The first manifestations of Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” philosophy were in architecture, although they were not without precedent. Since the stoicism of the Ancient Greeks, since the asceticism of Christianity, the desire to eschew excess has often accompanied politics, art and religion. It was, however, in 1920s Germany that the Bauhaus school of architecture and applied arts forged a revolutionary aesthetic that was a triumph of parsimony. Primarily intended to abolish the divide between craft and fine art, artisan and artist, Bauhaus rapidly incorporated industrial techniques in order to create functional housing, furniture and objects that would be accessible to every stratum of society. Form defined by function, standardised production, democracy of design: the Bauhaus legend was born. Meanwhile… Patek Philippe, established in Geneva in 1839, was taken over by the Stern brothers who in 1932 launched the Calatrava. Out went exotic inspirations and precious stones set in Art Deco patterns; in came a round case whose form (simple, elegant) was the product of its function (to tell the time, nothing else). This wasn’t about fashion. The Calatrava was a stroke of genius; a precursor and the embodiment of minimalistic design.
Germany, year zero
Fast forward to 1990. German reunification brought with it the rebirth of the country’s once legendary watch industry. Located in the former GDR, the town of Glashütte had made its name as early as 1845 thanks to Ferdinand Adolph Lange (founding father of A. Lange & Söhne). Local watch factories had earned a reputation for quality and precision that remained unchallenged… until commandeered for military production under the Third Reich. Post-war, Glashütte’s watchmaking companies were nationalised and merged into a single State-owned entity, Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), that was tasked with producing affordable watches for everyday use. Launched in 1959, the Spezimatic retailed for less than 40 marks. Half a century later, Glashütte Original (the new name of GUB following privatisation in 1994) asks considerably more for one of its elegant designs. Decades after Bauhaus, the same precepts of clean lines and functionality are at work, as witnessed, at Nomos Glashütte, by the Lambda with its pure dial and elegantly simple lines. Or, at A. Lange & Söhne, by the Lange 1, introduced in 1994 and which delivers a plethora of information (including the date) in a layout that is nothing less than inspired.
A counterpoint to the Eighties when fashion gorged on neon colours, shiny gold and logos, the Nineties reacquainted our wardrobes with neutral shades, simplified lines and sobriety. Easy? Dull? On the contrary: as historically important as Kazimir Malevich and his Black Square! The precursors of this style are those we now consider as artists of the century. From Japan, the likes of Rei Kawabuko, founder of Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto. From Belgium, the Antwerp Six and Martin Margiela. From Eastern Europe, freethinkers Jil Sander and Helmut Lang. And a handful of Americans, including Calvin Klein or Tom Ford at Gucci. Ultimately very different styles. It’s hard to put Yamamoto’s deconstructed draping and Helmut Lang’s bondage imagery, Calvin Klein’s sexy androgyny and Margiela’s thrown-together aesthetic, Jil Sander’s pragmatism and Tom Ford’s opulent fabrics all in the same basket.
Less is so much more?
Fashions are, by nature, fleeting and like any trend this desire to keep our wardrobes simple gave way to the blinged-out logomania of the Noughties. However, minimalism would return with a vengeance. Japanese retailer Muji showed the world how to dress and live with less. In 2008, as the newly appointed creative director of Céline, Phoebe Philo reinjected luxury and longing into the “less is more” cycle. Basics were no longer basic. They were essentials. Fine Watchmaking drove the point home. Established in 1828 and relaunched in 2012, H. Moser & Cie. imagined the now iconic Venturer. Even as the dial sheds more and more of its attributes, extravagance is never excluded with manifestations in bold purple or all-over Vantablack, revealing nothing but hour and minute hands in red gold.
Still going strong, minimalism in the watch industry has developed something of a split personality. In the same model of watch “over the top” cohabits with “barely there”. The craze for white gold with diamonds is a case in point. Thus adorned, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak or Patek Philippe’s Nautilus can appear simply grey… yet are entirely covered in precious stones! Form and function no longer exclude spectacular ornamentation in a carefully orchestrated visual spectacle. Less is more… so much more? After a century of official existence, minimalism hasn’t said its last word.