A U S T E R E
The condition or practice of living without things that are not necessary and without comfort, with limited money or goods, or a practice, habit, or experience that is typical of this
Severe or strict in manner, attitude, or appearance: “an austere man with a puritanical outlook”
Austerity is the conscious decision to do without elaborate solutions to everyday needs or even to eliminate non-essential parts of our daily repertoire. At one time, the elaborate or elegant had great appeal in the manifestation of who we were and what we did. Excess was seen as success. While the Northern European minimalist style began to gather favor, conspicuous consumption has not totally given way to minimalism by any means but over time, the two styles have caused a real divergence in our world. Having said that, there is an ironic development in the new minimalism. The vogue has reached its logical limits in the dead end scenario that less cannot continue pursuing even less. Minimalism is simply less and less cannot be easily reduced further!
Let’s take an example at the very simple level of a door handle. Obviously door handles have ranged from the most elaborate to the simplest cupboard latch. So how do we make it even “less”? Well, let’s take it away completely and explore the idea of retaining the function but visually eliminating the object. Not gem studded, gold plated or elaborately decorated - instead it is gone from sight. Ok, we have achieved minimalism of a refined degree but how do we know how to open the door or where the vital mechanism is sited? Some of the solution is simple. We focus on making visual suggestions of function in the part of the door where a knob would be supposed to be found. If we can see the hinges then we can assume the knob/mechanism is somewhere near the opposite side. Good so far. So let’s help a bit by siting a color or texture difference on the door surface that is discrete and suggests that the user should touch or swipe the door surface in that area to make entrance possible. What is the danger in this design approach? Well, by removing the door handle we may have made it necessary to replace the knob by something intrinsically more complicated in order to preserve modern requirements such as security and weather tightness. Sure, it may be something that looks simple but we might have brought in an elaborate, potentially expensive and complicated mechanism in order to achieve the design simplicity. We would agree that fashion has been served but not the ethos behind the style. Indeed, we have potentially corrupted the concept by placing an opening device on the wall beside the door jam or installing an invisible sensor to make the door open as we approach it. All of this in a search for the handle-less minimalist approach.
The object of this exercise is to show that simplicity can be a very desirable design objective and that there is ethical merit in achieving simplicity in a manner which does not create hidden elaboration or expensive. As designers we should look at each design situation and decide on a best solution. We should look at our cost structures in terms of the target clientele and the demographic of the intended users. Find the right designs and solutions at the intersection of cost/function/style. Given one door, we decide if a handle is needed. If no, then we provide a simple door that returns to a closed position automatically and opens with a gentle push. No spring closure mechanisms or other expensive options. A good solution: but not a solution for every situation. We can see that other situations demand other solutions. The visible handle returns in many forms for other uses which serves notice to designers that solutions must be seen as clusters of design options tailored to the needs of the end user in the context of cost and style. Austerity is the key element in finding elegant solutions in the simplest of designs.
Busch, A. (2007) ‘Excess Disguised as Less’ http://dcrit.sva.edu/view/readingroom/excess-‐ disguised-‐as-‐less/
Attfield, J. (2000) Wild Things. London: Berg
Bertoni, F. (2004). Minimalist design. Basel: Birkhäuser.