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The History of Minimalism: A Tale of Simplicity in Interior Design

The History of Minimalism: A Tale of Simplicity in Interior Design

For this blog post, we decided to focus on a forerunner of the Scandinavian, Mid-Century Modern, and Modern Farmhouse interior decor styles, that of Minimalism. This design trend extends all the way back to WWI and has held a significant influence over interior design decor, aesthetics, and principles for much of modernity. But Minimalism isn’t all clinical lines, sterile environments, and drab color palettes. 

Whether that’s creating that perfect canvas print for a loved one, educating on how to get the best photograph possible, or giving interior design tips, we want to see our customer bring their dreams to life. Here at CanvasPrints, we specialize in turning your special moments into lifelong memories. We create gifts that turn your house, dorm, or apartment into a welcoming home that can still breathe life and warmth into your minimalist aesthetic.

History & Influences

Minimalism as an artistic movement has a long and storied history. Its principles influence everything from architecture to music, to interior design, art, and beyond. The movement itself was formally codified in America, however, forerunning European artistic movements after the chaos of WW1 laid much of the foundation upon which American minimalism drew upon.

Early Modernist Art Movements

After WW1 occurred, nearly every country across Europe and Asia was deeply affected, and this in turn led to an explosion of new artistic forms, movements, and design philosophies that were both avant-garde yet reactionary to the destruction and reconstruction of many different countries in the aftermath of the war.

Europe had a flourishing of artistic movements across nearly all spectrums of visual media. These early schools, while limited, to Europe and its environs, laid the foundation for America’s experimentation with minimalism after WW2 and its occupation of Japan and embrace of Zen Buddhist-influenced design principles.


A German art school and style that flourished from 1919 to 1933 emphasized simple geometric shapes, an avoidance of ornamentation, and a focus on function and mass replication.

De Stijl

 A Dutch art style that existed between 1917 and 1931. Proponents advocated for pure abstraction, reducing elements to the bare essentials of form and color.


The most famous of this school is Piet Mondrian whose works strip all visual elements to horizontal and vertical lines as well as a highly controlled color palette of red, blue, yellow, black, white, and grey.

Aside from the visual arts, De Stijl has its fair share of architects and interior designers that relied on the sample principles; Jacobus Oud, Robert van’t Hoff, and Gerrit Rietveld.

Russian Constructivism

Founded in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, Constructivism embraced modernity and was an early precursor to both De Stijl and Bauhaus. It was also associated with early Soviet Russia and the broader avant-garde movements in the country at the time. 

It emphasized industrial assemblage and rejected decoration and embellishment. It held a vast influence across Soviet society in the early years after the Russian Revolution before the rise of Stalinism, with many buildings in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, and elsewhere being designed in such a style.

American Minimalism

WW2 and Beyond

American minimalist movement had a delayed rollout when compared to its European strains. Emerging more as a reaction to modernist and abstract expressionism, minimalism emerged as least as visual art in NYC during the late 50s and 60s. From there, its aesthetic principles soon found their footing in design and architectural spaces. 

It’s no surprise that given the cross-disciplinary approach that its European strains developed, America’s take on minimalism was just as inevitable. However, where European minimalist strains were created “in the country”, America’s vision of minimalism reflects its wartime exposure to Japanese culture during WW2. 


Given the Pacific theater and America’s occupation of Japan (and its continuing relationship post ww2), it’s no surprise that this cross-cultural contact influenced the cultures of both. In American minimalism’s aesthetic principle, we can see a clear line between how Zen Buddhism and other Japanese aesthetic concepts influenced how minimalism developed in America.

Zen Buddhism

Generally speaking, Zen Buddhism and its principles of simplicity and how this simplicity can reflect deeper truths about the inner essence of being, spirituality, and living have also influenced minimalism design, primarily American minimalism after WW2. Zen Buddhism's adherence to a minimalist lifestyle (known today as "simple living" and reducing life's excess was a major influence on the American minimalist movement.


