26 June 2017

Less Done Well Equals More

This transient world that we find ourselves on spins at as rapid a rate as we live. We rush through our day when there’s not always the need to do so, we acquire possessions and things that we don’t really have use for, we exhaust our environment’s offerings mindlessly and we take up excessive physical space that we simply don’t need. A number of trends in society have generated the notion of mindfulness – from Buddhist beliefs and traditions of detachment, to extreme movements in Japanese aesthetics that favour clean-cut minimalism beyond our comprehension. Countless best-selling books tell tales of embracing mindfulness and minimalism in combination across all aspects of living from simplistic interior décor to satisfactory eating habits as though a potential stepping-stone to mass-minimalism. In discussion with TreeHugger founder and entrepreneur Graham Hill, it became clearer and clearer why people believe that a life with less possessions and less space is a life with less obstacles and more freedom.

Adopting the approach of living with “less”, Graham Hill wants to show us that a simpler life is a happier life. Seven years ago, the entrepreneur purchased a couple of small apartments in New York City, standing at a mere 420 sq. ft. and the first renovation of the project was dubbed LE1 (LifeEdited 1). Armed with a lucid vision and a background in design to back him up, he decided to show just what could be done with a more conscious editing of space and possessions – aided by crowd-sourcing platform Jovoto and marketing firm Mutopo.

The entrepreneur, who also founded TreeHugger initially found hang-ups in the mass-negligence of his concepts. Talking about the stereotypes surrounding the elusive image of the “environmentalist” in the earlier days, Hill commented that the perceptions were “lodged in the collective consciousness that kept environmentalism fringy”. Shedding its skin of complete unorthodoxy, much owed to the multiple projects of Hill and his contemporaries, environmentalism has found itself drifting down the mainstream at a giddy pace. While mass adaptation of most things is more than enough to turn you off its tracks, the global aknowledgment of more environmentally responsible and downright economical living isn’t anything shy of revolutionary in the timescale that it’s gained momentum.

Design remains at the forefront of the ideology with technology being positively manipulated and utilised in full-effect. In order to get yourself a shape-shifting apartment where you can near enough magic pure function out of thin air, you need to squeeze every last, teetering drop of potential out of the limited space available. If not, the result has a half-hearted aesthetic. The sliding walls wouldn’t have the same effect if not glistening white to reflect light around the room while the dinky table wouldn’t boast any desirability if it couldn’t manipulate itself into a feast-fest for twelve in the way that it does. Modernity is paramount in giving the spaces their allure, while an intelligent simplicity is what will make them maintain said modernity for decades to come.

I wanted to start off this conversation by asking you about the “less done well equals more” concept and why you started the LifeEdited project?
Well, my project before LifeEdited was this site called TreeHugger, which still exists so I've basically been focused on environmentalism since around 2000. LifeEdited really came out of my seven years of design school – 5 years architecture and two years product design – and I'd sold a couple of companies so made some money and yet I still wasn't living. It basically started when I was setting about designing my own apartment and when I started thinking about it, I basically realised that every cubic foot of space that you add to your living and your home is a cubic foot that you have to build out of materials, that you have to fill full of stuff, heat, light and cool so a lot comes of that space. The basic premise was about how if we're smart about how we apply design, technology – technology could be furniture – and some behavior change, we can live a really compelling, smaller life that can save us money, reduce our environmental footprints and that a smaller life is a happier life. A less overwhelming one. So that was the basic premise but it started with my apartment.

when you bought your apartment in 2009, the first one for the project, did you have a crystal-clear vision of exactly what you wanted it to look like or was it an initial idea that developed more as the renovations took place?
I had a vision of what I wanted the brief to be as I put together a really aggressive brief and I had some definite leanings. I knew about this resource furniture company – the distributor for Clei products among others – and they do these incredible Murphy desk beds, a Murphy couch, these combinations of coffee tables that transform by raising in height and stretching in length, so you can sit a whole bunch of people for dinner. They did really cool products so I knew it would be relevant. I knew that I liked a lot of storage and more closed shelving so that it's kept pristine so I gave a lot of my general ideas but I raised money from sponsors and I CrowdSourced the apartment so it really came from the designers but I gave them a lot to go from.

what do you think of the rush and busy nature of modern living; the pace of obtaining more and being more?
Well, I think that a lot of it is just people looking for happiness in the completely wrong places. I think that happiness isn't just about stuff, it's about building relationships and experiences and money does buy happiness to a certain extent but it drops off really quickly. When you go from living on the street to having a roof over your head, regular food and security, those are massive steps and they do make you happier and feel better. As you start to move yourself up the scale – say in the U.S. you get to a point where you're making $70,000 a year or something like that as a New York example. You're able to go to dinner fairly often to nice places, you’ve got a decent place, you're able to take a vacation, you're not too stressed about money and maybe you're putting some away for retirement and anything past that does not actually increase your happiness all that much. Yeah, you can take a little more vacation, have a little bit of a nicer place, but it doesn’t actually change that much but I think that people really believe that it does.

