What Is Minimalist Design?

minimalist dining room

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Minimalism has become a modern lifestyle buzzword with its own media gurus who promise that decluttering our homes and simplifying our lives will help us cope with an overwhelming world. Minimalist design, on the other hand, is an influential visual style with an established history in the realms of architecture, interiors, art, graphics, fashion, and virtually every other facet of design.

Minimalist design is about prioritizing the essential. A minimalist building, object, or interior design is stripped to its core function, realized using limited materials, neutral colors, simple forms, and avoiding excess ornamentation to achieve a pure form of elegance. While the final expression of a minimalist design might appear effortlessly simple, as spare as a poem and as clear as a bell, achieving this kind of powerful simplicity is anything but easy.

Minimalist design has continued to grow in popularity throughout the last century, but for every fan there is a maximalist critic who dismisses it as boring or sterile, lacking in imagination and heart. While minimalist architecture and product design can sometimes be cost-effective, eco-friendly, and may ultimately contribute to the democratization and accessibility of good design, it has also become synonymous with a rarified quest for the perfect object, a luxury that only the privileged few can afford and that can lead to its own form of perpetual excess.

minimalist living room decor
The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Brief History of Minimalist Design

Minimalist design emerged in the 20th century as a reaction to and rejection of the highly decorative styles of the past, from frilly Victorian architecture to Abstract Expressionist art.

Some design historians trace the origins of minimalism to the simplified forms epitomized by the Dutch De Stijl movement of 1917 to the early 1930s and it is widely acknowledged to have been influenced by the zen simplicity of traditional Japanese gardens and interiors and the clean aesthetics of Scandinavian design.

The less is more mantra of minimalist design is a quote from legendary German architect Mies Van Der Rohe, who in post-war Europe and the U.S. was one of the notable architects associated with the Bauhaus and modernism who responded to the availability of new materials such as glass, steel, and concrete combined with the building processes brought about by mass production to create minimalist structures that often look as fresh and of the moment as they did decades ago.

Minimalist design shares DNA with Modern Architecture, Bauhaus Architecture, Brutalist Architecture, and mid-century modern design.

Minimalist graphic design, art, theater, and fashion came into its own in the 1960s. In the realm of product design, legendary figures like German industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose "less but better" mantra guided the design of everyday objects such as desktop radios, calculators, and lacquerware, ushered in a whole new world of minimalist product design starting in the middle of the 20th century that laid the foundation for the kinds of streamlined objects that we live with today and continue to design for tomorrow, from the iPhone to the driverless car.

Today, minimalist interior design and home decor—minimalist bedrooms, minimalist kitchens, minimalist living rooms, minimalist nurseries, and beyond—offers an alternative to the over-accessorized, jam-packed interiors that first became popular in the Victorian era and grew in popularity thanks to 20th-century consumer culture.

minimalist modern bedroom
The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Key Characteristics of Minimalist Design

  • Less is more
  • Focus on functionality
  • Clean, simple lines
  • Sculptural forms
  • Lack of superfluous ornamentation and decoration
  • Monochromatic, limited color palette, with color sometimes used as an accent to create a soothing environment
  • Use of limited, well chosen materials, such as concrete, steel, glass and wood
  • Everything has a place and a purpose
  • Use of space and natural light
  • Spotlight on craftsmanship
  • Interior design that is airy and uncluttered, often with open-play layouts and seamless integrated storage
minimalist kitchen island with abundant natural light
The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Famous Quotes About Minimalist Design

“Less is more” –Mies Van Der Rohe, architect

"Minimalism is not an architecture of self-denial, deprivation, or absence: it is defined not by what is not there, but by the rightness of what is there and by the richness with which this is experienced." –John Pawson, architect

“In pure architecture the smallest detail should have a meaning or serve a purpose.” –Augustus W. N. Pugin, architect

“As we live and as we are, Simplicity – with a capital “S” – is difficult to comprehend nowadays. We are no longer truly simple. We no longer live in simple terms or places. Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means.” –Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

“I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art it must be built on a foundation of necessity.” –I. M. Pei, architect

“An interesting plainness is the most difficult and precious thing to achieve.” –Mies Van Der Rohe, architect