NEW YORK — Life is messy. Design is clean.

The contradiction is becoming increasingly apparent as overworked, overstressed and overwhelmed consumers struggle with changing priorities in the face of the prolonged economic downturn.

On one hand, consumers are more aware than ever of good design in everything from cell phones to storage bins — witness the success of the Container Store. But a revolution has been building against what some call the tyranny of design or the unrelenting attention to über detail that’s necessary to maintain rigorously-styled environments and strict dress codes.

Just a few years ago, the depth of one’s commitment to design earned bragging rights in certain fashionable circles. A celebrity florist displayed his asceticism by greeting visitors from behind a desk where the only object was a single perfect flower floating in the perfect crystal vase and a prominent architect berated an assistant for pouring sparkling water into an inferiorly designed glass. A fashion designer banned all photos and personal mementos from employees’ offices and cubicles, all in the name of keeping up apperances.

Diane Von Furstenberg has no time for such pretentions. "I think that everything is good in moderation," she says. "If design is a tyranny then it’s ridiculous. I always remember going to hotels that were so minimalist and so white. I couldn’t wait to spill my coffee all over everything."

In a post-war and post-9/11 world, style-obsessed perfectionism seems passé to some observers. While there’s no doubt that people still want to live in beautiful environments and look good, they don’t want to work so hard to achieve and maintain these twin goals. In the case of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers having children, there’s also the growing financial and emotional pressures of raising kids. Some of the same people who agonized over whether to buy the glacier or majestic yellow-colored KitchenAid artisan mixer are now turning their living rooms and formal dining rooms into play rooms and wearing Juicy Couture sweatsuits rather than designer duds.

"Everybody’s gotten so comfort-oriented," says Nicole Miller. "Minimalism is not all that comfortable. Everybody likes to curl up at home and spend more time with family. Everything goes in cycles. Things evolve but they never come back the same way. Minimalism will never be what it was the first time around. There’s a little more eclecticism now."John Pawson, the minimalist architect and designer of the Calvin Klein boutique on Madison Avenue, believes there will always be a place for his brand of pared-down style. "There might be a slight misunderstanding about what I do," he says. "It’s comfortable and calming and sensual."

Yet he admits that the appetite for minimalism may be ebbing among the fashion crowd simply because it was so enthusiastically embraced at the beginning. Remember, fashion thrives on the old adage: For every trend there is an equal and opposite countertrend.

"The Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue was in some ways a benchmark," Pawson says. "Everyone tried to [copy] it, so people want a change because fashion and fashion shops are about responding to different things and change is always desirable."

Still, Pawson hasn’t noticed any reduction in his business. "For me, there’s always been people who have a desire for trying to live a bit more physically simply. Some people can’t do it and for some there’s a mixture of both."

While collectors of contemporary art will always want pristine surfaces on which to display their collections, living in spare spaces can be difficult. Every line in a room must be perfectly straight when there are no decorative moldings or other architectural details to conceal flaws. Then there is the accumulated detritus such as papers and gewgaws that must be hidden from sight. As Pawson writes in his book, "Minimum," "Emptiness allows us to see space as it is…uncorrupted by the incidental debris of the paraphernalia of everyday life…without the jarring distraction of possessions." It’s a view that seems strangely at odds with the concept of commerce and family life.

Minimalism can be as tough on fashion as it is on the home. The crisp, clean lines of a jacket or dress must be precisely tailored from high-quality fabric and impeccably laundered and pressed. In some ways, it’s more difficult to knock off spartan fashion because inexpensive fabric tends to wrinkle easily and lose its shape.

Signs that consumers are off their abstemious diets are everywhere. Examples include colorful and highly-decorated clothing, lush interiors and more flavorful and abundant portions of food especially on the Atkins diet, where steaks, eggs and bacon, not self-deprivation, are encouraged.In fashion, anything handmade, detailed or embellished; one-off; fabric rooted in art such as batik; crafty accessories made of materials such as raffia, and even the look of the Sixties suburban housewife’s pastime, decoupage, is gaining newfound appreciation. Fashion influences range from Russian peasants to chinoiserie.

Retailers have embraced the new individuality. Saks Fifth Avenue’s tag line, "Make it your own," is an exhortation to consumers to put outfits together using their own imaginations. Lord & Taylor this season has embraced the theme of India, with its bright colors and embroidered motifs in a marketing campaign called "Into India."

"The merchandise is absolutely blowing out of the stores," says Lavelle Olexa, L&T’s senior vice president of fashion merchandising. "We haven’t had this kind of response to anything for a long time. The level of excitement for the jewelry, scarves and embroidered jackets is amazing. Even in our homes, we’ve had spare and minimalism. Now we want to feel that there’s a comfort level in our own special space with our own special things.

"Women want something that defines them and gives them a form of self-expression," Olexa adds. "People were wearing the same color head-to-toe. We were all wearing the same uniform. That eliminated the need for women to buy new clothes. Retailers can’t live off replacement buying."

For fall, red plays a key role in fashion. Proportions are sometimes absurdly large, especially in the fur department where designers from Emanuel Ungaro to Missoni showed big, textured coats in the wooly mammoth vein. Even accessories came out from the cold with piles of pearls, strings of diamonds and feathers adorning models’ delicate bird-like necks. Dangling earrings drip with diamonds while the popular chandelier styles are decorated with a variety of semiprecious stones.

