06 March 2014

Simple Life: Usefulness & Aesthetics

Beef Shabu-Shabu & Cabbage salad // personal picture

Today, I'd like to introduce the Simple Life series. In these posts, I'd like to present you how I approach various life areas, based on my idea of simplicity I've been refining these past few years. The concept was already introduced to the Nife with these posts on Quality, and on Food. In this post, I'd like to introduce my approach to the material items I surround myself with.

This series concept is inspired by the book l'Art de la Simplicit√© by Dominique Loreau, in which she explains her vision of simplicity in various areas of her life. I discovered her book in 2011, it opened my mind to a different approach of life, based on simplicity and mindfulness. After a second read over summer 2013, I realized I don't agree with everything Loreau explains in her book. Therefore, I have decided to write this Simple Life series, as an introduction to my own vision of simplicity and mindfulness. I hope you will enjoy it, and bring your own voice to the debate!

  • Simplicity & Material Items

I think I mentioned it in a previous post, but I am sometimes a bit uncomfortable with how minimalism demonizes buying and owning material items. I personally believe that the problem with consumerism isn't materialism itself, but the unhealthy emotional relation one can have with their material possessions. Therefore, I believe we shouldn't be ashamed to indulge in nice material purchases from time to time, and to enjoy using our objects.

However, I do believe in the need to simplify our material collections in today's "Western" societies. My own approach to my "collection" of objects is a careful curation - I think it is not the quantity that matters, but rather the adequacy: What do I need this item for? Is it the most suitable one for this? I'm not looking at owning as many as possible (like collectors would for example), but I'm not looking at owning as few as possible either, and I certainly not looking at owning what I "should" be owning given my age and social situation. My collection of items should be tailored to my needs.

Example: Let's take the example of CDs. Most minimalist movements are in a sort of all-digital trend, advising to digitize and get rid of all CDs. But I think the quality of a good CD in a proper hi-fi system isn't comparable with mp3 quality.

My own approach was to evaluate for what type of music CD quality really made a difference, and select a few albums that I bought and/or kept. I digitized the rest. I currently own about 10 CDs, mostly jazz, classical music and video game soundtracks. Sometimes, on week-ends, I brew a tea, put an album of Stan Getz in my hi-fi system, sit on my couchling and just listen to the music. I don't think I would enjoy these moments as much if the music came from a laptop speaker & mp3.

  • Usefulness & Practicality

As mentioned in the Quality chapter, an item has to be practical, convenient to use, easy to maintain, sturdy and tick the boxes of my specific criteria (for example, that the cat can't easily break it). The objects are supposed to make my life easier, not be an additional pain to use and maintain. For example, I would avoid a plate that is not quite big enough to bake cakes, tea that is stored far away from the kettle and pot...

With this in mind, usefulness, or practicality, is a major criteria in my choice of items, but also in the organization of my furniture and cupboards. I have to admit this is also due to the fact that I live in 25m², divided in 2 rooms, therefore, ill-conceived items or organization become very annoying, very quickly.

On the other hand, I agree with the "minimalist" idea of culling items when they are no longer useful. An item for which you have no use, but still occupies your living space, can get in the way of your daily life, clutter your home, and stop you from making room for other items you'd really have a need for. Basically, I should use what I have, and have only what I use.

  • On Aesthetics & Daily Joys

When Amitai Etzioni explains the difference between consumption and consumerism, he says that consumption is about fulfilling a "basic need" and consumerism is about fulfilling a "higher need". But does it mean that an object should only be bought for its basic usefulness? In that case, what place does art have? Or a bunch of flowers? Or a photo frame, even?

Minimalism has this image of being barren, depurated and ascetic. And that's probably the way some minimalists decided to live, if it matches their preferences. My vision of simplicity is a bit more measured, though. Just like art has a rightful place in human culture, I don't see why beautiful or sentimental objects should be thrown out the window.

