Less is More: the Joy (and difficulty) of Minimalist Living


The problem of “stuff” is an American universal and no one is really in position to criticize.  I’ve always had a lot of stuff; certainly I’ve had a lot more stuff than I need.

I’ve dabbled in extreme minimalism while traveling over extended periods.  Most recently, in 2012 I shook up my life by quitting my job and putting all my belongings into a storage unit while I set off on an odyssey that bounced me from one US coast to the other, and then around the rim of the Mediterranean from from the Moroccan Rif and Spanish Andalusia to the Ionian coast of Turkey.

Everything I needed fit in a backpack and shoulder bag.   I had minimal clothing – who cared if I wore the same three things all the time? A digital camera and a moleskin sketchbook and pair of micron pens recorded the world around me.  My smart phone  (permanently on airplane mode) was an instant library, travel guide and unending map.  My biggest space splurge was a half size pillow (turn any train seat into a bed).

Did I want or need more “stuff” than this to make me happy?  Certainly not. 

And yet my stuff wasn’t really gone.  It was waiting for me 11 months later, stacked neatly along one wall of a small storage unit in Barneveld, Wisconsin.  And when I got back to the state and re-settled in Chicago, it all came with me, filling a 10′ U-Haul truck to maximum Tetris-loaded capacity.

Why do we have so much stuff?

Our lifestyle of stuff is partly based on personal choice and partly on culture.  Friends tend to expect guest towels when they stay over night.  Dishes come in sets of 8 or 12, which is what we buy even if single and not particularly prone to dinner party throwing.  Here in Chicago, one really does need at least two full wardrobes – one for summer and one for polar vortex (if not a mid-range for fall and spring wear).  Backs of closets fill up with old art supplies, broken electronics  and unwanted gifts.  Its hard to let go of things (at least for me) when I know that they may end up in a landfill.

In addition to that there is the relentless pressure to BUY MORE STUFF beating in on us from every side as we navigate past internet ads and urban billboards or watch anything on TV.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Part of the reason people have so much stuff … is that we have a lot of space to fill up.  The numbers don’t lie – we are all living with more than our grandparents were.   and For one thing, Americans have more than doubled the average home size (from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 in 2004) even as our our household size has dropped (from 3.37 per home in 1950 to 2.57 in 2003).

To be clear, home builders now plan nearly as much square footage PER PERSON – 914 sq ft –  as  an entire house built in 1950.  

Here’s a few more fun Then and Now comparisons:  The number of households with 1.5 bathrooms or less dropped from 96% of US homes to 5%.  Two bedroom homes dropped from 66% of new homes to 11%.

And if our amazingly increased home sizes aren’t enough … there’s always more space to tuck our “stuff” away for a a rainy day.  The Self Storage Industry (oh yes, it certainly is one) “generated more than $24 billion in revenue” in the US last year and estimates that there are 2.3 billion square feet of rental storage space in the US alone and that nine percent of US households currently rent a self storage space.

Less is More

Mies van der Rohe, noted modernist architect, and key developer of Chicago’s own IIT campus (and its architecture program) coined the phrase “less is more,” to explain and justify his designs – dramatically minimalist buildings in the International Style such as the iconic Farnsworth House (below) which were devoid of trim and moulding details, complex scrollwork or extraneous patterns.   His designs were simple but rigorously detailed and allowed for specific focus and appreciation of their spare but beautiful elements.

farnsworth house

While moss::: doesn’t tend to design spaces quite so elementally basic as the above (Farnsworth was notoriously un-private and hard to live in, even resulting in lawsuits between designer and client), we do love the emphasis on beautiful details and objects that a pared down design aesthetic can grant.

Our office here at moss HQ is a case in point: one large double height space, with simple exposed brick walls makes visual space to appreciate the reclaimed hardwood desks and single material rolling wall dividers that we surround ourselves with.

It takes effort, to resist the constant attrition of more “stuff” in our lives, to tidy away the piles, recycle the magazines, and constantly curate our favorite objects so that our space seems intentional rather than cluttered.  But in the end its always worth it.

Now I’m going to stop typing and divest myself of some more unnecessary “stuff!”