"It’s unimaginative and obsolete to dress head-to-toe in black," contends Sarah Easley, co-owner of Kirna Zabête, a boutique in SoHo. "A minimalist tailored pant, dress or coat is a wonderful thing when mixed with color and print. Our business has grown, which is indicative of this phenomenon, because people never have come to us for minimalism."Things do cycle around," adds Easley. "I’m hoping that we never reach the maximalism of the Eighties again. The reason we were thrown into minimalism is that we needed to clean our palates after the Eighties. As long as we don’t reach that kind of frenzy we won’t have to do that again."

What will become of such masters of minimalism as Calvin Klein and Jil Sander? "Designers will have to adapt," says Easley. "Fashion is about change and evolution. There are some designers that just do what they do and stick to it and that is certainly admirable. There will always be a customer for beautiful Calvin Klein tailoring and fabrics. His dresses and suits can be mixed with colorful prints. In light of the level of success he’s achieved, he’s not at risk."

Easley said she and her partner, Beth Buccini, have been waiting for this moment. "There are so many great stores out there like Club Monaco and Banana Republic that it’s crazy not to mix a pair of nice white pants with a beautiful Chloé print shirt," she says. "There’s a lot of mixing of high and low."

After years of living in a monochromatic desert, polkadots are popular, courtesy of Donna Karan. Prints are also experiencing a revival. Lars Nilsson made handbags from Josef Frank’s Manhattan pattern for Clearly First on Madison Avenue. For spring, he used Frank’s Rox & Fix fabric for a new bag style. The store also sells colorful spring apparel in bright Marimekko fabrics.

"Since 9/11, fashion has not been a salvation, but it’s been a way to smile and feel a little more lighthearted," says Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "Clothing by Bluemarine, Roberto Cavalli, Moschino and Moschino Cheap and Chic has been very strong."

Women are more apt to trust their own instincts and take the best of trends today, rather than swallowing a designer’s fashion dictates whole, says Kaner. "You can take a basic black dress, but you put a belt on it or add a scarf or put your favorite pin on and that’s where you have to say goodbye to trends and let yourself shine through," she says.The same theory applies to the home, according to Kaner. "It’s important to be surrounded with things that are important to you, like family pictures and possessions, and you can never have too many books. People want more warmth in their surroundings and a return to reality, in a sense. There’s something austere about something that’s too cold. It lacks a humanity."

Other signs from the design world indicate that a richer, more tactile era is dawning. Terence Conran, whose original stores sold simple, well-designed products, recently declared on Conran’s Web site that "a backlash against minimalism is in full swing."

One of the hottest tickets last year was a Design Museum in London exhibition of the work of Gio Ponti, the Italian whose busy patterns, colors and decorations made him an enemy of the minimalist movement. One of his textiles, "Sweethearts at their Windows," is being reissued by Maharam.

In retail store design, there’s been a move away from the basic white box. Anthropologie, a chain of 40-plus stores, keeps customers engaged by quickly turning inventory and stocking labels such as Sleeping On Snow, Odile, Velvet and Moth. The stores are the antithesis of the stark boutique where clothes are displayed like rare objets d’art. Nor is Anthropologie designed like a department store, where wide aisles and clear sight lines are the rules of thumb. Apparel, jewelry, lingerie, home furnishings, fragrance and accessories are displayed on worn tables and chests, in nooks and crannies and on velvet couches and coffee tables.

Michael Gabbelini, an architect known for his less-is-more ethos, has shifted his allegiance in recent years. As far as minimalism goes, his new mantra is: "You don’t have to be religious about it."

"For me, minimalism is not ascetic, it’s not cold," he says. "It’s something for people who are interested in simplifying certain aspects of their lives."

Gabbelini admits that he doesn’t get many calls for pure minimalism anymore, especially from his retail clients, which include Prada Group, Gianfranco Ferré and Davide Cenci.

"The day and age in which the idea of the uniform, where you buy one designer’s look from head-to-toe is over in the fashion world," says Gabbelini. "Fashion companies have adapted very well and have given their collections more diversity, rather than a single point of view."Fashion companies are getting away from stores that are fairly generic," Gabbelini explains. "They want to create a sense of movement and intimacy with warmth and interest. They’re very sensitive to being too modern or too one-dimensional when they create a store. There is more theater and drama using various sources such as new media and antiques or different types of graphics. More designers are collaborating directly with artists."

Gabbelini notes that when a store’s design is minimal, there’s more pressure on the clothing, which often becomes a design element. "When you have fewer things in the space, the collection has to animate and hold the space and create interest," he says. "There have been a number of companies whose strategy is to create a white box with limestone floors and try to do it on the cheap. They don’t realize that the devil is in the details. These stores have maintenance issues."

Hélène Hellsten, owner of Clearly First, sells bicycles by Australian design star Marc Newson and contemporary carpets that could hang on the wall as works of art. "There are some things that are a bit extravagant and I love them," she says. "I think it has to do with wanting something more individual. I love crocodile for daytime and mink on an Arne Jacobsen chair."

"The best design deals with function," says Von Furstenberg. "That’s why in primitive objects or art, you see such strong things. Art is about an emotion, it creates an emotion and it comes from an emotion."

Pawson, however, believes that his philosophy is as appropriate for monks (he’s working the Novy Dvur Monastery in the Czech Republic) as it is for children. The architect, who lives on a communal garden shared by 40 homes, says kids always congregate at his house. "There’s always a whole gang of children," he says. "They have a choice of any of the houses, but ours seems to be the most popular because there isn’t any clutter to get in the way of and break. Also, we have tough surfaces. They can skateboard on our floors."

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