Minimalism vs Maximalism: What’s Your Design Style? 

Whether you’re drawn to serene, light-colored hues and a minimalist aesthetic, or you reach for the eye-catching patterns and layers of saturated color from a maximalist approach, it’s likely you already favor one camp over the other. The minimalism vs. maximalism debate first emerged around the 1980s, when Japanese-inspired interiors began making waves in the U.S. and, at the same time, maximalist fashion designers like Betsey Johnson came into vogue.

With so many options, and the very definition of minimalism shifting in the age of Marie Kondo-inspired decluttering missions (though it should be noted that the KonMari Method is not actually synonymous with minimalism itself) it may be time to better define your own style. In doing so, it’s important to understand both your personal aesthetic, and whether you favor a minimalist or a maximalist lifestyle. Here, we’ll explore both sides of the coin, and how they apply to design principles.

What is Minimalism?

While minimalism itself is not a new philosophy, its popularity is perhaps greater than ever. In an age defined by information overload (much in thanks to the Digital Era) and a desire to create a calming environment to return home to, many are looking for ways to add more time back into their lives to relax, read or retreat. Supporting all of this is the renaissance of Scandinavian design, which is characterized by “a minimal, clean approach that seeks to combine functionality with beauty.” 

Minimalism’s guiding principle is to pare down elements of a room so that every object included is essential or serves a functional purpose. For example, bedroom walls may feature a carefully selected work of art. The bedding is not a collection of patterns, textures and colors, but rather a focused selection of neutrals. In the living room, there is not a plant wall but instead an edited selection of greenery that’s been carefully placed in strategic locations, with beautiful pots and planters that don’t distract from other design choices. Similarly, tables and shelves are not stacked or lined with books or decorative objects, just a chosen few. There is plenty of what artists call “negative space” as your eye scans the room — the absence of objects. Many find this lack of abundance calming.

Minimalism Definition

So what is minimalism, exactly? Three hallmarks of minimalist interior design include: 

  1. Clean lines
  2. Simplicity
  3. Monochromatic palette

With so many color choices available, the palette can sometimes be the hardest to nail, but the easiest approach is to choose neutrals: creams, ivories, beiges, tans, and light grays. If you do want to add a little color, opt for softer tones that don’t deter from the palette. 

Minimalist spaces tend to not be overloaded with furnishings, and there is demonstrated restraint when it comes to art hung on the walls (no eclectic gallery walls here). A home that truly embraces a minimalist approach will likely feature an open layout, creating even more continuity between rooms and spaces.

Minimalist Interior Design

Minimalist living room

Countless documentaries and books have explored a minimalist lifestyle in recent years, suggesting that audiences should examine how much one really needs in terms of possessions, emails, and social obligations. But what does this have to do with minimalist design? As it happens, from philosophy to execution, it’s all related. Just as a small selection of shirts may hang in one’s closet, limited gadgets are in a kitchen drawer. Taking away choices about which gadget to use or what shirt to wear means gaining back precious time in one’s life.

On a grander scale—as closets and drawers are, of course, not easily visible—there’s a seamless transition among furnishings and objects in minimalist interior design. When you walk into a minimalist living room, your eye doesn’t bounce around between gallery walls with collected frames or juxtaposed upholstery patterns. (That would be maximalism; more on that later.) Instead, you may notice a sofa and armchair in light hues and a chunky knit blanket, with just two books and a vase of flowers on a side table or coffee table. Legs on chairs and tables are slim and unadorned. A minimalist bedroom might be anchored by the bed, naturally, and just enough objects to make it feel cozy, but certainly not crowded. More than likely, the bed frame sports clean lines with a platform bed a logical choice.

If you follow interior design, consider these fellow designers who are known for their minimalist interior design. Jonathan Adler, for his modern approach that seeks to highlight unique decorative objects, or perhaps Alexander Wang, who opts for high-contrast, black-and-white palettes, right on down to minimalist furniture, like this Restoration Hardware modern muted black sectional in his own home.

What is Maximalism?

A dining room featuring Maximalism in interior design
Dining room from Acampora Interiors’ Collected Concord Farmhouse project. Photo by Read McKendree.