We live in our home every day, use our objects - they are a part of our daily routine, and I think they can influence the quality of the moment we are living. Being practical and fulfilling their purpose certainly makes the moment more comfortable, but I think having a personal link the object also improves the quality of the moment. I don't see why useful objects, like a tea cup, couldn't also be beautiful, or a sentimenal legacy from a grandmother. And I don't see why we couldn't indulge in that type of daily luxury.

  • Conclusion

In my vision of simplicity, the items I own are carefully selected, cared for, and I enjoy using/looking at them. For example I don't see the point of owning some high quality - say, silverware - and keep it out of sight for most of the year because it is "for special occasion". I am all for using silverware everyday, wearing cashmere on Sundays and drinking Champagne on a regular weekday if I feel so inclined.

Your collection of items are tools, ways to spend quality moments in your everyday life. I agree with traditional minimalism in believing that owning objects shouldn't be an end goal, it is rather a way to improve our life and help enjoy the ordinary moments of life.

The number of items, type, criteria of choice are personal, I don't think there is any hard rule for any of this. My only rule is for my objects to be adequate to my life, and to give them the appropriate amount of importance - in other words, we shouldn't let ourselves be owned by our objects.

To close this Simple Life chapter, here are a few example of objects I own to illustrate my approach:

  • My morning coffee cup is a hand-made cup I found by chance in Carpentras during my summer holidays in Provence. I find it practical (just the right size), beautiful, and the fact that it's been hand made gives it a special "soul".
  • I have purchased a cheap but beautiful vase in which I put a fresh bunch of flowers every now and then, just to lighten up the mood of my mini-palace
  • I always make a point of setting my table in a nice way before eating (see pitcure above), even on weekdays, even alone. I also rotate all of my dishes & china, from the cheapest Ikea ones to the hand-made Japanese ones
  • I have curated all my cultural items - CD, books, DVD, games - to a small but meaningful selection of favourites. The rest has been either digitized or sold. I re-watch/read/listen to the ones I kept regularly
  • I have added a selection of decorative items to my mini-palace over time, to warm it up a bit - a colourful cushion here, an Indian painting there, a couple of postcards from an art exhibit I liked over the bed...

What about you? How do you approach your collection of items? Have you ever felt like simplifying them? What's your own philosophy and choice criteria?


  1. This is a wonderful post, Kali. I am passionate like you about mindfulness and beautiful things. Like you also, I don't identify with hardcore minimalism. I have some objects that truly bring me joy, and it's interesting how without any particular effort I naturally identify what doesn't belong with my favorite things anymore, and parting with them is painless. The culling rhythm has become slower, but it's still steady. When my friends come to my house they always notice how it's not full, but still quite cosy and welcoming : that's what my favorite objects do for me.

    Here are some of my "special" items, just for fun :
    - authentic Liberty pillows to brighten my simple bedroom
    - a garland of little lights above the bed
    - a colourful kite that I've had for about 10 years

    1. It is true that being mindful about the objects we own makes parting with some of them much easier than before. I have noticed that too. Objects that aren't useful, or practical, or beautiful in my home - as you say, natural favourites - are very quickly identified and dealt with. Also, it drastically reduces the "culling mistakes". It's been a very long while since I last regretted parting with something. Thanks for sharing! I like your little list of favourites :)

  2. I heard a term recently that I think describes your outlook on simplicity perfectly: rational minimalism. It's minimalism in moderation, and being thoughtful about our possessions and lifestyle without being rigid and ascetic. Lovely post though, and I absolutely agree. There's no need to be militant about it, just be thoughtful.

    1. I hadn't heard of that term - rational minimalism. It could apply to my vision indeed. I also like the word used by a blogger from one of my food for thought posts - "intentionalism". I like this term because it focuses on the intention, the mindfulness of the moment, rather than a search for "minimal". I think that in a way, hardcore minimalism gives too much importance to the collection of items, if it makes any sense.

