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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Less is More

Recently an architect friend of mine pointed out to me that Mies van der Rohe's famous aphorism, "less is more" was actually adopted from Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto" of 1855. Surprised, I looked up the phrase on Wikipedia, and sure enough the website confirms my friend's claim.

However, can we believe what's on Wikipedia? While Mies claimed to own three thousand books before he moved to the United States from Germany, was he really familiar with line 78 (Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged) of the dramatic monologue by the Victorian poet?

I started to look through all the books I have on Mies, curiously none of them made any mention of Robert Browning. Therefore, if Mies didn't adopt the phrase, then who made the connection?

If Mies didn't know the phrase via Browning, did he come up with it independently? Moreover, did the phrase even come from Mies? While Fritz Neumeyer has shown in The Artless Word, that Mies shared Romano Guardini's penchant for dialectical structure in his writings, there's actually no evidence that Mies ever uttered or written the phrase, "less is more." The first time the phrase was linked to Mies was in Philip Johnson's seminal book, Mies van der Rohe, published in 1947 by the Museum of Modern Art. Therefore, the phrase can only be attributed to Mies by Johnson.

If the famous aphorism was actually constructed for Mies by Johnson, did he adopt it from Browning? This is hard to verify since Browning may not even be the originator of the phrase. In 1774, the German poet and writer Christoph Martin Wieland wrote the phrase "Und minder ist oft mehr, wie Lessings Prinz uns lehrt", which translates as "And less is often more, as Lessing's Prince teaches us." If this quote from Wikipedia can be believed, then did Browning or Johnson both adopt the phrase from Wieland?

In short, there is a lot more to "less is more", too much for one night's musing.


  1. Is it possible that "less is more" (or its paraphrase) was a more common idea/saying than what we seem to attribute to it today after Mies allegedly had it as his motto? Perhaps the phrase had been around and was really not invented nor specifically coined by any of these people. But oh well what do I know. I often just believe whatever Wikipedia says as I'm lazy and gullible.

  2. what do I know. I often just believe whatever Wikipedia says as I'm lazy and gullible.