Maximalism Is Back

In Depth
Maximalism Is Back
Graphic:Elena Scotti (Photo: Getty Images

Minimalism—as a lifestyle and an aesthetic—is on its way out. Buoyed by the enduring popularity of mid-century modern design, minimalist and minimalist-adjacent interiors are so ubiquitous that seemingly every public space, be it a doctor’s office, a women’s coworking space, or a bougie Vietnamese restaurant offering still or sparkling water, looks predictably, exactly the same.

Right in time for a coronavirus-induced retreat indoors, the pendulum is swinging from minimalism to maximalism: the compulsion to burrow, to nest, and to decorate our homes like magpies, as a means of insulation against anxiety and stress. Consider maximalism the louder, happier, brighter and cozier cousin of minimalism—a flight to domesticity in the face of uncertain times.

The reaction against minimalism is less of a conflagration than a slow burn, a gradual realization that while minimalism’s promise was to soothe, via calm, uncluttered interiors and white walls, within its pristine interior, status anxiety flourished. Sure, at its outset, minimalism was a reaction to the consumerist impulse towards purchasing unnecessary items to fill a void. But as Chelsea Fagan outlined minimalism’s failures in the Guardian in 2016: “It is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly-expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!’”

And so the pendulum swings the other way, now, towards a more ebullient aesthetic: It’s no wonder that Memphis design briefly emerged in 2018 as a respite to grey sofas and concrete floors. With its cheery, bubbly shapes and colors, reminiscent of the lobby of an upscale Holiday Inn, Memphis design emerged as a move away from Scandi design’s dominance and towards something a little more dynamic and expressive. But the rise of cottagecore, an aesthetic with roots on Tumblr that leans heavily on bucolic garden scenes, teapots and doilies, suggests another, increasingly urgent directive: consider maximalism, instead.

Minimalism, despite its promise of simplifying, invites new anxiety simply by virtue of its implicit mandate that there’s just one thing that is the best thing and fuck you if you don’t find it. Kyle Chayka’s book Longing for Less explores the theoretical and aesthetic concerns of minimalism as both a lifestyle and a choice. Minimalism, he argues, is often executed as the capitalistic desire to optimize your life so that the one shirt you own is the best shirt possible, and letting that philosophy drive your other purchases and life choices. A 2016 documentary about the minimalist movement, which I wrote about for the Billfold in 2017, supports this theory. But the anxiety created by minimalism’s demands ultimately gives way to boredom. Embarking upon a quixotic quest to find the one chair that is the platonic ideal of a chair is entertaining for a while, but any inability to succeed in that mission will eventually cause distress.

This is what IKEA looks like now. Image:IKEA

Minimalism also seems to be the underlying philosophy behind the “millennial aesthetic,” a theory raised by Molly Fischer at The Cut, which gestures towards the way things look now, from the branding on an Instagram-ready Dutch oven to a sudden attraction to terrazzo. In 2016, Chayka coined the phrase “airspace” to describe the anesthetized, sterile environs of waiting rooms, coworking spaces, coffee shops, and start-up offices, pinpointing the aesthetic’s origins to Silicon Valley. Fischer’s “millennial aesthetic” takes airspace and injects it with a little more pizazz, most of which is easily reproduced and mind-numbingly dull. To achieve any of these looks successfully for your home, though, requires a thorough excavation of the garbage you’ve already collected over the years.

Image:Great Jones

Of course, true minimalism, aesthetically, works best if the space itself is minimal—a vitrine as opposed to a home in which people actually live. The millennial interpretation of minimalism accounts for the fact that not everyone’s house looks like a gallery, architecturally. A single lamp and one very expensive chair sitting in the middle of a vast white box hits a little differently than the same two furnishings in an older apartment that is “pre-war” but without any of the charm, or a condo with wall-to-wall carpet. One is aspirational, the other terrifically sad. And so the millennial aesthetic is minimalism dialed up to a middling hum—plants and rugs hide a multitude of sins—that suggests where we’re heading next.

