Mini and Minimalist

By Catheryne Kelly

You may now simply regard the likes of Gulliver’s Travels and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as nostalgic hangovers from childhood, yet these giants of literature meditate on something that is so innately human; a fascination with life on a miniature scale. In Mini and Minimalist, let us explore our fascination with the small by way of innovation in design.  


No trip to any great city is complete without viewing it from a height. If you’ve ever braved the ascent to the top of the Eiffel Tower, The Shard or the Empire State Building you’ll have experienced that feeling of awe upon first sight of the world, presented anew below you.


As if by magic, the intensity of any metropolis dissipates. The heat of the city is replaced by a fresh breeze, neck-breaking skyscrapers shrink in splendour, cars and pedestrians are but toys on the distant ground. Life is downsized.

Life seen from a height can be humbling, empowering, inspiring. In taking a God’s-eye-view over an expanse of civilisation, we’re encouraged to reevaluate the tiny role we play within it.


Small is indeed beautiful, but where does our obsession with it come in the world of design?


Today, the shrinkage of everyday objects is no novelty. Computers that once inhabited the space of an entire room have evolved into ones that sit comfortably in our laps and are yet infinitely more powerful. As cities continue to sprawl, our homes are getting ever more compact. This miniaturisation has happened in all areas of design; take the evolution of Nokia to iPhone, holdall to minibag, records to CDs. In questioning why this phenomenon has taken place, the response always champions efficiency, functionality and consumer comfort.


But where did it start and why?


As a nation, the British have had an obsession with ‘trinkets’ throughout their history. While international trade flourished and consumerist attitudes began to develop from the 16th century onwards, those of the highest echelons pined for beautifully crafted collectibles, all in miniature. This ranged from snuff boxes to tiny pairs of scissors to combs.


Why? Simply because they could! These miniatures were symbols of wealth. The less functional the trinket, the better. They were proof that their owner had money to burn.


Possibly the most famous example of our obsession with the small is the miniature portrait. Possessed by Britain’s elite from the Elizabethan era onwards, these tiny portraits featured family members, lovers and court favourites alike. They were painted with the most minute detail and abundant skill. See them in their multitudes in the permanent collection at the V&A.

Collier, Edwaert; Trompe l’oeil, Letter Rack. Photo credit: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

In the modern age, Japan is renowned as the world leader of small-scale design. This arose when the cost of housing in cities heightened and homes became smaller. Making the most of the little space you have is essential to Japanese product designers who shrink their designs making them more usable inside tiny houses. Owing to both the functionality and elegance of Japanese design, the rest of the world followed suit. Many aspire to recreate the compromise between convenience and style central to Japanese design.


The Art of Bonsai has long been aligned with Japan and its aesthetic culture. Dating back to 600 AD, it is a specialised craft of cultivating trees to diminish their size. Mimicking the shape and scale of full-size trees pioneered by Buddhist monks who wished to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.


Even today, the craft itself has a cult-like following, with examples of bonsai art vastly ranging in styles and traditions. However, this process is not only aesthetic but innately symbolic; the meditative process of manipulating the tree’s shape is seen as a harmonious way to connect with nature in Zen Buddhist culture. Watching the tree’s plight to grow naturally against external constrictions is seen as a reflective exercise. What seems impossible is realised organically.

Bonsai tree, grown in the ‘forest style’ technique.

Apple’s Steve Jobs travelled to Japan for the first time in the early eighties; just before his designs took flight. While there, he was inspired by Aiko Morita, the founder of Sony, who introduced him to one of the first prototypes of the Walkman, which fascinated him.


Another inspirational figure for Jobs was the legendary Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. Jobs became his close friend, and was influenced by his pursuit of elegance through simplicity in his designs. Jobs’ trademark turtleneck, worn almost daily during the later years of his life, was designed by Miyake.


It was not only the people of Japan who influenced Jobs; Zen was a prime source of inspiration for the entire range of his Apple products. He eliminated any parts of his designs that were unnecessary, and always strived for simplicity in his aesthetic.


Even from the age of nineteen, Jobs followed Zen Buddhism in order for him to practice mindfulness and inner clarity. Jobs felt such resonance with Zen that he even considered moving to Japan in order to deepen his practice. Evidently, this did not take place but Jobs returned to Japan many times during his life.


The influence of Zen and broader Japanese design culture is clear in many of Jobs’ own designs.

The evolution of the Apple mouse.

Take the Apple mouse for example; it is said to be “the industrial design equivalent” of the enso, or the hand-drawn circle, which is the most fundamental form of Zen visual art.

An example of an enso in traditional Zen art.

Another nod to Japanese minimalism is the evolution of the Apple Mac. The original Macintosh was the first successful mass-market personal computer to have featured a graphical user interface, built-in screen and mouse. Since 1984, Apple has remained at the forefront of their industry for perfecting the balance between beauty and efficiency in their products.


Apple’s great breakthrough came at the dawn of the iMac G3 in 1998. The modernistic reinvention of the Macintosh produced a compact, curvaceous and brightly-coloured translucent computer that blew all of its competition out of the park. It became a cultural phenomenon of its age and is the true decent of all modern Macs. Since its release, Apple has continually committed to the pursuit of sleek, slim, and minimalist tech, with each new model proving as iconic as the next.

The evolution of the iMac, from the iMac G3 model onwards.