do you think that materialism and that focus on "stuff" is vulgar?
I don't blame anyone for it, I suffer from it too. I think that part of it is in our genes and we do have a very big profit-mode on this Earth. Advertising is very seductive and it really works on us.

when you look at sharing economy platforms like airbnb and uber, they are doing so well and have been adopted by mainstream culture. do you think the embracing of the sharing economy could be the stepping-stone to a mass-minimalist approach?
Yeah, the whole sharing systems thing is really amazing. From the start of TreeHugger in 2004, people would be asking me what I thought was next in green and I would say "sharing systems". I think that it's huge and I think that technology and smart business design and now maybe product design, are allowing us to share things in new ways but still end up being really convenient. It makes perfect sense.

do you think that our streets and wider living environments require editing – are there too many bins, benches, cars, signage? also, do you think that communities can support each other to create a less-cluttered civilization beyond your own individual living spaces?
That's an interesting question; I've never had that one before. Yes, I think this most probably could be applied anywhere. It does remind me of this cool project that they did somewhere in Scandinavia where they basically made the street one surface, there were no sidewalks and no signs. There were no speed limits either so people would have to drive with common sense but there were no stop signs or lights but it ended up going really great. It was just a much nicer place to be so I think you could apply it on a wider scale but something to be aware of is the fact that it could lead to massive big-box stores also though.

having less possessions and using less space are things that you can physically change but what personality traits and competencies do you think that you need to have to do this?
You have to learn to be somewhat decisive and have some self-control; I guess those are the big ones. You have to get rid of stuff and be very conscious of what you allow yourself to bring into your life. You have to have some self-awareness too so that you figure out what's really important to you and focus your energy there as opposed to focusing it on what's not important to you.

I saw your TEDtalk, which focused a lot on technology, social media and also living in the present. what are the biggest challenges that you face when embarking on this state of being present?
You get a certain amount of dopamine from these little social media hits in the same way as something being in your genes. I think it's learning to move past that, learning to not have FOMO and I think that the irony is that say I'm sitting hanging out with John but I'm texting Toby, then I'll be hanging out with Toby and I'm texting John, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Social media is tricky because it appeals to the ego and it's constant – it can be a distraction, a great way to numb yourself out and not be completely focused on what's going on. You aren’t in touch with your own feelings and so I'm not a big fan of a lot of social media platforms, I think it makes people feel bad about themselves.

social media can be very select and you can really control what people see and how they view your life.
What people post is a sanitized, cooler version of the reality and then people feel less-than because they think other people are having a better time. I don't think it's super-healthy.

there's this alienation that comes with living in your own online bubble with your head in your iPhone screen but do you think that if you were to live without a smartphone in this world where everyone else is digitally connected, this is just simply a new form of isolation?
I don't think so, nah.

why not?
Well, yeah if you're hiding alone in cabin in the woods and don't see anyone but if you're engaging in the world, talking to people, hanging out with people, eating dinners with people and doing things with people, then you're in the world and I don't think you're missing out on much.

you say that "editing is the skill of the century," do you think that editing ruthlessly and the mindset that it requires is something that can be taught or is it more something that you have within you?
Yeah, I think it can be taught, I think mostly it is just about the first steps and how you execute them. You get better at it but it's learning to let go, it's not the easiest exercise. Fashion's always a good example

are there certain items that you may not particularly need but can't let go of for a particular reason and felt compelled to keep?
The hardest ones are sentimental things or one-of-a-kind things. I have a painting that my stepbrother did; it's a hard one because you don't want to get rid of that. I have a vase that my grandmother gave me in her will and there are some things that are harder to get rid of. Although, with other things, the sentiment of it can be captured with a photograph and a photograph takes up a lot less space and then someone else can use whatever that thing is.

what do you think of the viewpoint that the home is just a place for basic necessities; food, shower, sleep and that other experiences should be sought out with the home?
It's also extreme and would really depend on who and what but I would say that sharing things can be very powerful and if it's done well it can be very convenient, save you a bunch of money, give you more flexibility, more options and higher quality. If you have a Zipcar membership, they have various cars so you're not stuck with one car that you own and are responsible for, you can get various cars and your cars are all over the United States, or the world so sharing done right can actually be miles better than ownership.

are you working on any new projects that the moment that you can tell us about?
We're doing a bunch of real estate, we buy and renovate houses and apartments in Brooklyn and we're doing this 1000 square foot home in Maui which is all going to be off-grid. The apartment that I'm talking to you from is my second apartment, it's 350 square feet and it's quite cool, similar things to the first one.

how can the LifeEdited approach and business move into the future as we do and evolve in this ever-changing world that we live in?
It's going to get smarter and smarter, there will probably be more options in terms of doing things in a green fashion with more cool and simplified technology options. There will be better transforming furniture, smarter building materials and we will come up with different approaches to living that suit us better on multiple levels. Living changes and changes and changes as culture changes and as technology changes and LifeEdited will be hopefully at the forefront of all of that and really focused on innovating in that space.