What does “less is more” mean to you?
Tracing back the origin of the phrase invites new perspectives on the concept.
One day in 1907, a twenty-one-year-old architect named Ludwig Mies van der Rohe steps into the office of his supervisor, Peter Behrens. Mies is here to discuss the exterior design plans for west courtyard of the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin. Unlike the famous, imposing cathedral-like facade of the front factory at street elevation, the west courtyard presents as a utilitarian factory, supported by large columns spaced 5.75 meters apart. “There was nothing to do on this thing,” Mies recalls later. He presents Behrens with a handful of potential facade drawings. After reviewing the draft sketches, Behrens utters three words that will shape the future of Mies’ career, “Less is more.”1
Less is more. Mies cannot stop pondering the phrase. Behrens meant it in a literal sense: it would only detract from the design of the building to adorn the west courtyard with unneeded ornamentation. But Mies can’t escape the niggling sense in his mind that he had contributed virtually nothing to the design of the facade, even though he was carrying the draft of the design in his hands! It was almost as if the design was self-evident, dictated by the physical engineering requirements of the building itself.
For Mies, “less is more” evolved into a design principle: the appearance of buildings should not mask their structural components, but visually integrate them. The less you try to hide columns, beams, and joists — but incorporate them into the aesthetics of the facade itself — the more honest and spacious the structure. The artistic quality of the building and the raw technology that makes the building possible should be fused together.
The story of this conversation between Behrens and Mies highlights that from its inception, the concept of “less is more” is open to subjective interpretation.
So, I am curious: what does “less is more” mean to you personally?
Mertins, Detlef. (2014). Mies. London, New York: Phaidon Press. p. 36