Part of The Home Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
There is an ugly, mismatched, and rapidly growing art collection on my living room wall. Since March, I have added several works to it, including a stained print of the three little bears from Goodnight Moon that I found on the sidewalk, a cat painting I bought on Etsy for only $20 because the artist admitted he wasn’t very good, and a massive and tacky reproduction of a vintage French wine advertisement, the kind sold on the pigeon-infested tourist promenades outside the Louvre. It was leaning on a pile of black trash bags on the curb, covered in mysterious gray filth. I had to have it.
My wall of terrible art is, to me, part anxious quarantine hobby and part aesthetic journey toward maximalism, where rooms can be filled with color and kookiness and objects that don’t match, and that’s the point. Because lately, it seems, all everyone seems to want is more — and weirder — stuff.
“Girls only want one thing and it’s a living room with hardwood floors a green velvet sofa and a colorful rug,” reads a viral tweet from August. Instagram accounts full of maximalist interiors by designers like Dabito, Justina Blakeney of the Jungalow, and Kelly Mindell of Studio DIY have hundreds of thousands of followers, while popular home publications like Apartment Therapy and Domino regularly spotlight busy, visually textured spaces. “Goblincore” and “grandmillennial” design, aesthetics devoted to the collection and display of eclectic or handmade heirlooms, are going viral on Tumblr and Pinterest.
To look at a maximalist home is to get a sense of what the inside of a person’s brain might look like — the places they’ve visited, their heritage, the random objects they’ve amassed over a lifetime. And living in an apartment crammed full of potted dirt and leaves is now, for whatever reason, a status symbol.
The trend of surrounding ourselves with more things didn’t come out of nowhere; “vintage maximalism,” along with “Kindercore,” “texture galore,” and “statement doorknobs,” was among Architectural Digest’s design predictions for 2020. It is also not a coincidence that it is occurring at the tail end of a decade defined by minimalism, a way of explicitly rejecting the spare white walls and perfectly placed wooden salad bowls of professional taste-havers on Instagram. For years after the recession, this was the dominant means of performing refinement: hanging Edison bulbs, plain camel-colored sweaters, a cappuccino resting stoically on a reclaimed-wood table.
It’s easy to wonder why we actually desire any of this stuff, as if a stiff gray shirtdress and a rock-hard midcentury modernist couch were all that interesting or comfortable. But to do so means to forget why minimalism was cool in the first place — it was a backlash to its opposite.
If you have ever watched The Real Housewives of New Jersey, a specific episode from 2009 may exist somewhere lodged in your memory. In it, the loud-mouthed, table-flipping, undisputed star of the show, Teresa Giudice, enters a warehouse filled with the gaudiest, goldest, most extravagantly tacky furniture imaginable and spends $120,000 in cash. Looking back, perhaps it was a warning sign of what was to come (she and her husband would later be charged with bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy and jailed), but it is also an archetype of mid-aughts new-money taste: Gold was good, skin was in, brand logos were big, and McMansions — often designed to mimic European royal homes or Antebellum estates — were bigger.
Then, beginning in late 2007, millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, or all three. The aesthetics that emerged from the period reflected the recession; suddenly, it became less cool to look rich. Corporations that had peddled the “more is more” attitude felt untrustworthy to the average consumer, and so, as Eliza Brooke noted for Vox in 2018, the venture-backed startup brands that would define millennial-targeted minimalism were characterized by a look that was “stripped-down but warm, with lots of sans serif letters and white space.”
Interior design was simplified, too: “White walls and innocuous fixtures became popular among home decorators in part because of the Recession — the housing bubble being the very root of the financial crisis — and the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk (est. 2011) elevated that look to aspirational levels with its pictures of clean, muted spaces,” Brooke wrote.
Kyle Chayka, who authored The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism (and who also has written the definitive Kinfolk profile), coined a term for this in 2016: Airspace. By mid-decade, it seemed that no matter where you went — the office, the neighborhood cafe, the midtown salad chain, the vacation rental — everything looked the same or at least aspired to, from Los Angeles to Berlin to Seoul: There were raw wooden tables (likely alluding to some sort of sustainability initiative), exposed brick, and midcentury modernist sofas. Most importantly, nothing was in excess; every object felt hand-selected and properly placed, creating both a friendly familiarity to new spaces and an uncanny flattening of all context.
