Danielle, “but I’d feel as if I was living in padded cell. Alex loves white space, simple lines, 1960s architecture. He really hates all my stuff. So he has his white room and I’ll have a couple of pieces in it. I’m allowed two or three things out at the same time, the rest stays in a room out of sight, stacked in boxes. We learn a lot from each other. I make him loosen up. He makes me put my car keys where I can find them.”

“Minds are so disordered and creative” says Tarn, “they need a nice frame, something grounded and solid, otherwise everything’s a mess. I love the anarchy of painter friends’ studios but I couldn’t live with it. I need pattern and order. I suggested to John [Pawson] that maybe we’ve all got a mild form of autism. If I had a table with objects on it, walnuts say, I would have to arrange them in lines. When I was selling the house I did with John, a man came round and was peering at the walls. Finally he asked, ‘Are these walls at exactly 90° angles? Are those walls parallel?’ The house had been an old Victorian stable and nothing was parallel. He was really uncomfortable, said he would be constantly wanting things to line up.”

Tarn has settled for a slightly more relaxed approach. “You’ve got to be able to put your feet up. A lot of people think living minimally goes with weird obsessive behaviour, which it doesn’t. What’s really nice is to open a cupboard at John’s house and see a bit of chaos. It would scare me if the cans were all facing forward.”

SORREL DOWNER / FINANCIAL TIMES

This is the HQ for archive features, and an introduction to current projects. See also somewheresville, the travel blog; Vimeo for videos, LinkedIn for skills and contact details. 

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