What is ‘new minimalism’ and why is the Indian aesthetic moving from ornate to austere

From hospitality to homes, ‘India minimal’ is here to stay.

Harper's Bazaar India

When it comes to cross-referencing to create a design narrative and borrowing ideas from cultures around the world, there has never been a better time. That social media and streaming networks have ensured we consume the same content, whether in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh or in le Midi (Southern France), we are never far from TikTok’s trending transparent eyeliner trend or the butterboard recipe unanimously. This is to say unless you’re off social media or don’t absorb content through contemporary channels, your worldview is likely to be space-bound. Limited enough to still associate Indian culture, cuisine, design with dancing peacocks, the elephant motif, intricate jharokhas and other stereotypes that are sure the backbone of our culture, but not the “it”. 

Delhi-based interior designer Shivani Dogra breaks it down, “Five years ago, I would never have imagined the Indian aesthetic as ''minimal”, it has always been described as grand. Money and class have defined interior design, and that meant maximalism.” Fortunately, in the last decade, global inspirations have excited Indian designers enough to explore a minimal side of Indianness. “For me, this minimalism is classy, yet not sparse and it doesn’t compromise on the quality of decor,” she says.

This is perfectly encapsulated at Aman-i-khas—a property set on the threshold of the Ranthambore National Park, with Mughal-inspired tents designed by architect Jean-Michel Gathy that spell opulence as they overlook a beautifully rugged landscape, yet they maintain a fine balance between elegant and pared down.

The property does this by proactively being a part of earth-friendly practices, which is at the core of traditional minimalism, yet each element is carefully crafted that it speaks of finesse and grandeur but is simplistic at heart. This means reducing footprint, a plastic-free philosophy, and zero-waste smallholding among other ideas; besides the whole property, frequented actively by wildlife is lit up by solar power, “which is sometimes in surplus and sold to the grid,” says Jonathan Lithgow, regional director of Aman Resorts, Hotels & Residences in IndoChina. 

What Dogra and Lithgow are speaking of is “new minimalism” and here is how it is different from our mainstream understanding of this aesthetic.

In her book New Minimalism, Kyle Louise Quilici says, “Minimalism worships at the altar of less is better. It is an austere philosophy of stripping down to the bare essentials and questioning what is required for one’s basic survival… At the opposite end of the spectrum is the consumer-based lifestyle that has unfortunately become synonymous with the American Dream… And living this was not only constricting us on an individual level but was also harming our beautiful planet… New minimalism exists as a middle path between traditional minimalism and over-the-top consumerism. We honour the vital role material things have in our lives. We appreciate neat textures and colour in our homes… We savour art that lacks a practical purpose yet speaks volumes to our souls.”

Quilici suggests a balance that few contemporary brands are able to achieve. At Aman-i-khas, the new minimalistic aesthetic is evident. It is characterised by details such as soaring tents that have an elegantly furnished living and dining area as well as their own sun deck, housemade syrups made using natural ingredients to cool you off after a hot day in the forest, a spa area centered around a water fountain and other things that don't follow the cliché format of in-your-face Indian hospitality. “Our approach to design at Aman includes an emphasis on space. Each serene sanctuary is designed to integrate sensitively into the surrounding landscape, offering a harmonious relationship between the architecture and local environment, whilst allowing guests intimate and unrestricted access to the destination,” says Lithgow. 

Former editor-in-charge of Livingetc India, Mridula Sharma, says that for her, there is no such thing as minimalism in Indian design. “For even in a state like Kerala, where design could in some ways qualify as minimal, has extremely intricate mural art and a fair share of carvings in its teak and rosewood furniture. The world over, Indian design is known for its grandeur, opulence and maximalism as conveyed through our palaces and royal residences. Sophistication is conveyed through silhouettes and finishes but never through simple lines,” she says. 

The South Korea--based lifestyle editor confirms it’s surely a burgeoning trend in the hospitality industry that features simple lines and clean materials. “For it to hit the spot, there is a tremendous amount of detailing and right pairing of elements required,” says Sharma. These can be seen in minimal brands such as Jaipur Rugs which blend vibrant colour with intricate design, in Aman-i-Khas which blends the idea of nature with high-end design, and Nappa Dori plays with luxury leather accessories in complicated cuts and stitches. 

Besides decor, ‘new minimalism’ is also a mindset. “Aman responds to those seeking the peace, seclusion and appreciation of beauty that are intrinsic parts of the Aman lifestyle. Luxury for us has a singular, authentic and original intent: to provide a level of service and a home-away-from-home experience that is peerless in every way. Meticulously designed to frame their natural and urban settings, Aman destinations are renowned for their space and privacy. Each welcomes guests as if to the home of a close friend, instilling a sense of peace and belonging amid some of the world’s most diverse landscapes,” says Lithgow.

“Less is more,” Mies Van Der Rohe had said in 1886. Today, this minimalist sentiment is more popular than ever, but the philosophy is timeless. Stoics and Buddhists have been living a minimalist lifestyle for eons now. As we practise it today, there isn’t a defined measure of what minimalism is, so knowing exactly where one is on the scale is impossible, and therefore defining a beginning, middle, and end may be futile; but whether hospitality or homes, any step towards minimalism, when rooted in earth-friendly measures, is going to be positive.

Photographs by: Shubhangi Agrawal