Last January, shortly before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Sotheby’s in New York put together what was supposed to be a modest auction of a dead interior decorator’s things. Mario Buatta rose up in the 1980s as “the Prince of Chintz,” having decked out the homes of some of America’s wealthiest families (Doubledays, New-houses, but also celebrities like Mariah Carey) in the manically floral, overstuffed country-house style of the early nineteenth-century English Regency. If the Regency had steroids and disco, it might have looked more like Buatta’s version of it. At any rate, when he died, in 2018, he left no will, only five storage units and two homes stacked to the ceilings with the types of finds one might imagine belonged to a man who slept on a Chinese four-poster bed crowned by an Ottoman-style dome near columns carved to look like windswept palm trees.
The auction was expected to attract a small crowd of insiders: establishment interior designers, ancient gentry with subscriptions to Town & Country—essentially, the sorts of people who might remember Buatta’s era of more-is-more excess first-hand. Instead, the auction turned into a two-day international selling frenzy. There were feverish bidding wars for just about every item: a dolphin-shaped Venetian grotto stand, a painted tole shell-form purdonium on wheels. An imperfect porcelain tureen shaped like a bunch of asparagus, estimated at between $2,000 and $3,000, went for $25,000 (all figures US).
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“So much for minimalism,” said attendee Blaine Trump, Donald Trump’s ex-sister-in-law, to the New York Times. But the thing about the Buatta stampede was that nobody really knew where all these mystery bidders were coming from. Some were minor style bloggers. Many were, surprisingly, under fifty. Still, everyone at the auction seemed to feel the same thing: like a lid had been lifted, revealing years of pent-up desire for the full, the festive, the flagrantly jouissant. “Clearly, there’s a lot of people fed up with monochromatic interiors,” Sotheby’s Dennis Harrington told the Times, “and newly excited by Mario’s maximalist style.”
Style is a pendulum, and it likes drama in its swing. This minimal-to-maximal shift is happening not just in New York but everywhere and at every price point. If, over the pandemic, you did any houseware shopping—be it at Walmart or a more high-end retailer—you may have noticed that the items you purchased had a bit more colour, a bit more pattern, a bit more eccentricity than the ones they were replacing. And you may have also noticed that this pop of energy pleased you.
The internet doesn’t take a shift like this lying down. Over the past year, a new home-related polarization has also erupted online, with several publications pitting the decor styles against each other: “Minimalism Is Dead. Meet Maximalism,” crowed one Vox headline while Harper’s Bazaar asked, “Minimalism vs Maximalism: Which Is More Stylish?” Of course, no real war is raging between gaily tufted slipper chairs and sober Danish coffee tables. No Pythonesque general is demanding we choose between plain and patterned plates. But it does feel like the finger-wagging minimalism that informed the housewares and home design market for over a decade—lining everywhere from Ikea to Ethan Allen with sober greige pottery and righteously untreated wood—is losing relevance while its opposite is gaining currency. For a few years now, the rooms featured on popular decor sites and the homes of style influencers like Aurora James or Cara Delevingne have been wilfully diverse, drunk on self-expression, and packed with stuff—places where messy bedrooms are displayed as a sign of life rather than a problem to be fixed.
The pandemic has had a deeply transformative effect on our relationships to our homes, wreaking as much havoc on our houses as on our hearts and health. We’ve been grateful for the sanctuary of our spaces and hateful for being cooped up; lulled into simplicity and family time by lockdown but also roused into states of suffering and discord. Our homes, like never before, have become the vessels in which we experience life’s weather. So it’s no surprise that minimalism, with its concentration on order and blank-slate perfection, has not endured COVID-19 in the best condition.
In a consumer culture, minimalism was always a somewhat fancyland ruse. It was domestic anorexia sold as health; materialism repackaged as its opposite; perfectionism hawked as peace. It was the perversion of labelling a home curated down to zero the ultimate luxury or, worse, virtue. Some of these old ideas are trotted out in a new book by Montreal minimalists Laurie Barrette and Stéphanie Mandréa, Minimal: For Simple and Sustainable Living. Chapters feel distinctly prepandemic in their directives, littered with tips on how to make your own lip exfoliant, tie-dye old sheets with hibiscus water, or maintain open kitchen shelves with breakfast cereal decanted into glass jars. But, these days, there is nothing that feels “simple” about any of these propositions, if ever there was. The first thing I thought when I read the quote introducing the Family section—“Children don’t need more things. The best toy a child can have is a parent who gets down on the floor and plays with them”—was Not now, ladies!
Not now—the world is too real. If you can get full lotus on the sisal matting and be your kids’ only plaything, wonderful. But I am a forty-eight-year-old working mom, divorced, and at home with two little girls and deadlines. It’s not really possible to neutralize a chaotic life with homemade granola and a collection of jute shopping bags hung from beechwood pegs. And, increasingly, it feels dishonest to pretend otherwise.