Perhaps the most elegant amplifier ever produced is the vacuum tube amplifier. It was designed by Japanese-born Koichi Futatsumata in 2010. Inspired against the overly complex design of traditional valve amplifiers, Futatsumata produced a streamlined speaker that would be sold ready-assembled appealing to the younger generation. It is a masterclass in minimalism, with all controls being integrated into two front-mounted aluminium dials. Every component is neatly packaged up in a sleek metal outer shell. Futatsumata’s work was nominated for a D&AD Award in 2011.

The vacuum tube amplifier by Koichi Futatsumata.

For most creatives, working on a small scale requires unimaginable attention to detail, concentration, practice, patience and incredible skill. When the design process is sized down, the strictest attention to detail must be dedicated to every stage of the work’s development. 


Possibly the most spellbinding example of creation in miniature is Queen Mary’s Doll’s House. Dating back to 1921, this 1:12 scale miniature of a royal town-house was a symbolic gift from the nation to Queen Mary. It showcases the best of British workmanship and is the period’s unrivalled pinnacle of arts and crafts.


Created by the celebrated Edwardian architect, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the house itself is lavishly furnished to royal standard. It is fully functional; powered by electricity and boasts of running water throughout. The most acclaimed artists, composers and writers of the day were invited to contribute to the house. 588 miniature books are now housed in the library; a minuscule Faberge egg and Cartier clock can also be found inside.

Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, Windsor Castle.

Today, the German Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, uses miniature furniture in a much less frivolous way. The museum makes miniature replicas of famous milestones in furniture design from originals stored in its extensive collection. Each replica is exactly one sixth of the design’s original size, and is painstakingly recreated in its construction, material and colour. 


‘The Miniatures Collection’ is able to encapsulate the entire history of industrial furniture design in one small space. This makes them desired collector’s items and essential illustrative material for universities, design schools and architects. The collection is the perfect learning resource; the harder you have to look at each replica, the more you allow yourself to see.

The Miniatures Collection, Vitra Design Museum.

As for groundbreaking miniaturism in British design, the Mini is an undeniable British icon and is recognised as one of the most influential cars of the 20th century. With 5.4 million of them built between 1950 and 2000, the Mini is a symbol of Britain’s return to prosperity in the aftermath of World War II.


Its design came about as a result of the Suez crisis in 1956, which caused petrol to be rationed in the UK. While the British car market slumped, small and economic models from German and Italian manufactures flooded the nation’s roads. Leonard Lord, chair of BMC at the time, detested the likes of the Fiat 500 and the ‘bubble car’ so much that he commissioned Alec Issigonis to create a ‘proper miniature car’. And with that, the Mini was born!


It’s fuel economy was second-to-none and 80% of the space available inside was reserved for passengers. This feat of design bridged the seemingly irreconcilable gap between the compact and the comfortable.


In August 1959, you could purchase a Mark I Morris Mini-Minor for £537. After a reasonably slow start, the popularity of Minis flourished; their affordability and modern design appealed to the masses. Before long, they became an icon of the ‘swinging sixties.’ In Mary Quant’s own words; “It did everything one wanted, it looked great, it was optimistic, exuberant, young, flirty, it was exactly right.” An icon of the era herself, the fashion designer is famed for cultivating 60’s fashion. In fact, she named her ‘Mini skirt’ after the car; a testament to its influence on British culture and creativity.

Alec Issigonis at Longbridge, pictured alongside some of the earliest Mini models.

The African-American designer Nathanial Alexander is another example of a pioneer influenced by the economy of space. He created his own concept of the collapsable chair in 1911. Despite his achievement being poorly-documented, his design included a book rest that was usable for the person sitting in the seat behind.


While many concepts of fold-up chairs were known before Alexander’s creation, his design stood out above the rest. It could be used to hold books for study, worship, and choir. He designed the chair in the hope that church congregations could be held easily in open-space locations. Multitudes could worship at any time or place.


In 1947, World War 2 veteran, Frederic Arnold streamlined Alexander’s design and developed further by using aluminium to permit mass-scale production of the chair. You could easily find the modern-day design equivalent in IKEA; their models Gunde and Nisse do not stray far from Alexander and Arnold’s concept, and can even be hung on kitchen walls. 


No doubt influenced by earlier versions of the folding chair, was the creation of the folding bicycle. Although you may have only recently noticed the rising popularity of fold-up bikes in cities, the invention has been around for ages. Military interest in bicycles started in 1890. By 1900 the Danish inventor, Mikael Penderson developed a lightweight, foldable bicycle for the British to use in the Second Boer War. It included a rifle rack and would be strapped to soldiers’ backs and carried over terrain too rough to cycle on.


It wasn’t until the ’80’s when popularity for folding bikes really skyrocketed. Models from the likes of Brompton and Dahon set the tone for the bike’s modern design evolution and continue to do so today. They are the perfect addition to urban life; ideal for squeezing tightly onto a rush-hour tube or for sliding into your car for a cycle in the country.

Dahon portable bicycle.

It is interesting to see how our relationship with the mini and minimalist has changed over time. Where miniature once meant frivolous, decorative, useless, it now means efficient, productive, economical. Amongst it’s changing definition there is one timeless tenet that ‘small’ never loses; its beauty. It will forever be a perfectionist medium that stretches our capacity for acute observation and understanding. It provides us with a feeling of control in a chaotic world.

If you enjoyed Mini and Miniature, why not read Slightly Built for an insight into architecture’s smallest endeavours.

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