A ripple in the still surface of a lake in Iceland with flat mountains on the distant shore
Photo by Garrett Sears

My sister was having a hard time hiding her slight disappointment as she took a look around my studio.

Talking with her some time before I had made some passing remark about how I was fairly minimalistic due to both the space constraints in my studio––the fridge, desk, and bed take up half the available space––and the quiet clarity that came from not having to deal with clutter.

My room did not meet her expectations. The look on her face let me know she had lots to say, but wasn’t sure where to start. She eased into it, “I follow these great minimalist accounts on Instagram. I could help you redecorate.” But once she got going she found it hard to stop, “There’s this bed that has a drawer on the bottom so you can save space! You could put up a painting on this wall. You could save so much space in your closet if you bought this shelf I saw…”

Turning my room into her minimalist utopia would have cost me hundreds of dollars and hours of moving things around. Just the thought of it stressed me out.

My sister was just helping her little brother out. She has a good sense of style and fashion and I once wore a brown polo with matching brown shorts without giving it a second thought or noticing that I looked like I worked for UPS. Yet her comments reminded me of this trend I’ve noticed as minimalism has grown in popularity over the past few years.

It seems to me that minimalism has turned into a fashionable label, a kind of status symbol.

Everyone wants to capitalize on the trend. There’s minimalist furniture and minimalist kitchenware. Minimalist pictures (only white please) and minimalist wardrobes.

This form of minimalism feels oddly consumeristic. It’s overly worried about appearances. It gives too much importance to the things we own.

My version of minimalism has nothing to do with Instagram-worthy pictures or using specific colors. It doesn’t involve buying a beige BESTÅ or SÖDERHAMN from Ikea.

My version of minimalism is only concerned with living as clutter-free as possible. It’s concerned on making sure that the things I own don’t end up owning me (as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club). It’s focused on allowing me to spend as little time as possible thinking and worrying about stuff I own.

I call it utilitarian minimalism. The only two “rules” I follow are:

  1. Everything I own should serve a purpose
  2. Get rid of the non-essentials whenever possible

As an example, I have 4 pairs of shoes: water-resistant boots, a pair of the ubiquitous boat shoes, sneakers, and tennis shoes.

With these 4 pairs of shoes I’m set for every occasion. Each pair of shoes serves a distinct purpose. I rarely find myself having to choose. If it’s winter and I’m going to work, I wear my boots. If I’m playing tennis, I wear my tennis shoes. If I’m going for a walk, I wear my sneakers.

To me, the most important thing about minimalism is the spirit of it rather than any specifics. You don’t need any new furniture, you don’t need to copy the picture-perfect living rooms on Instagram. You just need to get rid of the non-essentials until everything you own serves a purpose.

It’s likely that the answer to “Is this essential?” will vary wildly from person to person. As long as we don’t get hung up on the label or the specifics, we can each choose our essentials and live in our own utopia.