Another hint: Cottagecore, an aesthetic trend recently covered by the New York Times and i-d, which gestures at maximalism’s return. The trend started on Tumblr as a visual respite alongside all the other diminutive aesthetic trends that prioritize an imagined nature over the mind-numbing crush of technology’s incessant demands. Cottagecore features teapots and verdant green fields, a digital rendering of a supposedly simpler time and an easier relationship between humanity and nature. Cottagecore on Tumblr yields few results, but diving into it on TikTok yields brief video fantasias of English cottage gardens overflowing with rambling roses, wildflowers and hedges run amok, bathed in smeary yellow light. The interiors of cottagecore are basically cozy chic dialed up to eleven: wicker baskets, doilies, pinafores, and kitschy ceramic frogs abound.

Chintz fabric circa 1852. Image:Getty

Cottagecore’s micro-popularity tracks. Brooklyn millennials turning their apartments into cozy jungalows replete with macramé holders and piles of rugs exist in the same sphere as cottagecore’s adherents, as do middle-aged mothers in exurban grocery stores browsing the racks in the checkout aisle. Magazines like Victoria have been quietly espousing a version of cottagecore for decades, urging homeowners to embrace an upscale Beatrix Potter fantasy, via chintz and china and floral wallpaper. The conservative roots, however insidious they may be, are out in plain sight. For a few years, they moved to the back bottom of the supermarket periodicals section; now the checkout aisle bulges with guides to cheerfully cluttered “flea market style.”

Shows like Flea Market Flip also herald maximalism’s return, encouraging contestants to dig through dusty piles of furniture and curio cabinets and remix their intended object into something that can only be described as “funky.” Other marquee programs on the cable network are turning away from minimalism’s cohorts: consider the work of Joanna Gaines, whose dedication to both shiplap and farmhouse minimalist chic spawned a line of home goods at Target. Since the show has since gone off the air, Home Town has rushed in to take its place. Erin Napier’s signature style includes more color than Gaines would ever dream of using. She will gladly paint a powder room Delft blue and throw up an accent wall of lurid florals in the same small space, to the delight of her clients.

Maximalism can be a more moneyed style of interior design, as evidenced by spreads in magazines like Elle Decor featuring rooms lush with wallpaper, thick rugs, ornate furniture, and vases seemingly wrested from the grips of a maiden great aunt who still calls it “the Orient.” Glamour is implicit in maximalism’s return; decorative fireplaces painted Schiaperrelli pink and one wall covered in flamingo-print wallpaper are the sorts of decor one imagines an eccentric dowager swimming in gold would choose for her powder room. But in the spirit of maximalism’s return, slow as it may be, lies a larger longing for individualism. Scouring Wayfair or AllModern for an inoffensive coffee table will certainly get you something, but there’s a great chance that your home will end up looking like a doctor’s waiting room or a café or both.

What’s more, it’s about a desire for a different way of viewing houses, even as they are, more than ever, high-stakes or even unreachable assets. In a 2018 piece about the return of maximalism at the Guardian, Elie Violet Bramley writes, “But the move towards maximalism also seems to be about other shifts: a reaction to grim political times, and a rejection of the idea of a house as, primarily, a commodity.” Embracing maximalism, she argues, is a natural reaction to HGTV’s beige-box aesthetic, where the finished product in any standard home renovation show is a house stripped of its character, waiting for its homeowners to fill it with their own style, but also to make it sellable for the future. Treating the house as an investment and not as an actual home means that any major cosmetic changes that personalize the place just become a problem you’ll have to fix when it comes time to sell. Paint the walls in the living room with polka dots if you want, but good luck when a broker walks a nice young couple through your carefully curated living room, replete with a menagerie of Bearbricks by the bay window, because they will not want to live in such a personalized vision of comfort.

Living by this rule, as with any other home decor trend, is aspirational. It’s okay to want a home that looks like a cottage or an Egyptian tomb, but achieving either aesthetic without access to a cable channel’s hefty budget feels slightly more affordable than the quiet wealth projected by minimalism’s tenets. Thrift stores abound with crewel-embroidered ottomans and faux-Victorian sideboards just waiting to be painted neon yellow. Maximalism embraces whimsy and Rococo. Its return is less about embracing a Grey Gardens lifestyle and more about making personal space feel really personal, over anything else. Managing anxiety by buying less isn’t nearly as fun as tackling that same feeling by buying more of what feels good, looks nice, and will make home actually feel like one: personal, a little bit cluttered, colorful, and fun.

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