In contrast, a maximalist approach is born out of curiosity about the world at large, and strives to inspire conversations through furnishings and art. You’ll instantly know when you walk into a maximalist space. You’ll perk up, and feel enthused or excited, reacting to pops of color and varying textures. People who favor maximalism report feeling energized in this type of space. Perhaps there are a variety of throw pillows in contrasting small scale and large scale patterns, or a collection of antiques mixed in with modern furniture. But despite these disparate themes, there’s a subtle cohesiveness that makes it work. Maximalism is often expressive of the homeowner’s personality: gregarious, engaging, or adventurous.

Maximalism can be applied in a variety of ways in a variety of spaces. For example, a maximalist bedroom might have layered quilts on the bed in contrasting patterns with an eye-catching gallery wall. In a maximalist living room, collections of decorative art and objects take center stage. Perhaps one wall is devoted to groupings of antiques, while stacks of artfully arranged books adorn tabletops. A collected, lived-in feel is the goal in a maximalist approach, and it combines an eclectic mix of furnishings and accessories amassed over time. Maximalist collections tell a story about their dwellers: the places and interests that are important to them. While there’s much to take in, it’s not distracting at all. A curated space like this is warm and inviting. 

Defining Maximalism

While every maximalist design has its own vibe, maximalism is defined by a “more is more” approach. Objects often have stories and connections to places, whether it’s the surrounding city or far-flung towns. Colors are not necessarily in the same families. Instead, they represent a kaleidoscopic approach. 

Some well-known maximalist designers are Kelly Wearstler, whose hotel projects include Viceroy Miami. Mirrors, metals, contrasting patterns and shapes, and vivid, punchy colors are her trademarks, overlapping with Hollywood Regency design. Although better known for fashion, Dolce & Gabbana is an excellent example of maximalist design. Ottomans, appliances and other collaborations over the years are eye-catching, with a mix of bold prints and bright colors.

Maximalist Interior Design

Maximalist entryway
Entryway from Acampora Interiors’ Collected Concord Farmhouse project. Photo by Read McKendree.
Powder room from Acampora Interiors’ Collected Concord Farmhouse project. Photo by Read McKendree.

Joie de vivre guides decisions about maximalist interior design. Inspiration is not limited to one decorative theme, nor does it lie just in one country. Jetsetters and globe trotters tend to fall hard for maximalist design.

Say you walk into the maximalist living room and jewel-toned walls greet you—and maybe not every wall is painted the same color. When done well, maximalist interior design is elegant and glam. You feel regal just being in the space. Despite its descriptions and “more is more” approach, this is not a thrown-together look, nor is it basic. Conversely, minimalist interior design is well thought out; the product of a restrained, simple color palette. The eye doesn’t bounce around as much, because there isn’t as much to take in, visually.

For a maximalist bedroom, the tone might be dialed down a bit from the rest of the home’s spaces, as the goal in bedroom design is to encourage sleep. In a primary bedroom’s lounge space, perhaps an armchair or upholstered bench is laden with throw pillows and blankets in a mix of textures and patterns, from silk to satin and striped to floral. Then, on the bed, which may be anchored by a sculptural frame or headboard, you find an equally intriguing mix of colors and patterns, very unlike a minimalist bedroom.

Office from Acampora Interiors’ Collected Concord Farmhouse project. Photo by Read McKendree.

Maximalism home décor is where you can have the most fun. Line those shelves with objects, books and art—the sky’s the limit. Groupings are a huge hit with maximalist design, too, whereas with minimalist design, a keen editor’s eye is required.

Minimalism vs Maximalism: Defining Your Style

When it comes to minimalism vs. maximalism and understanding your own personal style, keep in mind your own lifestyle and goals. At the end of the day, minimalism is about less, maximalism is about more.

What are some questions to ask yourself to better define whether you’re a minimalist or maximalist? If you’re stuck, look around your home. Are there piles—even if they’re curated–of objects? A variety of patterns and colors?

And, beyond your physical spaces, look to your lifestyle, too. Is your calendar jam-packed, or does it built in time to relax? Chances are that you’ve already adopted a minimalist or maximalist lifestyle, you just didn’t define it until now.