How to Have a Collecting Hobby If You're a Minimalist

Here's what to collect, when to stop, and how to make your home a work of art.

blue-and-white chinoiserie bowls and jars

Magdalena Niemczyk - ElanArt/Getty Images

While the concept of a minimalist lifestyle might sound like it lands in direct opposition to developing and maintaining a collecting hobby, the two interests offer a surprising amount of overlap: Both are based on a thoughtful curation of the pieces you keep in your home. 

"For me, minimalist collecting is a delightful invitation to raise the standards of the objects you use daily," says Sarah Reeder, CEO of Artifactual History and co-creator of The Art Elevator Collector's Club. "Since minimalists have fewer things to begin with, the items we do have take on increased impact. Why not live with something truly wonderful? Why settle for something poorly constructed of toxic materials, when you can collect an alternative that will serve you with style and beauty for years?" 

Here, Reeder and other collecting and decorating experts share what and how to collect if you consider yourself a minimalist—and, most importantly, how to know when to stop.

Understand the Minimalist Mindset

A collecting hobby is based on enjoying the experience: the thrill finding a long-wanted piece, the appreciation of an item with a fascinating history, the satisfaction of creating a thoughtfully curated collection, decorative or useful.

The (Bigger) Thrill of the Hunt

Bene Raia, auctioneer and appraiser, says all collectors, regardless of what they're looking for, share a common goal. "You want the hunt, the feeling of looking for something and finding it," she says. "And if you are a minimalist, you will get a bigger thrill, I think, than someone who just buys everything—because you have to search for just that right piece to fit into that right space."

Minimalism Doesn't Equal Elimination

And while the word "minimalist" can conjure images of empty living spaces, tiny homes, and scaled-back wardrobes, those lifestyle choices aren't always the same for everyone. "At first glance, people might think the point of minimalism is only to get rid of material possessions. Eliminating. Paring down. Letting go. But that's a mistake," says Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists. "True, removing the excess is an important part of the recipe—but it's just one ingredient." 

No Set Rules

Minimalists don't have to live with only a certain number of items, or within a certain size home; minimalism is a mindset, not a list of hard-and-fast rules. "If we're concerned only with the stuff, we're missing the larger point," says Millburn. "Minimalists don't focus on having less. We focus on making room for more: more time, more peace, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, and more freedom."

vintage jewelry in case

Maria Korneeva/Getty Images

Collect Only What You Need

One of the simplest ways to combine a collecting hobby with a minimalist lifestyle is to collect items that are entirely practical—like kitchenware, vintage clothing, or furniture. "For anything you use in your minimalist life—fountain pens, a guitar, the chair you sit at to work, the silverware you eat from—there are gorgeous versions of all of these things that can be your minimalist collection!" says Reeder. "Jewelry is tiny, beautiful, and elevates daily life. Vintage and designer clothing and accessories are so much fun to wear, and the quality of craftsmanship is often superior to newly made clothing."

Raia references a friend who collects only pink-and-white Pyrex, stocking her cabinets with secondhand pieces that she uses regularly to prepare and store food, and fellow collectors who are on the hunt for mid-century furniture to incorporate into their home. Other clients source 1940s tea towels for their dishwashing routine, baskets to hold everything from blankets to bills, or milk glass vases for fresh-cut blooms.

"As a minimalist collector myself, I don't have large traditional collections," says Reeder. "But my favorite minimalist collection is my small group of treasured Heath Ceramics dishes I use at each meal. Collected very slowly over a period of 15 years, they bring me joy all through each day, from emptying the dishwasher to plating a freshly cooked meal."

Collect What You Love

Other collectors may be charmed by a category of items that are primarily decorative: enameled boxes, holiday decorations, stamps, coins, pottery, toys, or sports memorabilia. Petite items like these—and others, says Raia, like vintage paper Valentines, apothecary bottles, wax seal stamps, doilies, and old postcards—can be easier to make room for in a small home. Wall art and vinyl records—both easy to display on blank walls—are some of Reeder's favorite finds.

