Minimalist Inspiration from Istanbul

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Istanbul – a gorgeous city, though not one you’d ever describe as “minimalist.” In contrast to the cool, refined grandeur of many Northern European cities, Istanbul is colorful and exotic, full of history, intrigue, and arabesques. (And all the more beautiful for it.)

Yet even in such lush and embellished surrounds, I managed to dig out a few minimalist nuggets for your appreciation. When I travel, I enjoy soaking up the décor and cuisine and traditions of other cultures, and pondering how I might incorporate some tidbits into my own lifestyle. Here’s what inspired me in Istanbul:

1. Divans. While in Istanbul, I toured the Harem of Topkapi Palace (former residence of the Sultan’s wives and concubines). The architecture, the tilework, the stained glass, and the décor are stunning beyond words; and yet I found myself snapping photo after photo of the divans. I love the idea of a long, low couch that stretches along one (or more) sides of a room – particularly because of its built-in, rather than stand-alone, quality. Better yet, it looks pretty easy to DIY: simply construct a long wooden platform, cover with padding and fabric, and add cushions. I’ve already warned my husband he’ll be building one the next time we “settle down.” I think a modern version (with clean lines, and in a textured, natural fabric like nubby wool) would look fabulous in a minimalist home. I may begin a campaign to revive this ancient furnishing…

Divan in Topkapi Palace

Divan in Topkapi Palace

2. Decorative tile. From the Palace to private homes, vibrant decorative tile is a recurring design element in Istanbul’s buildings. Color-starved minimalists take note: it’s a great way to add pizzazz to a room without adding stuff. If I owned a place, I’d be tempted to experiment with tilework in a bathroom or backsplash.

3. Light. Whether shining through stained glass windows, pouring through skylights, or flickering in lanterns, light made Istanbul’s interiors come alive. I was particularly taken with the swirls of hanging glass lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque, which gave the whole place a magical, jewel-like glow. As far as design goes, you can’t get much more minimalist than using light.

Lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque

Lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque

4. Domes. As a high-ceiling aficionado, I have a special fondness for domed buildings. Domes are a marvelous way to create a feeling of expansiveness and space — and perfectly suited for minimalist, open-plan living. I started to wonder whether anyone (save Eskimos and Buckminster Fuller) used such construction for residential spaces –- and lo and behold, came across an article on Treehugger about small dome homes. Admittedly, I was fantasizing about something a little more grandiose; but these would no doubt be more practical (and affordable).

5. Shoelessness. I love the fact that mosques are strictly shoeless zones. Not only is such a practice more hygienic, it imparts a quiet, meditative feel to a space. I’ve kept a shoeless home my entire adult life, and think it complements a minimalist lifestyle quite well – the more living you do on or close to the floor, the cleaner you want it to be!

Well, that concludes this edition of Around the World with Miss Minimalist. I’m pretty confident I’m the first (and will likely be the last) blogger to infuse minimalism with the intrigues of the Ottoman Empire. However, I love sharing my travels with you, and thought it’d be nice to spice things up a bit.

I often hear the criticism that “minimalism is boring,” the aesthetic equivalent of living in an empty white box. Au contraire! Minimalism is what you make it, and a minimalist life can be beautiful, interesting, enchanting, and yes, even exotic. Minimalism is not about stripping away all the dazzling things in life – but rather clearing out the clutter so they shine even brighter.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

31 comments to Minimalist Inspiration from Istanbul

  • As a Finn I’ve never understood why would anyone wear shoes at home. Here in Finland it’s practically unheard-of.

    And I agree that the atmosphere in the Blue Mosque was wonderfully peaceful. I liked the way people where sitting on the floor in small groups, praying, reading or quietly talking.

    • tordis

      annimaria, same thing here in austria. i really was disgusted when i learned in first grade (10 years old) that people in britain and the us ususally wear shoes IN the house/flat!
      all the snow and dirt in winter or rain weather – urgh!
      and how the feet must STINK when they are kept without air all day long…

      i only wear slippers at home, i would prefer socks, but i have a very old wooden floor (splinters!!!)

  • Yes, minimalist design is different than minimalist living. I’m a minimalist, but I don’t particularly enjoy all black, white & steel in sharp lines. I’m more into austere, crafty, Shaker-inspired, traditional Scandinavian, lots of wood and natural fabrics and well made utilitarian objects. My inspiration would be a monastery or a modest, simplified rural home, with some industrial thrown in. I used to like exotic objects more and brought some home from my travels, but they do look best in their native habitat, so to speak! If I lived there, I’d embrace it, but I live in Scandinavia, and I embrace what is traditional here. The rag rugs and wall hangings and linen kitchen towels and simple wooden furniture.
    But I totally agree that minimalism can be found in any culture, by stripping away the excessive stuff. And the platform divan is great :D

  • hi francine,

    what a great post. i think you are right about the idea of bring different colors or textures into the minimalist space. i love the idea of colorful tile w/o a ton of stuff detracting from it. not all minimalists love the color white. and i love the idea of divans. my mind is kind of wandering right now…so many new ways to look at things.


