The Minimalist Living Movement Could Use a Different Spokesperson

Multimillionaire Graham Hill has taken a lot of heat since his New York Times column, but he's still out there trying to sell his "living with less" message.

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Matthew Williams/LifeEdited

Graham Hill has been taking a lot of hits recently. His op-ed a couple of weeks ago in The New York Times, “Living With Less. A Lot Less,” was one of the site’s most popular for days. But Hill’s manifesto of minimalism -- in which he related how he got super-rich from his entrepreneurial Internet dealings, got a lot of stuff, got rid of it, and then got happy living in a 420-square foot apartment with very few belongings – was slammed by many who read it.

At The Nation, Richard Kim called Hill’s piece "a majestic display of guileless narcissism." Kim argued that Hill’s criticism of America’s consumption culture is aiming for the wrong target, and that “Hill and The New York Times would be better off lecturing Washington about pursuing fair labor practices, tougher regulations and socializing medicine and education than they would hectoring people for spending too much on stuff."

 At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan was decidedly more Gawkerish in his critique:

The problem here is not the message. The problem is the messenger. More specifically, it is the messenger using his own life as supporting evidence for the message. … A millionaire does not have the standing to tell regular people that money is overrated. Graham Hill moved into a smaller apartment and sold some of his stuff. But he sure as fuck didn't empty his bank accounts. It's easy not to have material things when you can just buy whatever you need, whenever you need it.

In case anyone was wondering, Graham Hill, who at age 42 has become a sort of poster child for the minimalist lifestyle in the United States, is aware of his detractors. He made a passing reference to the Gawker piece when he gave a talk this week at the Museum of the City of New York at an event tied to the new exhibit, “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers.”

And then, with no hint that he was fazed by the criticism, he went on to give his presentation about the way life has been supersized in the United States – bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger Cokes – and why he thinks that living smaller is the economically rational, environmentally desirable, and forward-thinking way to go.

His presentation focused on that apartment of his, an enviably blank canvas for dinner parties with attractive and fascinating people, meaningful and lucrative work, and peaceful sleep. Like the model apartment upstairs at the Making Room exhibit — which shares some furnishing with Hill’s space — hearing his talk provides a seductive glimpse into an imagined life that is free of encumbrance, rewarding, and socially responsible to boot.

From an environmental point of view, as Hill points out, reducing the space in which we live is perhaps the most efficient way to reduce our negative impact on the planet. Buildings, he reminds us, are responsible for as much as 50 percent of carbon emissions. And he makes the case that giving up “stuff” will actually make us happier.

"If we’re smart about applying design technology and behavior change, we can create really compelling, fulfilling lives that can allow us to have lower footprints and save money," he says. "We believe that this simpler life is a happier life."

The theme of the night was "Small + Shared = Green," and it’s an idea that Hill has a vested interest in as the founder of a startup company call LifeEdited, which he repeatedly referenced during his talk. According to the company’s website, it’s "in discussions with developers in several cities to create apartment buildings based on these concepts."

Hill shared the stage with Paul Freitag of Jonathan Rose Companies, a New York real estate developer that's known for its environmentally conscious buildings. Together with LifeEdited and other partners, Jonathan Rose was a finalist in a recent New York City competition to design an apartment building of “micro units” that would cater to the large and underserved population of single people in New York – some 50 percent of the city’s residents.

Apartments in the building proposed by Rose would have been just 280 square feet. That’s smaller than currently permitted under New York law, but the city made an exception for the competition, which will result in a real-life building that will serve as a possible model for this type of housing around the city. (The winner was Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corp. and nArchitects.)

Freitag explained that his company’s vision for the development is based on the idea that the actual apartments are just a part of the living space available to tenants. The building’s design incorporates not only familiar amenities such as a fitness center, but also extensive common balconies, a restaurant that would crowd-source its menu and serve as a community center, ample bike parking, and a "library" of seldom-used but desirable items such as camping tents, power tools, and karaoke machines that could be shared by all the building’s residents.

"Think of it as a great big building in which you happen to have a 280-square-foot private space," said Freitag. "You really have to think about the entire building as the place you are going to live."

"One of the things we keep repeating is, "Sharing is cool," says Freitag. "No one really thinks sharing is cool." But in a building like this, he says, the social message would be clear: owning is so passé. Or, as Hill says, "The idea is to move from ownership to access."

Not that Hill says that you have to give up owning stuff entirely. In fact, his presentation had multiple slides showing brand-name items (with those brand names clearly visible) that you could purchase as part of the minimalist lifestyle – featherweight towels, colorful nesting bowls, easily stored hot plates. It was all fancy and sleek and very desirable. "I’m a walking, talking Resource Furniture ad," Hill quipped at one point, name-dropping the company that builds the folding bed he sleeps on and the magically vanishing table he uses to host dinner parties of 10.

Hill’s avowedly anti-consumption model may, in fact, be better for the environment than traditional consumption. But it is no less aspirational. This is not, as he pointed out, about wearing a hair shirt in order to atone for sins against the planet. If you have the money to fork over up front, you can buy high-quality, very cool things to enable you to live more simply, while getting rid of all of your old, inefficient and unfashionable crap. Hill’s minimalism is not cobbled together, it is curated. It is very much about enjoying a different kind of good life – or, as Paul Freitag put it, "You can live not only much more cheaply, but also much more richly."

And not necessarily that much more cheaply, in the end – market-rate rents on the proposed micro units would have been $2,150 a month, not even $500 less than the current market rate for studios in the East Side neighborhood where the development would have been built. You could rent the built-in furniture that would optimize the apartment, too, and that would have raised the monthly cost by another $200. The individual housewares that Hill holds up to his audiences are pricy, too, although he takes pains to point out that if you buy something at twice the price and it lasts four times as long, it’s really half-off.

But not everyone can afford that “twice the price” up front. And in New York, not everyone can afford to live in well-designed buildings. If the city were to change its building codes and allow tiny apartments such as the ones advocated by Hill and his colleagues, there would be no assurance that they would all have the features that make these model units so desirable – the individual balconies, modular furnishings, tall ceiling heights, state-of-the-art energy conservation measures, and so forth. Couldn't a change in building codes mean a return to low-grade tenements?

The discussion at "Small + Shared" didn’t go there. But if the ideas on display at "Making Room" are ever going to make it into the mainstream as options that can be deployed on a meaningful scale, it would be helpful to have someone besides a millionaire explain how great it is to live with less.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.