"Collecting is really about discernment—selecting specific, special objects and highlighting them in your home environment," says Reeder. "In our culture, we often associate collecting with high volume and hoarding tendencies, but for me collecting is really about quality, not quantity. Collecting is taking a stand, making a choice, and saying, 'I love this item.' It takes courage to be a collector because it can feel vulnerable to really commit to your passion."

vintage custard cups

Chelsea Cavanaugh

Know When to Stop

No specific number of items means a collection is too big—or too small.

Consider Size and Scale

"The 'right' number of items is so personal and specific based on each person's tastes, space, and the object density that feels supportive for that individual's nervous system," says Reeder. "A minimalist collection can be just a handful of items. Paired with a minimalist interior, those items will really pop and have the opportunity to shine." Raia points out that even as few as three items—vases, paintings, pitchers, figurines—can create a collection. "If that's enough for you, that's it!" she says. "You just have to figure out what you can put in the space that makes you feel good."

Upgrade If You Can't Stop

Once your space is full, you also don't need to stop collecting: Raia often tells her clients to invest in the best they can afford, which allows them to upgrade as needed. "Collectors are always looking, so instead of cluttering their space, they can trade out," she says. "If you furnish your house, you can technically be done, but if you find a better mid-century coffee table, sell the old one. You still have one coffee table—but now you have a better one."

Pay Attention to How Your Home Feels

The key to knowing when you have enough involves how you feel in your home. "Pay attention to [your] gut feeling when you start to feel stressed about the volume of visual stimuli in your home environment and edit accordingly," says Reeder.

Millburn puts it another way: "Frankly, I'm not concerned whether collections are 'minimalist' or not; I'm interested in value," he says. "If a collection adds immense value to your life, then I wouldn't get rid of it (even if it isn't technically ''minimalist'). If, however, it's getting in the way, which most collections do, then you'd probably be better off without it."

Display With Care

How—and where—to display a collection can pose another challenge to minimalists, either because they prefer a more streamlined look to their space or because they've chosen a smaller home.

Take Notes From Museums

Millburn recommends taking inspiration from professional installations—like his favorite Ojai, Calif., museum Canvas and Paper, which includes a room with only three paintings. "Museums are beautiful not solely because of the artwork on display, but also because of the deliberate open space around the art," he says. "The simplicity is overwhelming, the calmness accentuates the essentials, and the room and its natural light is part of the art. That simply wouldn't work if the space was cluttered with a thousand tchotchkes—it would ruin the experience."

Rotate Your Collections

If your art collection is too large to allow for that level of simplicity, Reeder suggests swapping out art pieces—just as museums rotate their exhibitions—and grouping smaller items in clear display boxes to create dynamic visual moments.

"My favorite way to display a collection in a small space is to have everything within that space be beautiful, so they cumulatively become a living collection," Reeder says. "I've seen some fascinating collections of smaller items displayed within the drawer of a piece of furniture where they remain safely tucked away out of sight in fitted compartments until the collector decides to pull out the drawer and reveal the collection!"

Get Creative With Display Cases

Raia's clients make the most of their small spaces by getting creative: She's seen minuscule city closets turned into acrylic-walled display cases, windowsills that become a landing spot for a collection of small vases or bottles, wall-mounted typesetter trays holding collections of buttons, glass animals, and pins, and glass-topped coffee tables showing off vintage photographs, postcards, or coins. "It's mainly in the mindset," she says. "Just adhere to a certain look and feel for your space, and how it makes you feel in terms of ornamentation and [excess]."

Focus on the Whole

For Reeder, minimalist collecting means considering everything she owns part of a curated whole. "My favorite way to be a collector is to move beyond the framework of feeling constrained to collect multiples of the same object category, and instead think of collecting as an aim to have every single item in my daily material life be beautiful and cherished," she says. "Your whole material life is a form of collection. It can be an extremely rewarding approach to collecting as a minimalist when every item you interact with daily—your desk, your dresser, your dishes—feels like a treasured work of art."

When you thoughtfully consider every item you bring into your home, every commitment you make, and every way you choose to spend your time, you can identify what makes you feel satisfied and happy. "With minimalism, the bones are the beauty," says Millburn. "When we strip our space—and our lives—down to the basics, we experience the simple elegance of our homes, our clothes, our objects in ways we can't when they are adorned with excess accoutrements. Ultimately, minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life's important things—which aren't things at all."

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