A more stuff-free approach to home design appears, on its face, like a turn toward accessibility, opposed to the hierarchical gaudiness of the mid-aughts. But as soon as the Marie Kondo approach — to rid oneself of all possessions that fail to “spark joy” and live a cleaner-looking life — spread around the world, a backlash followed. There was the fact that once Kondo’s success became such that she had her own Netflix show, some people resented the idea that she began selling things to replace the things her clients had thrown away (though others pointed out that this does not, in fact, negate the idea that more of our stuff should make us happy).
By then, minimalism had “become an increasingly aspirational and deluxe way of life,” as Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker. In other words, a mostly empty room is only interesting if it is particularly beautiful and spotlessly clean.
Minimalism is also impossible to divorce from its political implications around what, and whom, it excludes. Midcentury architects like Adolf Loos have defined modernist design as in direct opposition to what he deemed uncivilized cultures, reducing objects to their least decorative. “The kind of modernism that Loos advocated was spare and austere, highlighting the function of each object or structure rather than concealing it behind layers of frippery,” Chayka explained in the New Yorker. “He talked about ornament as a kind of savagery ... referring to tribe members’ facial tattoos, and posing the reductive modernism of white Europeans as the ultimate answer to all aesthetic problems.”
Minimalism’s popularity sends a clear and implicitly racist message about what kind of ideas are valuable to a society. Of course, the average person who likes Scandinavian furniture and orderly cream-colored kitchens on Instagram likely does not subscribe to such a bleak vision. But once you see them, minimalism’s exclusionary roots are difficult to overlook.
Yet more obviously, the aesthetic meant to be a populist rejection of garish wealth was starting to become out of reach for average people. Minimalism “is hard to live with,” explains Diana Budds, senior story producer at Curbed and the author of a definitive piece on maximalist interior design. “These homes are impossible, they have no signs of life. There is something psychologically soothing about looking at these photos, there’s a lot of order and calming colors. I just don’t think that most people can live like that.”
Those who can? The ultra-wealthy, like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who spent extravagant sums on transforming their suburban California McMansion into a “futuristic Belgian monastery,” as Kanye himself described it. Among the eerily stoic photographs that Architectural Digest released earlier this year, one stands out: an almost entirely empty kitchen, devoid of cabinets or appliances aside from tiny stacks of ceramic dishes and vases in a gloomy rainbow of beige and gray. “Everything in the outside world is so chaotic. I like to come into a place and immediately feel the calmness,” Kardashian told the magazine.
This seemed to be the intent of many of the trendy cafes and public spaces that were sprouting up in places like Portland, Oregon, in the 2010s. Suddenly surrounded by it, though, art director and designer Annika Hansteen-Izora recalls how the aesthetic failed to resonate with her as a queer Black person. “Being Black in Portland, you’re very cognizant of how people are uncomfortable with the amount of space that you take up, from how loud my laugh is, the way that I dress, my hair,” she says of the city, which is more than 70 percent white. “I’m a very loud and a very vibrant person, and I didn’t see myself in minimalism. Minimalism is this idea that you’re reducing something to its necessary elements, and I wanted to ask the question, well, who is deciding what is necessary? Who’s deciding what is too much?”
So for one year, in 2019, Annika devoted herself to living a more maximalist life, giving herself permission to be louder and more passionate, to take up more space. “It really looked like centering vibrance and lushness and pleasure in my everyday life,” she explains. “My grandmother is one of the OG maximalists: Her home is completely full of plants, colors, artwork, and these things overlapping on top of one another. That’s what makes it beautiful to me — how much life there is.”
That’s also the philosophy of some Black contemporary artists — presidential portraitist Kehinde Wiley, multimedia artist Mickalene Thomas — who eschew minimalism. Nicole Crowder, who handmakes custom upholstery in colorful and heavily patterned fabrics, prefers her work to be both bold and whimsical, with inspiration from 1980s postmodernism. “I like my furniture to feel like it’s dressed, like it’s going to present itself to the world,” she says. Though some of her clients, based mostly in Washington, DC, tend to play it safe with home design, her mission is to encourage them to think bigger, to be more daring and more expressive of their individuality. “If the past six months have shown us anything it’s like, do the thing you know that you want. Why wait to do it?” she says with a laugh.