  3. Your beautiful table setting is ... so beautiful! I'm going to arrange my lunch today in a similar spirit of beauty. After all, the same cups and saucers can be arranged either aesthetically or haphazardly, it's just a matter of taking a minute or so to arrive at the aesthetic combination.

    Otherwise too a very interesting post!

    1. Thank you! I got a lot of inspiration from Japan in setting tables. I'm always amazed how they use a lot of mismatched bowls and plates of different sizes, yet the composition is very appealing. I'm guessing not everyone likes it because it looks a bit "chaotic", but I love it too! I hope you made some nice table arrangements yourself :)

  4. I am being drawn towards minimalism since I discovered 'Into Mind' and this blog and some others ... I also live in a small apartment (though definitely not as small as yours :)) and am quite lazy in my household work. Therefore 'stuff' just seems to accumulate all the time, creating clutter I really have no room for. Combine this with a certain sentimentality that both me and my husband suffer from, which has lead us in the past to, e.g. keep stuffed animals we collected during our childhoods, and then I wonder why we don't seem to have enough room for all of our stuff. So I'm drawn towards minimalism because I very much believe in 'a clean room, a clean mind' (don't know if this is a saying in English). But when I read your 'rational' interpretation of it, I see how much less of a minimalist I truly am. I could never cull my book collection (of hundreds of books) to just the ones that I tend to re-read. I very much enjoy the books as a 'presence' in my home and I also like that whenever people come around, they are drawn as well to the book collection and start asking questions and borrowing stuff ... So maybe I should just take some tips from minimalism to declutter my home and create more balance, thereby also allowing room for things (like the books) that I value to stand in the limelight...

    1. I think that is the definition of rational minimalism though - that you'd select the items that are important to you (your book collection, as it seems), and make sure there is space in your living area for it. While on the other hand you work on getting rid of the clutter. I don't see why keeping a full set of bookshelves wouldn't be minimalist (in my definition at least), if that's what fulfills you.

      I have to admit a lot of my own culling is also due to practical considerations linked to the size of my appartment. But if I had enough space for it, there is a room in my dreams, with a wall full of books, with bookshelves that run to the ceiling and a wooden ladder, à la Jules Verne. In this room, there would also be a couple of leather armchairs with a mini-bar full of my favourite whiskies and liquors, a fireplace, and a collection of musical instruments. Such a room doesn't sound very minimalist, but I'd definitely craft one if I had 20 extra square meters...

    2. A little late, this reply, but I am so with you on that :-)

  5. I love your balanced approach and agree that beautiful items such as a bunch of flowers can add to our lives, even if they are not practical in any sense. I guess for me issues begin to arise when the other things I have, or the amount of things I have, means I can no longer appreciate that first beautiful/sentimental object.

    A few months ago I was helping my mother pack up her house (she was renting it out over the summer). She had well over 20 cups but refused to consider paring this down. I asked her why she needed so many, to which she replied that each one told a story. But if we have 20 different stories being told at the same time, can we really listen to all of them? I feel like when the beauty of the things we value the most begins to get clouded, that's when I start paring down. But that certainly doesn't mean it all has to go.

    1. That's a very good point! That's what I like about Japanese asthetics, they value a form of depuration that makes the objects even more important - if you have only one painting at the center of the wall, it will have more room to make an impact than if it is in the middle of 20 other paintings.

      Similarly, I agree that too many items, no matter if they all have a story, would tend to drown each other, and in the end we'd care less about any of them. I guess it comes back to balance in the end. I believe the cursor of 'enough' is different from an individual to another though.

  6. I grew up sharing a room - there was no space to hoard things. As a result I've always been reluctant to buy things for the home unless I was convinced I knew exactly what I would use it for, and where I would store or display it. I prefer to get my books out of a library unless I love it enough to want to buy it for keeps. Clutter makes me feel uncomfortable so it's easy for me to keep things "simple", it's second nature to me.

    I like Emma's point too - I think sometimes we assign to much sentiment to things when we are perfectly capable of recalling certain feelings even without an item to jog our memories.