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FURNISHINGS : Minimalists Leave Well Enough Alone

December 14, 1991|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"When is the rest of the furniture coming?" If you live in a minimalist interior you will likely be asked this question repeatedly.

The minimalist approach to interior design is meant to soothe and settle. However, listen to the terms often used to describe minimalist spaces--austere, stark, Spartan, devoid, even puritanical--and you'll see how rooms without the traditional reference points of clutter and overstimulated diversions can make people--at first--feel somewhat uncomfortable.

"Interior decoration is sometimes a reductive art," says Dorian Hunter of Hunter and Associates in Fullerton. "Here in the West people think in terms of 'the more the better'--the more space, the more rooms, the more square footage, the more art, the more furniture, the more pillows. But in the (Orient) you can walk into a room and see one picture, and turn and see one flower in a vase. You get the chance to relax and appreciate what the design is saying to you."

In a minimalist interior space you see everything very clearly: people, colors, surfaces, form, design. Every object, even the simplest, becomes important. There is often no room to hide anything.

"The concept of choosing to live with the minimum is generally anathema to Westerners, who are brought up to acquire and consume and show off compulsively," says Doris Saatchi, an interior designer and contributing editor to the interior design magazine, the World of Interiors.

"And you can see it even in Western approach to minimalist spaces. Because there are many versions of minimalism and some are more minimal than others. My own spaces stop short of absolute bareness, and my appropriation of Zen ideas of architecture would seem sloppy to an Easterner," Saatchi says. "But whatever attitude is being expressed, these quiet enclaves are an attempt to come to terms with the frenzy and stress of urban life."

Minimalist interior space is open to interpretation, however there are some generalized patterns and ground rules to follow.

In minimalist spaces, color is intense--even if the color scheme is white, black, or black and white. Soft, airy or dull colors are generally avoided. Most often minimalist color will have the white and black variation, with perhaps one other color, such as red, gray or blue. There are dozens of shades of black and white, which will actually be distinguishable in minimalist decor.

Walls are usually left unadorned. Their main function is for "flowing attention"--whatever feelings a person has will flow across the space. Paintings sometimes lean against walls rather than hang.

In minimalist space, furniture has function. If a chair is in the room, it is likely to be sat in. If one chair is enough for seating, there will likely be one chair instead of many. Tables will often have numerous functions: as a coffee table, dining table and desk. Sofas will become beds, and beds will oftentimes be removable futons.

The juxtaposition of unlikely objects is often found in these types of interiors. This provides for a touch of drama and a sense of "art." Silent organ pipes might stand in the middle of the room, surrounded by a metal vase and a grouping of tall, delicate ceramic sculptures. In a minimalist design, this would appear intriguing rather than odd.

Cupboards and "wall space" proliferate. Since the rooms are harshly devoid of mess--all the trapping of everyday life unsuitable for show are hidden away--space to remove and conceal it is cleverly provided.

"Such living (in minimalist spaces) demands rigorous planning beforehand and stern vigilance afterward," Saatchi explains. "Even when you are prepared to pare down your possessions to the most basic level, there still must be places to put essentials--books, food, clothes--which means building cupboards so unobtrusively you hardly know they are there. This takes imagination."

Neatness, cleanliness and scrupulous maintenance are required in minimalist interiors. Dirt will show up on vast open surfaces as will cracks in the plaster, marks on the paint work and stains on the carpet. A minimalist interior will also reveal bad workmanship, poor materials and inferior design: It is a design mode that is unforgiving of mistakes. Therefore, when anyone walks into a beautiful minimalist interior, the flawless craftsmanship and expense will showoff itself.

Barbara Dubbin, a Laguna-based designer who has worked extensively in New York and Europe, says the reason she used a minimalist design in her office space "is because I wanted to give my clients a touch of freedom. I don't know if they like French Country, Modern, Italian, Scandinavian or whatever. So when they walk into my office, they are not bombarded with a certain strong style, but rather, things are left open to interpretation."

However much time and effort it takes, people say that minimalist living has its wonderful rewards. "The key to minimalism is exposure," Saatchi says. "It is the lack of camouflage, visual distractions and disguises that make some people uneasy about these spaces. But once experienced, life without the conventional props proves to be soothing and serene. And very exhilarating. Pure space, filled with thoughts rather than things, is good for the soul."

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