Horror vacui, a tendency to completely fill an area to leave no blank spaces, could be simply defined as an artistic style (1). However, some empirical studies show a relationship with the perceived value. So far, the most consistent explanatory theory of this phenomenon has been the one given by Dimitri Mortelmans. Here I’ll propose an alternative explanation.

In a 2005 article, Dimitri Mortelmans compared the shop windows of a wide range of clothing shops, from exclusive boutiques to bulk sales. This research showed an inverse relationship between emptiness (the number of items in the shop window) and prestige (the value of the commodities). As a general rule, boutiques showed a limited number of objects, while bulk sales shops tended to fill their shop windows with mannequins, clothes and price tags.

To explain this relationship, Mortelmans started from the basis that, according to psychology, humans have a tendency to decorate and fill empty spaces.

Although there is no sufficient elements to confirm or refute the theory that horror vacui is instinctive, we have reasons to doubt that decoration is a uniquely human act, since there is evidence of other species, especially birds (2), using decorative elements.

But what is the reason for the relationship between emptiness, minimalist design, and luxury? To resolve this issue, Mortelmans resorts to the civilization theory of Norbert Elias (1982). According to this theory, with the process of civilization, the higher classes acquired the ability to self-control their impulses and, therefore, to control their urge to fill empty spaces. Austerity in design would become, then, a sign of distinction.

In this post I’ll argue that the key to understand the phenomenon of horror vacui lies not in Norbert Elias, but in the theory of the Leisure Class of Thorstein Veblen (1899). Let’s see how.

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The starting point of Veblen is that the possession of wealth is the basis of prestige. But wealth, in order to give honor to its owner, must be able to be shown. Thus, the consumption of expensive goods and leisure (as the exemption from performing industrial work) stand as the basis of good reputation.

Following this canon of prestige and status, middle classes need to make a demonstration of consumption and mask the utility (it isn’t work, but leisure) with decorative elements. Higher classes, however, acquire a taste for the simple and natural appearance, thereby setting the standard of what is considered “beautiful”.

However, this preference for simplicity and beauty is actually a mask under which disguise valuable objects. A beautiful object is considered beautiful as long as it has an economic value and it can be monopolized, distinguishing the owner. An object crafted by an artisan, although imperfect, is far more valuable than one made by machines because it required more effort and, therefore, is more expensive.

Let’s transfer all this to shop windows.

The aim of luxury boutiques is meeting the need for distinction of the people who can afford to buy what they contain. The shop windows of these boutiques must communicate, therefore, the value and distinction of their products. These shop windows display no clothes, but luxury items, unique artwork.

As in a museum, any superfluous decoration or “vulgar” exhibition is removed to further emphasize the product value. That product is so valuable that requires no decoration.

But let us make no mistake, this absence of decoration, of emptiness, is decoration in itself. Even the smallest detail has been studied. A decorator has specially designed that space and this service is expensive. The shop window highlights and, at the same time, adds value to the product. The aesthetic value of the empty shop window would be nothing if it were not linked to the cost of the design and the cost of the product that it contains. An empty shop window with a cheap product would not attract a buyer.

Horror vacui, as a design style, is no more or less beautiful or more or less linked to status than emptiness. We can find examples of objects with a visual style associated with horror vacui that, even so, they are considered as luxury items.

Book of Kells
Book of Kells, an example of horror vacui in art.

In fact, the relationship between design and status can be found in the most unexpected areas. So, in a small book by Leonard Koren (1994) on wabi-sabi, the quintessential of Japanese aesthetic, we find examples that reinforce the theory of Veblen.

Specifically, Koren explains how the tea master Rikyu (1522-1591) replaced the sumptuous Chinese utensils used for tea ceremony by utensils created by anonymous local artisans, even creating a pavilion inspired in peasant huts. Over time, however, a luxury trade related with wabi-sabi objects was developed and some of the rustic tea huts would become more expensive than some mansions.

Based on all we’ve seen so far, we might even ask whether there is any relationship between horror vacui and areas such as web design, where the use of blank spaces and shapes and images that mimic real textures or hand drawn pictures are gaining ground.

Forefathers Group
Forefathers Group uses illustrated elements and print letters.

Oliver James Gosling
Oliver James Gosling mimics a sheet of paper.

Upperquad
Upperquad uses emptiness.

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Notes:

(1) According to the book Universal Principles of Design (2010), Horror vacui could be defined as: “A tendency to favor filling blank spaces with objects and elements over leaving spaces blank or empty”.

(2) “Male Bowerbirds Decorate to Find a Mate” (2010)

References:

Elias, Norbert (1982) The Civilizing Process. State Formation and Civilization.

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.

Lidwell, William; Holden, Kritina; Butler, Jill (2010) Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated.

Mortelmans, Dimitri (2005) “Visualizing Emptiness”. Visual Anthopology, 18: 19-45.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.