What does minimalism mean to you? Does it evoke a starkly modernist room with no decorations? Or are you seeing a home that’s been magically tidied up, with closets that Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw would envy?
There are definite wellness benefits to living in a clutter-free environment, but minimalism’s advantages go beyond dumping decades-old cast offs. Design pros and health specialists alike point to wellness benefits offered by taking a minimalistic approach to your home’s design.
Defining minimalist design
First, let’s look at what design minimalism is – and isn’t. It’s not a bare room devoid of decorative detail. “Living in a home with moderate visual complexity is optimal and keeps stress levels in check; living in a place with high or low visual complexity is stressful,” advises Sally Augustin, PhD, a practicing design psychologist, American Psychological Association Fellow and principal at Chicago area Design With Science.
She cites the home interiors designed by noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright as characteristic of moderate visual complexity spaces. These tend toward uncluttered designs, but with eye-catching details like stained glass windows and rich wooden wainscoting built into their architecture. “Visual complexity is determined by the number of colors, shapes, etc., present in the environment and how they are arranged, (for example, is the environment symmetrical),” Augustin observes. Your comfort level is going to differ from someone else’s, so finding the right fit for you and your home are ideal.
Trending global design styles like Denmark’s hygge and Sweden’s lagom epitomize today’s relaxed and comfortable minimalism. Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström, author of LAGOM: Swedish Secret of Living Well, shares that this Swedish mindset is a precursor to minimalism. “The virtue of minimalism is that it psychologically frees us from unnecessary tasks and responsibilities that weigh us down.” She points out that lagom means reducing the number of furnishings you need to maintain: “If an item isn’t functional or doesn’t have any emotional value, then it’s a candidate for removal.” Minimalism lets people enjoy their own tastes against a clutter-free backdrop, she adds. “When our natural inclinations and tastes are exposed, we begin to build our own spaces of recognition, security and harmony.”
Wellness benefits for seniors and mobility-challenged individuals
Spaces offering recognition, security and harmony are especially helpful for seniors downsizing to assisted living settings. “Transition is difficult no matter what your age, especially if it involves leaving a well-loved home,” observes M. Victoria M. Kopke, MD, director of education for Mt. Sinai Visiting Doctor’s Program. “Having a few transitional objects can make a world of difference – a favorite bedcover, a comfortable piece of furniture, a musical instrument, such as a guitar, framed pictures and photo books help someone keep memories and personalize a new space. It doesn’t take much; less is more,” she suggests.
That less is more approach applies toward keeping an older person’s space more minimalist. “Falls are our biggest concern in cluttered homes – people tripping due to rugs that are not taped down, falling because they can’t properly use their cane or walker when trying to squeeze through tight spaces, objects on the floor covering up problems such as uneven floors or missing tiles,” Kopke adds.
These are issues not just for seniors, but for caregivers and first responders helping them and other patients with mobility challenges. Getting into or out of a space with too much furniture, trip hazards and overly narrow pathways is difficult for anyone in a supporting role. “Caring for someone in a cluttered apartment increases people’s stress levels,” the doctor says.
Wellness benefits for those with dementia and autism spectrum conditions
Professor Jon Pynoos, director of the Fall Prevention Center at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, points out an additional benefit of minimalism, “Research has shown that removing clutter can reduce confusion and disorientation among older adults with dementia.”
This can also help those on the spectrum. “Some people with autism may be triggered by certain sensory sensations, making a minimalistic environment beneficial,” observes Kerry Magro, author and National Autism Association board member. “As someone who has autism, I believe this would have helped me for the first years of my life when I faced severe sensory integration challenges,” he adds. “At the end of the day, what may work for one person may not work as well for the next,” Magro concludes. Bringing in an occupational therapist who specializes in helping autistic or Alzheimer’s patients redesign their individual home spaces can be beneficial.
Wellness benefits for children
“Having a minimalist bedroom with cool quiet tones may be calming and help induce sleep,” suggests assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, author and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jen Trachtenberg, MD. “Built-in furniture can help store children’s toys and clothing out of sight, as well,” she advises. “Too much clutter can be overstimulating to children,” the board certified pediatrician notes. It can be a safety issue too. “Cluttered home environments often have increased opportunity for accidents, particularly choking hazards for kids.” If a decorative item or collectible on display is reachable and can fit through a toilet paper roll, it can also get caught in your child’s throat, she cautions. Other hazards for children include non-secured throw rugs that can result in falls and large non-secured pieces of furniture and electronics that they can tip over onto themselves.
Wellness benefits for those with asthma and allergy issues
Your child or someone else in your household – perhaps you – might suffer from asthma or allergy issues, and a more minimalist approach to design can help with these issues, too, observes Noah Friedman, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. “The main indoor allergies that concern us are indoor pets, dust mites (small microscopic insects that live in our beds, carpet and furniture) and indoor mold,” he says. “If one has an allergy to dust mites or animals, it is best to not have carpet in the home, particularly in the bedroom.”
Looking at other living spaces, Friedman prefers leather to cloth upholstery and simple, easy to clean window coverings rather than heavy drapes. Those elegant velvet panels and couch or bed full of throw pillows might be pleasing to your eyes in one way, but a major irritant in another. Less can definitely be more.