At Christmas I received a delightful letter from a neighboring family who moved from Utah to Washington, DC. The husband now works in the field of information technology (IT) for military armament (MA), and the wife has joined a Voluntary Simplicity group. Now, while I find IT for MA a bit above my head, I do relate to Voluntary Simplicity, and so may many of your customers. For my friend, it may be summed up as both an individual and a group effort to live life in such a way as to make a “lighter footprint on Earth” so that its goodness and beauty may be better preserved for future generations.
According to Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post, “Voluntary
Simplicity is a grassroots national movement that has drawn in people
who want to cut back on possessions and slow their pace of life.”
Many, like my friend who now lives in the Washington, DC, area,
are attracted to it because of environmental concerns.
Others are attracted because of the spiritual benefits. As quoted
by Murphy in “Simplicity: Life with Fewer Possessions Is Finding
Followers,” (Washington Post, October 11, 2004), the Rev. Elizabeth
Braxton, pastor of Burke (VA) Presbyterian Church, said people “are
beginning to see that their possessions become a weight and a barrier
to their spiritual life and to their happiness. They are realizing
that the more we have, the more we have to take responsibility for
it and the less time we have for the breathing space of God.”
A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Others are likewise attracted to a simpler way of living. There
is a major movement toward de-cluttering one’s life. Of these
people, Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of the secular magazine
Real Simple, said, “They feel a greater sense of peace when
they’re not overwhelmed by their physical surroundings.”
Real Simple magazine promotes simplicity as a lifestyle.
It is evident that a simpler way of life is broadly appealing for
a variety of reasons, from environmental to spiritual to lifestyle.
All are aimed at improving the quality of life by not being weighed
down by extraneous possessions and their inevitable demands. It
is a trend that sets free the soul and proves that less indeed is
THEN AND NOW
The concept of simple interiors has its roots in the work of architect
Charles Rennie McIntosh (1868-1928) whose clean, white, uncluttered
interiors departed suddenly and dramatically from over-furnished
Victorian homes. His Hill Chair and Argyle Chair are two examples
of straightforward designs that are still admired today.
Another pathfinder was Louis Sullivan, an early 20th-century Chicago
architect who coined the phrase, “Form follows function.”
The experimental forms and interiors of the Mid-Century Modern architects
and furniture designers forged an entirely new look that was considered
the epitome of fine design in the post-World War II Modern era of
the 1950s and 1960s. However, these Mid-Century Modern interiors
often were cold and even sterile in their attempts to refine living.
The modern home often became, as declared
by Swiss/French architect LeCorbusier, “a house [that was]
a machine for living in.”
Yet as the trend pendulum inevitably swung back again, the 1970s
began a period of serious accumulation of material goods, which
during the 1980s and 1990s became obsessively decorative. The richly
appointed interiors of the past 20 years are remarkably parallel
to the overly sumptuous Victorian era. Therefore, it is no wonder
that we are seeing a replay of 100 years ago, a conscious turning
away from too much decoration toward a spare, light, uncluttered
YESTERDAY ONCE MORE
The look of Mid-Century Modern has returned, but in a more pleasing
and human genre. Rich woods, used sparingly and beginning with Danish
Modern in the early 1950s, have returned with craftsmanship as a
quality feature. This look is well worth exploring because more
dedicated followers are converting to this style every day. It is
a part of a larger trend that marketing expert and futurist Faith
Popcorn called, “Cashing Out.”
There are many forms of cashing out. One is to let go of the demands
of being a servant to your home and your possessions. It is liberation
of sorts, a freedom to let go of materialism in favor of organized
voluntary simplicity, or your own brand of voluntary simplicity.
More than rebelling against too much stuff and its attached strings,
it is about caring about the quality of life, the quality of the
future, and time and space to think and to feel.
