Could “Less” become “more” again?


The famous, sometimes cliché, phrase “Less is More” was coined at the end of World War Two by the legendary Architect Mies van der Rohe.

I tend to have a romanticized, hollywoodized vision of the time immediately following World War Two. A happy script of soldiers returning home by the millions, going off to college on G.I. Bill’s, buying homes and enjoying the good life in newly designed suburbs.

The background score — a happy swing beat, of course.

But have we forgotten why this phrase became legendary? Mies never really defined it. He didn’t have to he lived it. The context of his life formed this Design Philosophy and Mantra.
Mies van der Rohe was 59 years old when he coined the phrase, ‘Less is More”. Born in German in 1886, he survived World War One, The Spanish Flu Pandemic and World War Two. 1914 -1945, 31 years of great change, loss and tragedy.

Over 200 million people died from conflict and illness, an estimated 50–80 million additionally perished from famine in those 31 years.

The loss, though staggering, and gives life to the “Less” part of the phrase. This knowledge transformed my interpretation of ‘Less is More” from an aesthetic only Philosophy into a

Mantra to construct a more abundant life.

Mies’s Design purpose was simple. He strived to remove opulence to make less livable, comfortable and beautiful. “God is in the details” lives with “Less is More” in his work. His purpose produced designs that are intentional, mindful and created structures that command our attention and presence.

I guess Intentionality, Mindfulness and being Present aren’t new concepts. Visit New York City’s Seagram Building, constructed in 1958, and you’ll see these ideals manifested in glass and steel.

I pass this building almost every day and always of pause to enjoy the tranquility this structure creates in the heart of a normally busy, congested and crowded city. Today the neighborhood surrounding of the Seagram Building is ghostly quiet yet the buildings calming and tranquil effect is still present.

Social distancing and self-isolating have made the “Less” mean “More” for me. It’s forced a shift in my desires from working to acquire things to appreciating the things I already have. I know, how stoic of me.

Mies’s story has taught me that Stoicism was born in a time of great strife and war. A time when you’d want to hang on to a feeling of tranquility. Given his life experiences, I’d beat Mies was very stoic.

The world wide mandatory pause has given me the opportunity to reflect on the effects of intention design. The environment may change but purposeful, intentional design survives.
Could this be the Stoic benefit of Less is More?

The self-isolation reminds me of a modern stoic thought experiment by William Irvin, developed in 2007. Imagine you woke up one day and everybody disappeared from the world. There were still buildings, cars and everything you needed to survive but there were no people. Everyone had gone. It’s just you.

What changes would you make in terms of the things that you require for yourself?

You wouldn’t bother living in a great big house. You could live in any house — without buying it — you’d probably find a small comfortable and practical home. You might not bother with fancy clothes. — Well, I would. I’d have lots and lots of free fancy clothes. No judgment please.

It’s amazing how much “More” we acquire to impress other people. A simple thought experiment helps shift my desire to appreciating the things I already have.

Less really is More. And it’s more than just a surface, aesthetic approach. It’s phenomenally good advice.

There are things in my life that I’m in control of, and then there are things I have no control of. I can choose the direction I want: a small comfortable home and lots of fancy clothes.

The only things I can honestly control are my thoughts and actions. That’s it. Everything else, what other people do, what they think of me and what goes on in their lives I can’t control. That’s Stoicism simply defined.

The potential of “less is more” is larger than simple aesthetic design. You can apply the notion to just about anything once you grasp the true relationship of “less” and “more,” and figure out how you can leverage “less” to generate “more.”

Today it seems that everything old is new again. Our new normal isn’t that new — it’s happened before. It created a Philosophy and Mantra used by generations of Designers.
I can’t wait to see how this ‘Less” will transform into “More” beauty for the world to cherish.

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