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Less is more?

This phrase, with two perfectly-balanced pronouns on either side of the equation, pairs usefulness and nonsense in just the same way. It guards against excess, feature-creep and gaudiness, while playing into the popular fear of saying anything big as a hedge against big criticism, and into the hands of scolds who tell you to tone it down or turn it down, when those who moved things forward did exactly the opposite.

Instead, I advocate that we avoid glib equivalences like this, and instead trust ourselves to judge things like beauty, balance and proportionality.

Clearly there is a good deal of wisdom in the cliché: saying no to trivial things, removing unnecessary rules and restrictions, simplifying down to what is important is a source of clarity and meaning.

Governing a large country is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

—Tao te Ching

That said, there’s something unsettling about our current obsession with simplicity and plainness—whether in the blank skyscrapers in modern cities or the flat blandness of fashionable websites—it is as though we have run out of ideas for what to put in spaces.

Take an alien or someone from the distant past: show them the Empire State Building, then the Freedom Tower. Seeing the latter, even with it’s 100%-American 1776-foot stature, what would they think happened to the civilization? Or what if you showed them an engraved, floral book from the 19th century, then a flat, corporate website, either without ornament or whose only ornamentation is polygonal and little more.

When and why did we stop adorning things we build with complex, symmetric geometries, living pictures from nature, and in their place put flat space, gradients and platonic shapes?

To say that the Freedom Tower, for all its guts, is more than the Empire State Building in that it is less adorned is just plain wrong. Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which goes so fast, so far, with uncountable notes, ideas and phrases ought, in its complexity, to be practically nothing, if less is more.

But then Louis Armstrong, with his one-note trumpet solo in “West End Blues,” really does seem to embody what the phrase is supposed to mean. So what’s the difference?

Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction is useful here.

Things can often be compared and ranked according to their beauty, and there is also a minimal beauty—beauty in the lowest degree, which might be a long way from the ‘sacred’ beauties of art and nature which are discussed by the philosophers. There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems at first sight quite remote from the aesthetic heroism exemplified by Bernini’s St Teresa in Ecstasy or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You don’t wrestle over these things as Beethoven wrestled over the late quartets, nor do you expect them to be recorded for all time among the triumphs of artistic achievement. Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

This platitude is of great importance in understanding architecture. Venice would be less beautiful without the great buildings that grace the waterfronts—Longhena’s church of Sta Maria della Salute, the Ca’ d’Oro, the Ducal Palace. But these buildings are set among modest neighbours, which neither compete with nor spoil them—neighbours whose principal virtue resides precisely in their neighbourliness, their refusal to draw attention to themselves or to claim the exalted status of high art.

Ravishing beauties are less important in the aesthetics of architecture than things that fit appropriately together, creating a soothing and harmonious context, a continuous narrative as in a street or a square, where nothing stands out in particular, and good manners prevail.

Scruton puts it rather perfectly: all things can’t all be supremely or even equally beautiful. But at the same time, most things can have some small beauty in them, and we have the opportunity to give them this beauty, ourselves.

Take my desk, for example:

This desk was destined for our New York apartment, but got stranded in my wife’s business office in Pennsylvania, where I am squatting. Of all the functional objects in this photograph, three are finely decorated: the desk, paper organizer and lamp. The paper organizer (a gift from my wife) is particularly lovely, with a non-repeating floral engraving.

Two objects are almost unadorned: the Tibetan singing bowl and the portfolio (another kind gift), but take a good deal of character from their materials—leather and tarnished bronze. None of the above objects is particularly expensive or ornate, but they all do their best given limited means.

The only plain object is the most expensive: my beloved ThinkPad, in flat, black plastic and carbon fibre. And I don’t mean to insult the designer: I really do love this computer, and it types better than my Mac. My Mac, too, is both expensive and plain.

What gives?

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