Dear simplicity

Why pay more for ’less’, when buying furniture or cars? Given the cost of aiming beyond disposability, Hugh Pearman fears that minimalist design will remain the domain of the wealthy

uch a shame, isn’t it, that simplicity seems to equal luxury when it comes to design? Whether it’s functionalist furniture or tastefully restrained art books or ultra-minimalist architecture, the presumption seems to be that it will come with a hefty price tag. Less costs more. But why?

One reason is that ultra-simple design usually equates to good design, and that presupposes good, long-lasting materials and manufacturing techniques. There are exceptions, of course: to see the reverse, simply visit Ikea, where – how to put this politely? – while good, clever design may be a selling point, you don’t usually expect your purchases to last a lifetime. Economies of scale, packaging and overheads can only go so far. Beyond that, you’re into disposability.

And, second, if you do factor in an extended lifespan – ’less, but better’, as Dieter Rams would put it – then the cost of the finished product rises, so you tend to frighten off all purchasers but the well-heeled. That shrinks your potential customer base a lot, which means in turn that you can’t mass-produce, which pushes up the final costs further. So you’re back into the old truism, familiar to everyone from William Morris to Sir Terence Conran: design for the masses is bloody difficult. In today’s high street, perhaps only Muji (itself rather niche) strikes something approaching the right balance.

This is all familiar enough – but is it more true of the simplest, most reduced designed objects than it is of general ’good design’? Again yes, because bare-minimum design appeals – seemingly paradoxically, but, in fact, utterly logically – to the educated tastes of the wealthy. If you’re poor, you want to see more for your money. This was why, in the 1960s and 1970s, Ford with its conventional three-box car designs tended to outsell the relatively advanced BMC/British Leyland cars of Alex Issigonis. By and large, Fords were working-class and fleet cars, while the more compact and complex BMCs appealed to the middle class. With a Ford, as they liked to say back then, you got a lot of metal for the money. They were also more reliable, hence cheaper to run. So when it came to getting the most bangs for your bucks, Ford was bound to win. Who but the effete cared about having metal cart springs rather than Hydrolastic suspension? Oh, and where are Austin and Morris today?

I think Sir James Dyson understands this. I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the over-complex styling and brash colours of his cyclonic cleaners, and found myself wishing he would calm them down a bit. Dyson would probably say that they are not over-styled anyway, merely honestly expressing their engineering. Whatever, in the shops, all that complex moulding starts to look like a lot going on for the premium price. Ford and BMC combined, if you like.

True minimalism can be low-cost – the peasant’s hut, the monk’s cell, the rough wooden bench – but when that becomes a refined design aesthetic rather than a matter of necessity, then you get – what? A John Pawson house, a Jasper Morrison Crate, or, at the cheapest, an Alvar Aalto plywood stool retailing for £145?

We are going through a period of austerity. Design needs to respond. So perhaps what we need is something like the well-designed Utility furniture of the 1940s, which used the bare minimum of scarce materials. Oh, wait – people hated it, because it was too plain and institutional-looking. Ho hum, in the end you can’t buck popular taste. Simplicity of design will forever be an affectation of the relatively affluent.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic who is utterly incapable of living the minimalist life

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