This kind of aspirational simplicity was already attracting backlash prepandemic. Marie Kondo, the decluttering phenom who encouraged millions to “spark joy” by throwing out heaps of perfectly good things, was met with substantial ridicule when she began selling “essentials” like silicone head massagers and $61 paperweights on her website. Then there was Kanye and Kim Kardashian West’s “minimal monastery.” The almost hilariously unlivable monochromatic renovation of their suburban California McMansion was completed last year and covered everywhere from Entertainment Tonight to Architectural Digest. Inside the reverse-bling all-white abyss, the TV was hidden in the floor, the sinks looked like marble mortuary slabs, and the furniture was spaced so far apart it assured that nobody could ever have a conversation. Now divorced from Kanye, Kim, who kept the property, is said to be “redecorating” the home, using its extra space as a “warehouse” for all her stuff.
Maximalism—a moreish style where overlap, accident, and letting your personality hang out are encouraged—comes as a relief if only because it is forgiving. Its current revival includes anything you can throw in: old, new, ugly, beautiful, useful, totally useless. This time around, in contrast to Mario Buatta’s extravagant era, it feels less about decadence, showiness, and richesse and more about diversity, acceptance, and fun. There’s been interest in the 1980s Pee-wee’s Playhouse look of designers like Ettore Sottsass, in quirky flea-market finds, in DIY hacks, and for the first time in ages, in antique furniture, which had become so unloved during minimalism’s clean sweep that New York’s annual Winter Antiques Show was rebranded The Winter Show.
Unsurprisingly, the clutter-loving British—designers like Rita Konig, Martin Brudnizki, and Ben Pentreath—are leading the new maximalist charge. In her debut book, Every Room Should Sing, up-and-coming Swedish-born, London-based interior designer Beata Heuman writes, “I am endlessly putting paw feet on armchairs and embroidering eye-lashes onto sofas. I suppose I am trying to get people to connect with seemingly inanimate objects, and see what I see when I look at furniture. The armchair may not be alive, but it is certainly not dead.”
During peak COVID-19, I did lots of room travel in my own home. Like many of you, I was left with an increasing detachment from the grand before—the memory of what was once normal was dimming. My recent divorce didn’t help, but my furniture did. Because, while my hallway looked like a cinematic cliché of marital dissolution—lined with empty picture hooks—most of my rooms were layered with things that had once belonged to people I love: my parents, my step-parents, my grandparents. In my loneliness, my furniture felt like a reminder that life is an ongoing story. I have a set of modernist Breuer cane chairs, given to me by childhood friends from their parents’ home. And, every time I use them, I remember their old house, where I spent many latchkey afternoons, hammocked by a family that kept a kind eye on me when my own newly divorced parents could not.
This biographizing of decoration has a natural landing place online, with a new kind of hard-blogging, instagramming, brand-collaborating guru weaving their own identities, families, and homes into everything they showcase. Notable among this cadre is Jungalow’s Justina Blakeney, who pins her Black and Jewish heritage at the centre of her California maximalism. Blakeney’s look is boho and multicultural, filled with tropical plants and globally sourced textiles. In her latest book, Jungalow: Decorate Wild, Blakeney’s oft-stated dedication to diversity and self-actualization translates into “magic in the mix” styles to which she gives (somewhat clunky) names like “Maroc-Cali,” “Turk-Xican,” or “New Mexi-Copenhagen.”
The overarching idea seems to be an expressive, connective humanity—an intentional hot mess.
Within this frame, we see the therapeutic and virtuous qualities long held in the court of minimalism getting lobbed over into maximalism. In both Heuman’s and Blakeney’s books, the language of wellness is used freely, as if it’s a fait accompli that, for decor to be meaningful today, it must also be curative.
Interiors are, after all, our insides. But they are also places, like anything else subject to fashion, where our desires are worn on the outside. For several seasons now, runways have been veering toward the overstated. Gucci shows have been devoid of tasteful black and beige, which have been replaced by Cavalier King Charles Spaniel varsity jackets, bananas Elton John sunglasses, and cherry-red Mary Janes. Not long ago, I tried giving a teenager a pair of skinny jeans and she pointed to the lilac wide-legged raver pants she was wearing and said she’d basically rather die. In trendy cuisine, we’re seeing plates that look lusciously heaped and haphazard instead of tiny meandering dribbles beside single microgreens. In perfumery, clean florals are fading while cutting-edge perfumers like Byredo and Arquiste are presenting heady musks, patchouli, and what could easily be called BO notes. The overarching idea seems to be an expressive, connective humanity—an intentional hot mess.
If minimalism was about controlling the static and crashing of a world spinning too fast, maximalism may be more about filling in a void of loneliness and isolation. The number of people living alone in Canada has more than doubled over the last thirty-five years. In both Canada and the US, young people are having less sex than ever. Most millennials and Gen Zers do their dating through the internet and a good part of their socializing through their phones—and all this before COVID-19 made everyone’s lives even less tactile.
We all know that feeling after two hours of online shopping, scrolling social media, or streaming a work webinar—human experiences shorn of humans. It’s something like a cold empty bowl in your gut where the generative stuff would normally take seed. So perhaps it’s no surprise that, if one feels like a sexless husk living a disconnected, digitized life, getting a pink velvet settee can be just what the decor doctor ordered.
And if, in this extravaganza of muchness, you bash your shin on a slipper chair or a shell-form purdonium on wheels? At least you will feel something. And if, in a few years, the wallpaper and throw cushions become suffocating? Rest assured that your interiors will change again—because your insides have.