Maximalism: A Case For More Over Less in Living Sustainably

by Becca Payling

The idea that we need to slow down is an undisputed fact. Through the growing conversations around slow living, de-influencing and the importance of community, corporation tactics and advertising strategies that entice us to buy their products and continue to strip the planet of its resources are becoming increasingly evident. Consumption – the endless chase of wanting ‘more’ – appeals to our need for individuality, to feel validated, but according to studies such as that of Moldes & Ku (2020), consumption, ultimately, makes us unhappy.

Cue minimalism. The breath of fresh linen entering the world of interior design.  A quiet middle finger to the ornate and intricate essences of the renaissance era, by replacing baroque with basic, it gave people the change to bridge the wealth gap while still being stylish, rolling in a new era of design. Now a monochrome pristine apartment in NYC, lightly furnished, is the domestic face of the American dream. The wave of design discretion had its benefits elsewhere; the birth of the capsule wardrobe encouraged people to curate a closet full of matching outfits that can be worn multiple ways, saving on space, and supposedly, money too.  

But is this decluttering, and the desire for more open spaces in the home, actually claustrophobic? 

I first heard of the term ‘maximalism’ by Kamea Chayne, a writer and host of the Green Dreamer Podcast, who used it to describe her practice of saving and sharing her resources, and maximising their use. It is a practice that pertains to the ideology of ‘more is more’ but must not be confused with the ‘excess’ that defines hoarding, which is a disorder and should not be glamourised, nor the way citizens are pressured to buy things they don’t need. For me, learning of this term was the breath of neroli, bergamot (and maybe amber?) air after my confusion at seeing minimalism entwined with sustainability discussions so frequently. In a household where I had grown up with a bag of old, used plastic bags under the sink as bin liners, for the stash of ribbons off old pyjama sets for gift wrapping, my mum’s affinity to collect charming or otherwise boxes ‘just in case’, and the 20+ year old sturdy Morrison’s bags we did the groceries with, minimalism just went against every zero waste value with which I had been raised. In fact, I would argue that maximalism has a far broader scope to encapsulate environmental values than minimalism. 

“Where minimalism is choked of colour and creativity, maximalism celebrates the plethora of possibilities in earnest.”

Maximalism can be largely defined by diversity of design. Where minimalism is choked of colour and creativity, maximalism celebrates the plethora of possibilities in earnest. In terms of environmental mindfulness, maximalism echoes our need to transition from a linear to circular economy. It echoes flea market knick-knacks, hereditary furniture, jewellery, the wonky homemade. In contrast, monochrome furniture would be most likely bought brand new; stains or other signs of wear presumably add too much to an otherwise unadorned chair. And how much waste in the process of making such simple furniture is hiding behind these perfectly curated indoor landscapes? 

For clothes, maximalism offers up unbound enthusiasm to clash styles, create new looks, and the sociability of sharing and giving away clothes in swap shops or online. Upcycling forms a large and personal component to maximalism, making use of items you already have, and transforming them. It closes the loop. On the other hand, capsule wardrobes – minimalism couture – are cute and functional in a static sense, but leave no room for personal styles to evolve through time, and encourage tight possession of the limited clothes you have. Furthermore, when you trawl Etsy or Redbubble for the perfect gift for a friend that appeals to a niche interest of theirs, you are supporting a small business- and the passionate people behind it. That flower print embellished with an in-joke, or your name, is wildly more important and impactful than the furnishing of an IKEA influencer!  

Some have even suggested embracing maximalism is part of decolonisation, by appreciating the design of other cultures. If maximalism fosters fusion of styles, cultures and ideas, this is precisely the mindset we need to make sustainability more accessible, and to create better transdisciplinary frameworks for industries to become more transparent and ecologically-sound. We need more environmental impact assessments, more B-Corp certifications, more take-back schemes, more design thinking, to create low-carbon and circular practices.

Happily, for people like me, maximalism is seeping back into clothing (other #cottagecore girlies anywhere??), indoor aesthetic, and even gardens. Even Marie Kondo, a figurehead for minimalism has stopped decluttering with the vigour her books suggest – adducing a shift in her priorities to spending more time with her children. Especially with the pandemic, people seem more eager to create Instagram posts for their holidays spent staycationing around one of Ireland’s castles or surrounded by England’s thatched villages, rather than a staccato landscape of NYC skyscrapers or a homogeneous tropical, tourist-heavy beach. Venice and Paris, the homes of an array of architecture, are still the most popular tourist spots in Europe. More and more cities are embracing green infrastructure, community gardening, or urban habitats that may have traditionally been considered ‘messy’, not only in recognition of the abundance of ecosystem services these structures provide, but also because of their wild but calming appearance. Even in Trinity, we have evolved from the Death Star-esque Arts Block to the Living Wall of the Business School. 

“the shift towards maximalism makes me so proud of the odd old mini shampoo bottles we’d take instead of buying new on holiday”

Even though, as a child, embracing this messy side of sustainable living was more for financial than environmental reasons, the shift towards maximalism makes me so proud of all the odd old mini shampoo bottles we’d take instead of buying new on holiday, my (rainbow) preloved wardrobe, and all the boxes we have for different Terracycle bins in the dining room back home. And if you still prefer a geometric print to a collage of Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies on your wall, or Samuel Beckett to J.R.R. Tolkien, that’s still cool too. Being open-minded to differing preferences, needs and beings (human or otherwise) is key in co-creating a healthy planet. This way, maximalism opens doors, challenges the status quo, acting as the expression of the radical transformation the planet and society urgently require.

After all, as narrated by Braungart & McDonough (2008): diversity is nature’s design framework, and ecosystems don’t function through limits and suppression, they operate in a regenerative abundance. 

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