A Japanese aesthetic principle that values plainness and simplicity over ornamentation, invoking a quiet peacefulness tinged with solitude. Derives itself from two words, “wabi” meaning “austere beauty”, while “sabi” translates to “rustic patina”


A Japanese word that describes the aesthetic concept that negative space within a piece of art (visual or otherwise) holds as much value as space occupied by visual elements.

What is Minimalism Exactly?

A general definition of minimalism boils down to the combination of form and functionality and its relationship to a living space with a monochromatic palette of color or the use of color as an accent. A lack of ornamentation, other decorative elements, or other material possessions allows the minimalist space to function as one whole. 

By eliminating subjective expression, historical references, and other emotive elements, the overall goal of minimalist interiors and minimalist buildings is to create a holistic relationship between the interaction of the uncluttered space and the person.

Monochromatic Palette

Dating back to Piet Mondrian’s use of limited color, minimalism as a whole tends to stick to a limited palette; often white, beige, black, or grey with the option of an accent color. However, this adherence to such stark colors often makes a space too clinical and uninviting, so often minimalist spaces break up a space with different shades and the use of textiles.


Minimalist space also prides itself on creating a large, open floor plan, and airy spaces full of natural light reducing physical clutter as much as possible. This space is supposed to create a sense of freedom and relaxation as wall decor often dominates a room or is lacking completely.


Crisp horizontal and vertical lines are often used to accentuate the form and highlight the “bare essence” of an object or space. This is typically used to supplant ornamentation or other extemporaneous details.


In addition to line, the form of an object, be it a dining room set, or a simple coffee table plays an important role in minimalist spaces. Objects and their relationships play an inter-connected role which depends on the form they take. Often utilizing crisp lines, soft curves, or other simple forms, furniture has to make itself part of the space rather than the focal point. 


Perhaps the most important aesthetic principle of minimalism is that of functionality. Everything must have a function in relation to minimalist space. The table is to be used as such, the chair to be sat in, and the sofa to be relaxed in. There is no element within the space that is just there for its own sake. It is there to be of direct use to those using the space. This forces intentionality in a minimalist designed space. Each element needs to be within the space.

The Differences Between Scandinavian, Mid-Century Modern, and Minimalism

Minimalism has held such an influence on interior design concepts, aesthetics, and principles that sometimes its often hard to distinguish between styles. Scandinavian interior design and Mid-Century Modern are two interior design styles that borrow heavily from the American minimalist style.

To summarize mid-century modern interior design is characterized by clean lines, organic shapes in furniture, and natural materials, and often incorporates bold, graphic elements, such as geometric patterns and bright colors, Mid-century modern designs also feature furniture with clean lines and tapered legs. The end goal is to create a space that feels modern, lively, and innovative.

On the other hand, Scandinavian interior design can be distinguished by its light and airy aesthetic, with a focus on natural materials, cozy textures, and a neutral color palette. Unlike the more pared-down minimalist design, the Scandinavian design incorporates more warm and inviting elements, such as wood accents and soft lighting. The design style is also known for its use of clean lines, but with a more organic feel, and is often associated with a cozy and welcoming atmosphere.

While both interior design styles focus on creating a holistic space through the use of line, form, and limited color and textural choices, the result is to create a differing sense of “feeling” within the space or room. Scandinavian aims to be welcoming, while Mid-Century Modern captures the dynamism and modernity of its time. Minimalism, on the other hand, attempts to create a spartan, zen-like atmosphere.


In conclusion, minimalism has been a major influence on modern interior design, including Scandinavian and Mid-Century Modern styles. While it may have a reputation for being clinical and sterile, minimalism can be warm and inviting. Here at CanvasPrints, we understand the importance of creating a welcoming home and specialize in turning your memories into gifts that bring warmth to your minimalist aesthetic. Whether through canvas prints, photography tips, or interior design advice, we strive to help our customers bring their design dreams to life.