The joy of understatement
In an increasingly complex world, understatement is a goal worth striving for.
Many of the world’s great innovators are minimalists at heart: they challenge themselves to fix a problem or express a sophisticated idea with elegance and simplicity. And the most enduring work is often proof of the maxim that less is more.
From design to architecture, film-making to food, the following examples reveal the wisdom and joy of understatement.
Architecture: Hastings Pier
The original Hastings Pier was built in 1872, during the Victorian boom in seaside structures with elaborate pavilions and intricate ironwork. Its recent reincarnation, however, is a celebration of an altogether more uncluttered aesthetic.
After a history of storm damage and fires, the pier closed in 2008 and lay dormant for four years, until National Lottery funding supported a major redevelopment. The new pier opened in 2016.
The architects responsible for the rebirth, dRMM, eschewed the “amusement arcades and kitschy ‘kiss me quick’ entertainment” characteristic of British seaside piers, reports the Financial Times, and instead favoured a “discreet timber and glass structure” incorporating the restored original pavilion. The pier’s large areas of open public space are designed for markets, performances and events, echoing the pier’s history as a venue for concerts by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
In 2017, the Royal Institute of British Architects named the pier the UK’s best new building, awarding it their annual Stirling Prize. RIBA president Ben Derbyshire called the pier “a masterpiece of regeneration, inspiration and simplicity”.
Fashion: Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck
Steve Jobs is best known as the visionary founder of Apple, the man who transformed our lives with computers, music devices and smartphones that were as user-friendly as they were advanced. In later life, he also became known for his understated personal style.
His “uniform” - a pair of blue Levi jeans, grey New Balance trainers, and a black Issey Miyake mock turtleneck - has become iconic. Even though Jobs’ shirt of choice was discontinued after his death in 2011, his outfit remains a model for many in the tech industry - and last year Issey Miyake announced plans to release a new version of the turtleneck for fans of his minimalist style.
Jobs became interested in the idea of a uniform after touring the headquarters of Sony, reports Bloomberg, where he noticed that everyone, from bosses to factory workers, wore the same blue-and-white jackets. While Jobs was unsuccessful in standardising work attire for his staff at Apple, he took up the idea of a uniform for himself.
Jobs is not the only person to have to have worn the same simple outfit daily. Albert Einstein was said to have worn versions of the same suit each day to save wasting brainpower on what he regarded as trivial choices. Barack Obama adopted a similar strategy. “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits,” he told Vanity Fair in 2012. “I’m trying to pare down decisions.”
Film: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise
In 1995, the Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise launched a masterful cinematic trilogy exploring his recurrent themes of love and time.
These are big ideas, but Before Sunrise is delightfully simple proposition - characters meet and engage in deep conversations while walking through beautiful settings.
Clever, witty and cool, Before Sunrise establishes a model of cinematic understatement. The story follows Jesse, a 20-something American (Ethan Hawke), and Celine, a Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy), as they meet on a train travelling through Europe. After stopping in Vienna, the couple spend the night wandering the city, discussing their hopes and dreams. A spontaneous romance blooms, but when morning comes the two must part with only a promise to meet again in six months’ time.
The Guardian names Before Sunrise and its 2004 follow-up, Before Sunset, as two of the best romantic films of all time. With a plot that “could be written on the back of a Eurail ticket”, it says, the first film offers an honest but affectionate portrait of a emerging romance with “one of the most tantalising and ingenious endings in all cinema”.
Food: St John, Clerkenwell
For more than two decades, St. John has been a model of chic, no-fuss dining, combining a relaxed ambience with meticulous attention to ingredients and methods. Set in a former smokehouse near Smithfield meat market in central London, the restaurant’s high white ceilings, battered floorboards and plain wood tables provide a striking backdrop for its bold but simple dishes.
Chef and founder Fergus Henderson, who established the restaurant in 1995 with Trevor Gulliver, pioneered the concept of nose-to-tail eating. Here too, the guiding philosophy is that “less is more”, reducing waste by celebrating and elevating overlooked cuts of meat and offal.
One signature dish - roast bone-marrow - has been widely copied. Henderson also champions Britain’s culinary heritage, serving simple classics such as potted hare, Welsh rarebit and Eccles cakes, in a menu of hearty dishes with robust flavours.
The former Independent restaurant critic Amol Rajan described St. John as “flawless”, giving it a rare ten-out-of-ten rating. Rajan says he has eaten more than 100 dishes at the restaurant and there was “not a single dud among them”.
Motoring: the Volkswagen Arteon (sponsored)
Saloon cars tend to be unremarkable to look at - a slice of steel built for executive comfort and efficiency rather than aesthetic satisfaction.
But the Volkswagen Arteon bucks the trend. It’s an all-new model that merges the practicality and space of a five-door fastback with all the stealthy elegance of a luxury coupe. Bold yet understated, it arrives on the scene with an air of quiet confidence.
Its wide front grille merges seamlessly into the LED headlights and, at the back, the downward swoop of the rear windscreen ends with a slight upward tick - a minimal inflection with an aerodynamic purpose, to improve airflow over the vehicle. A single crease running along each side of the body emphasises its purposeful stance.
It's a tour de force under the bonnet as well, where TSI petrol and TDI diesel engines promise a refined but engaging driving experience - a true expression of the Arteon’s elegance and sophistication.
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