PERSONAL ESSAY: WHY I HAVE BECOME A MINIMALIST
by JINHWAN KIM
"Honey," my wife shouted, "we need a highchair for Irene!"
She was feeding our four-month-old daughter who was sitting on her own. I wished I could have said, "You're right. Let's go get one today," and been her savior, but something stopped me from saying that.
What was this? Why was I hesitating to say yes to her? I questioned myself. The baby had an obvious need, and we could have afforded a highchair. I could have gone to IKEA and made an economic choice. My resistance to buying a highchair came from somewhere else. I felt mysteriously uncomfortable about placing another big object in our space when we already had too many chairs.
"Why don't we think about that a little more?" I asked her.
My wife sighed.
We had this conversation three months ago. We still don't have a highchair, and my wife hates me.
Here's the answer. I like to keep things minimal. So I feel uncomfortable owning more than one item in each category. To me, it is more than enough to have one winter coat, one computer, one pair of shoes, one pillow, and so on. Maybe I am the only one who does not download new applications to my iPad when there is still plenty space left on it, but I don't like to keep any applications that I don't use daily. I know it sounds wacky and inflexible to some people, especially to my wife who welcomes any kind of help in raising a baby. She wonders why on Earth I do not want to have more than one item in this state of emergency (the emergency is that we have a seven-month old at home). Why can't I accept multiple objects? Is this something psychological, like an obsession? Is it part of my character? Or is it just a preference? Am I just used to owning less? Where did it come from? When did it start? Can I change? Do I want to change? Questions linger in my head, and I dare to explore myself.
Supposition #1. My parents' influence during my childhood
My parents' discipline has definitely influenced my character. Some of their influences affect me against my will. Other influences have helped me in my work as a graphic designer. One of the most important influences was to limit my consumption. "Buy less," my father always said. His voice echoes in my head when I shop. My family was not well off when I was little. My parents were frugal. Not many toys could be found in my room. Some kids complained about not being able to have many toys, but I was not one of them. Rather than finding joy from having more, I knew how to get creative with what I had. And it was still fun. As I got used to having less, I felt uneasy about having more than what I needed. And this feeling became stronger and stronger as I grew older, I think.
Supposition #2. My love of modern design
Have the European modern pioneers in the early twentieth century made me a minimalist? Piet Mondrian's Compositions in my high-school textbook was the first European modern work that I learned in my life. The black lines beautifully divided the white canvas while the primary colors added meanings to the divisions. My favorite was "Composition No.1," which had only one red rectangle at the bottom that gave special meaning to the whole composition. Mondrian's compositions hit me so hard that I explored Mondrian's other works as well as the works of other European modern designers. Partly because of their influence, I decided to be a designer who can express ideas with minimal visual language, I guess.
Supposition #3. Serving in the Korean army
Like it or not, if you are a Korean male who is eighteen years old or older, you serve in the Korean Army for two precious years. Some men think serving two years in the army is a waste of their time and energy. Some even risk their lives to get out of duty by pulling their teeth out or donating their organs. I was not one of them. I went to serve in the Korean Army for 26 months when I turned 22. To my surprise, the strict military lifestyle suited me. The routine—six a.m. to ten p.m.—brought me peace rather than boredom. I loved the fact that I was allowed to own only a few items for the long 26 months. As soldiers, we were trained to be swift. We were trained to be prepared for a war or any life-or-death situation. The more stuff you have, the slower you can move. I didn't want to risk my life and the lives of civilians to better serve my taste by having more stuff in my backpack. My experience in the army strengthened my previous inclinations toward minimalism.
All I Own, 2008, illustrated by Jinhwan Kim
Supposition #4. Temporary housing in the U.S.
Studio, 1-bed, 2-beds, and 3-beds. How familiar I have become with American apartments for the last eight years of study in the States! I moved from one apartment to another about nine times. I moved for various reasons: to live closer to campus, to get far away from the nasty roommate who hated the smell of Korean food, and to save money to date my wife, who was my girlfriend back then. When I chose campus housing, I had to vacate my dorm at the end of each semester. Every time, I rented a moving truck and worked all day and night moving my stuff in and out of the boxes. One day, exhausted in the midst of packing my clothes, I decided to throw away all the clothes which had not been worn for the previous year. The same rule applied to other stuff as well. As a result, moving got much easier, and I kept the rule until I got married.
What if someone had the same life experiences as mine? Would that person have a desire to be a minimalist like me? The events in the suppositions are only partly responsible for forming my character. I could have raised my voice when my parents tried to control my desire for more toys. I could have cried out to my parents like my younger brother did. He had a lot of toys. I could have saved my allowance to buy new toys. I could have taken my inspiration from Mondrian's Composition as one of my design references. In the military, I could have owned more and thrown it all away when I moved. My life in the military camp would have been more convenient. I could have bought what I needed in the last few years without worrying about moving, because I could have hired some movers. There have always been solutions to my concerns. I am not a soldier anymore. And many people live with a lot of stuff. Having more is not the end of world, I know.
Am I a selfish minimalist who wants everyone in the world to have a lifestyle just like mine? Am I a design dictator who looks down on the decorative design decisions of others? No. I choose to be a minimalist. My choice cannot be a standard to judge everyone else.
I did not buy the highchair for my baby. Why not? It's not because I am frugal. I buy less because I am stubborn. It is more like a manifestation of my integrity. I want to live in the same style that I would design for others. How could I suggest my design to others if I don't live in that style? I want to design my house and garden. I want to own what I design. I want to be honest with myself.
My body consumes some of the physical space of the atmosphere of Earth. I breathe and consume air. My body needs energy, and I need to consume food. My body already takes up space, and matter cannot be created or destroyed. What does it matter how much stuff is around me or someone else? What is the future of my nature? Will I ever change? One day, my daughter will say, "Daddy, I want one more." What should I do?
As a graphic designer, I want my design to be simple. The Google homepage is the best example of what I pursue. Its simplicity is what I love. While the homepage of Yahoo provides various contents with a complex layout, Google's homepage is extremely simple, even with the search bar. The layout is so simple that it almost makes some people think that the homepage is still being developed. The result? Yahoo has redesigned its homepage a number of times while Google has simply added links on the layout for new services. I hope my design achieves simplicity as well as the design of the Google homepage.
Working in a company, however, I'd be more flexible in order to collaborate. My purpose for being a graphic designer is to serve others and to be happy with my work. The happiness means satisfaction. I want to satisfy my peers and clients through my design. But not all clients and projects expect my simple designs. The definition of simple may vary. The chance to design like the Google homepage only comes when a client demands the particular style. But the chances are rare. I want to work for different people who have different needs. To satisfy clients, I will have to learn other design styles. I want to control myself at work and be flexible. Ideally, I want to serve more with less.
At home, I will influence my wife and daughter as they influence me. I want my family to be happy without compromising ourselves too much. I want us to understand our different needs and different lifestyles. When I work at home, I wouldn't mind if I had to walk through the decorative and stuffy living room, as long as my workroom was minimal. My parents' discipline has formed my character. I can't predict what my daughter will take from my discipline. I just want to support them financially and emotionally as a father and a husband.
I don't think that I can change my nature. But I would try to understand others' natures. To make the first step, I will buy a highchair for my daughter today. My daughter and wife will be happy with it. I will be a happy minimalist tonight.