Perhaps most of all, it’s the conscious choice to decide which
things we want in our lives. They must be things that are worth
looking at, worth considering, worth enjoying, worth loving, worth
CREATING A SIMPLY BEAUTIFUL INTERIOR
Creating simply beautiful interiors demands more effort than just
de-junking. And please do consider that all styles may be candidates
for this look, not Modern only. Almost any style, even historic
styles, can become simple. It may be viewed as updating an interior
that needs new life and freshness.
Yet, ironically, creating a simply beautiful interior often takes
more effort than creating a complex and heavily furnished one. The
reason is that in simple interiors with fewer furnishings, each
item is open to scrutiny, therefore each one must be exceptionally
right. That is not true in a decorative interior where so much assaults
the eye that it becomes, as one interior photographer said, “an
eye wash,” meaning that nothing stands out, it all blends or
washes together because it is too much to visually digest at one
Therefore, in a clean appearing interior, every selection must be
the very best design (form, shape, color, texture, pattern) possible.
Quality craftsmanship also plays into the mix because then the furnishings
Texture plays an important role in a simple interior. There are
two categories of texture for this look: forgiving and unforgiving.
Forgiving textures are those that have a heavier texture coupled
with a bit of uncertain or subtle pattern so that they may disguise
fingerprints, dust or light soiling. Unforgiving texture is more
smooth and clean, pristine and untouched. Translated, unforgiving
textures mean less used and higher upkeep, more to look at than
to really live in. Yet with so few people per household in America
(less than two, on average), a clean look becomes far easier to
maintain than in full, bustling households.
Window treatments in simple interiors are void of trims, bright
colors and pattern. They often filter light softly into a space.
This is a requirement of modern living. It was discovered by Mid-Century
architectural occupants who lived and worked in steel skeleton homes
and skyscrapers. At first, the architects wanted bare windows (a
fight that continues between many architects and occupants or designers
today). Yet the heat gain and loss, glare and lack of privacy dictated
Very quickly, Modern architecture became known as “curtain
wall construction.” That meant that casement draperies were
acceptable to the architects and critical to the occupants. Beginning
in the 1970s, mini-blinds and vertical louvers were added to the
repertoire of acceptable modern window coverings
Today, of course, we have far more choices and the ability to diffuse
light and also create privacy when required. Lighter weight, lighter
materials, advanced engineering and 21st-century technology today
combine to present window treatments that are handsome, durable,
livable and light.
A NOD TO THE EAST
Much credit for this style comes from the influence of the Orient
and, in particular, Japanese interiors, which influenced Modern
design with its minimalist approach. The concept of “less is
more” in Japan has been considered for several centuries to
be the highest order of fine design. Only a few items, such as a
hanging scroll or rice paper painted screen, a few cushions and
a few accessory items are used in the traditional Japanese home.
There are also “qualities” associated with this style—a
quality of exquisite craftsmanship, a quality of mellowness as items
age, a quality of uneven or uncertain or unpredictable pattern,
texture or color that increases visual interest. There is also a
quality of cleanliness and order and dignity. And there is a quality
of intrigue through strategic placement of furnishings or landscape
elements—usually asymmetrical, but in contemporary America
often seen in symmetry.
Some interiors are eclectic blends of several styles. For example,
a simple, light interior may have elements of the clean Mid-Century
Modern architecture, a flavor of Oriental design, blended with a
select few simplified traditional furnishings. Eclectic furnishings
come from varied design sources that are well blended to become
an interesting and pleasing whole.
REWARDS OF SIMPLICITY
In each style, whether a textbook design or a unique one-of-a-kind
interior, the effectiveness of the completed interior is judged
by how a person feels when experiencing the space. The goal is to
minimize stress and frustration, to reduce the pressure and weight
of responsibility for excessive possessions and their ensuing demands
on one’s time, energy and resources.
“To feel and to heal” may be the result of clean, simple,
light-touched interiors. Those who live and work in these spaces
often experience physical and emotional renewal, energy, even enlightenment
and spiritual connection. Those are lofty rewards. It might just
be worth the effort!
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies &
Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.