Vintage maximalism, millennial maximalism, or whatever you want to call it, is as much a reaction to minimalism as it is to the easy availability of hypertrendy, mass-produced goods. Now that you can buy a knockoff Eames chair on Amazon or Wayfair for less than a tenth of the price of an original, having an Instagram-ready Eames chair only makes your space look just like every other neutral-palette, midcentury modern room. Instead, trends like “grandmillennial” style and cottagecore prioritize handmade ornamental objects like needlepoint pillows, lace doilies, and chintz curtains that suggest some kind of personal history.
If you’ve ever ventured to the interiors section of a major history museum, you might immediately identify those stylistic inclinations as Victorian. “The Victorians are so known in the popular imagination for overstuffed spaces, heavy furniture, lots of figurines and paintings on the wall,” explains Jennifer Howard, the author of Clutter: An Untidy History.
Over the course of the 19th century, as industrialization transformed urban spaces and mass production spread more goods to more people, society encouraged the accumulation of (often mostly functionless) objects in the home as a mode of conspicuous consumption. It was the era where the idea of the souvenir was new, and so a home overflowing with memorabilia and ornament was a signifier of a leisurely life. (Houseplants, naturally, were also extremely popular during this time.)
And having few possessions, no matter how orderly you kept them, was a sign of working-class identity — people who had neither the time nor money to travel to new places and bring home objects to remember them by.
The idea that it was a moral good to buy largely disposable objects continued in the American imagination during the dawn of mail-order catalogs in the late 19th century, the rise of big-box stores in the 1960s, and the doubling in size of the American home from the 1970s to the 2010s, Howard explains in her book. It’s no wonder, then, why minimalism felt like a welcome backlash when it proliferated on social media with its promises of orderly spaces and freedom from excess. Television shows like Hoarders, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, and now The Home Edit, in which a team of organization experts traipse through the pantries of celebrities and explain the importance of color-coding one’s nut butters, have captivated millions.
And yet, “it has this sort of ‘I am declaring victory over my possessions’ [tone],” Howard says. “But what an exhausting way to feel about your stuff.” Millennial maximalism offers a different way of looking at things, one that recalls an approach more like Annika’s grandmother’s: that they can be a collection of joyful, personal, and perhaps complicated things that tell the story of one’s life.
Rather than viewing maximalism as an aesthetic that fetishizes objects, Diana Budds of Curbed suggests that there’s a sustainability element to it, too. “The greenest thing you can have is something that you can use for a long time. That’s what I would say the anti-consumerist element of maximalism is: You can have all of these things and figure out a way to make it work for you instead of trying to copy this impossibly austere image.”
Hugh Long, an interior designer based in New York who moonlights as a wildly entertaining celebrity home reviewer on TikTok, is an outspoken critic of the simple “California modern look” that famous people still can’t seem to get enough of. (“I am so bored of it, it’s absurd,” he says.) “The idea of maximalism now also is kind of more of a personal approach, like you can take pieces that your client has had for years and work them into a scheme with the things that they have,” he says. “When you look at the minimalist Marie Kondo approach to things, it’s more about getting rid of everything that your client has and stripping it all back.”
Instagram and Pinterest have been particularly fruitful grounds for lively maximalist interiors, which is no surprise given that colorful, curated chaos tends to fare well on visual-first platforms — and the fact that quarantine has given people far fewer opportunities to look at new, interesting things in the real world.
It’s likely that as maximalism becomes a conscious choice among average consumers, it, too, will be swept up in unrealistic and unattainable hierarchies, in which there will be a solidified “right” way and a “wrong” way to achieve the look. But as so many people are enamored of the idea of overhauling their possessions, perhaps there’s some freedom in knowing that what you have might actually be really cool to keep around.
That’s how I see the ever-growing collection of street garbage on my living room wall. As I circle my block on yet another day of quarantine, thousands of New Yorkers are fleeing the city or moving apartments, and every time they do, they leave a little part of their old lives on their stoops. That alone makes whatever framed poster or mass-produced art print I pick up feel special, even if I can never be sure what it meant to its previous owner. We accumulate so much stuff, most of it unsuitable for fitting neatly into perfectly organized containers. But why would we want it to?
Rebecca Jennings covers internet culture at The Goods by Vox. She last wrote for The Highlight about how the coronavirus has made every social interaction awkward.