by Theresa Rolen Long
“Is negative space the space you don’t like, or the space that is not there? And if it’s not there, how can you tell?”
—Emma Bull, Finder
School is out! It’s summer! Let’s discuss…nothing. As in, the absence of…something. For the absence of light is darkness. The absence of sound is silence. And the absence of furniture is, well, an empty room. For some, an empty room can provoke calm possibility.
How sea meets sky in a horizontal blue blur. Where road traverses desert in a tranquil bifurcation. When prolific cloud formations support an airplane’s wing. The sparseness of composition—whether in scenery, design, music, or art—births impact. It’s through the absence of detail that introspection is nurtured. It’s in the space in between where imaginations are sparked.
So let’s then discuss a little bit of something: minimalism. In design and architecture, it derives its roots from traditional Japanese Zen principles. The spatial concept of Ma, loosely translated to “interval,” focuses on the empty spaces within design. It doesn’t define the way elements are relationally composed to each other. It’s more about how these compositions make one think and feel. Notable French professor Derrick de Kerckhove describes Ma as “the complex network of relationships between people and objects.”
The arguable forefather of the minimalist design movement, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, played with negative space by assigning dual purpose to many elements in the structures he designed, allowing for a pared down, “less is more” aesthetic (combo toilet/fireplace, anyone?) Highly influenced by the de Stijl style, van der Rohe—among others like Luis Barragan, Claudio Silvestrin, and Richard Gluckman—has created beautiful structures, rooms, furnishings, and gardens that adhere to the tricky fundamentals of minimalism.
The key to this success lies in designs that are large in scale and embrace Ma by incorporating clever void spaces, containing thoughtful and noteworthy lighting, and utilizing luxe building materials and finishes.
The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi marries the Ma concept with simplistic, streamlined, high-quality objects. It places emphasis on the integrity of an intimate or austere object, noting its imperfections and impermanence. It is a Japanese ideal of beauty, but widely acknowledged as unable to be defined.
You know that lonely, melancholic feeling you get when you walk into a minimal room, sparsely filled with a beautifully flawed object or two? That’s wabi-sabi.
If the concept of minimalism appeals to you, consider one of the main principles of interior design—contrast. Not only with regard to color or finish, but speaking spatially as well. Within contrast there must exist aesthetic balance—an invisible scale that weighs visual clutter against the cold absence of objects. For sometimes what you leave out of the design is just as important.
When considering what to put into a room, first examine what already exists. Notice how the walls, doors, and windows relate to the room, and observe the negative spaces existing around them. Could the room benefit from a modification of its architecture to better serve its intended purpose? Contemplate the purpose of the room and the type of furnishings that will go in.
And it’s not only about how the furniture will relate to the room, but how the pieces will work together. If there are many angles in a room, a curved table or upholstered piece will soften the edges. If you have a room full of angled furnishings, transforming a doorway with an arch will assist the architecture in complimenting the design.
Being parsimonious in your initial layout will allow a chance for everything in the room to achieve purpose and become anchored. You may find beauty in a wall with no artwork. Perhaps the absence allows the eye to focus on an interesting cabinet instead. When objects in a room fight for your attention, it unwittingly exhausts the eyes.
Consider taking that blank wall and making it more interesting by painting it a contrasting color or cladding it with wallpaper or wood. Allow the actual structure, not the surrounding decoration, to make the impact.
Taking a less-is-more approach to knickknacks heightens the inherent value of what you display. Grouping items in threes creates an eye-pleasing, negative triangular space. Resist the temptation to accessorize every surface. An empty tabletop may trigger your imagination and provide unexpected serenity.
Create Zen scenes in your home where your mind will experience negative space. Pay a polite nod to empty corners and blank walls. Embrace a little sparseness. Allow your slightly imperfect accessories to breathe. And revel in the nothingness of things.