  • Love it! I absolutely love the mid-eastern decorations… especially since they’re SO bold and everything else is very sparse. Turkey is a lovely country. My wife and I spent our honeymoon there.

  • […] Sure, in architecture and aesthetics, minimalism has long been that empty space. (Although, even well-coloured, soft, comfortable spaces can sometimes be called ‘minimalist’!) However, in life, minimalism is so much more […]

  • JLouise

    I love the idea of a large divan, simple in line and comfortable. I agree about the use of beautiful tile (though I unfortunately don’t have any) making a great statement in an otherwise simple decor…it can be such a wonderful statement, creating mood, without taking up space.

    I would enjoy hearing more about a shoeless home-life. I am constantly traipsing in dirt and debris and with no “mud room” entrance to my house, am wondering how to incorporate this “shoelessness” into my life.

    Thanks again Francine for some great inspiration.

  • Krista G

    Looks like a fabulous trip, thanks for sharing the pics! Really highlights the beauty in simplicity and that is is definitely not boring!

  • Oh yeah, shoeless homes are where it’s at. There is no substitute for it’s cleanliness and I, too, enjoy the absence of clomping shoes.

    I love your take on Turkey! Mosques are actually a good example of minimalism – they often have fabulous architecture, tiles and calligraphy (so, not boring!), but because of how Muslims worship, there usually isn’t anything else, like furniture, inside them.

  • Tessa

    Another fascinating, beautifully written and compelling post- thank you for sharing!

  • thanks for sharing the beautiful pics. I can’t wait for your next trip!

  • Gorgeous! That makes me want to book the next flight to Istanbul. But if you ever buy or build a divan that long, don’t ask the moving guys to take it anywhere else. ;-)

  • Kate

    I spent a couple weeks in Istanbul while studying abroad, and I loved it there, even with all the crowds and clutter. I used the colors I saw there for inspiration for my living room. The walls are white, but I have furniture in a couple different shades of blue and some pops of red around the room.

  • I loved this refreshing post and the beautiful pics.
    I too don’t go for all the white look. I love greens particularly, and don’t think I’d want to live without them as I find them so serene. And barefeet in the house (where I spend almost all my time) is just natural, but then Canadians usually take shoes off at the door anyways, and most don’t trade them for indoor footwear.

    Oh, and the divan is lovely, and a spacious extra sleeping spot for visitors.

  • The trick to a good divan is to make the base cushion all one piece so you can relax on it without ever falling into the crack. My family has a settee, the American version of a divan I think, and the back cushions are divided in such a way that you can use one at the end to make a chaise lounge arrangement. I’ve slept many a night on that settee. Ours is not a platform, though, The base is woven–originally metal strapping but now webbing like you see on outdoor chairs. The webbing cradles you in a way a platform never can making for wonderful sleeping. The webbing is then covered with a framed sheet of canvas then the one-piece mattress rests on that. I love it!

  • Canadian Girl

    Thank you for the lovely pictures, words, and ideas that I certainly haven’t equated with respect to minimalism (particularly ideas about colour).

    Here in Canada I have yet to meet a person who wears their shoes in the house – maybe we’re a country of minimalists! I never thought about that being a potential minimalist trait, so this was a new way of thinking!

  • Beautiful! I can’t wait for the next installment of Around The World!

  • thanks for sharing your take-away-from-travel thoughts here. really gonna have to work on taking my shoes off at the door. FABULOUS ending to this post–dazzling!

  • […] with space and time. I own a house, and while I don’t want surfaces covered in knick-knacks, I am a sucker for texture and color and beauty and comfort. I have photos on my walls. I have couches. I have plants and lamps and decorative items. I just […]

  • I absolutely adore your minimalist viewpoint on this holiday. Such a unique concept and such beautiful photos and concepts. Please do this again!

  • Miakat

    “Minimalism is not about stripping away all the dazzling things in life – but rather clearing out the clutter so they shine even brighter.”

    Beautiful quote – I love the idea that to own less stuff means one has more time (and cash!) to appreciate the beauty of other places, and cultures. Keep the travel updates coming!

  • John Jones

    Minimalism is great, however travelling frequently by air pumps huge amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere, speeding up global warming.Many progressive minimalists now travel by train or vacation locally.Air travel cancels out any of the benefits of living with few possessions.Airplanes are responsible for noise pollution and can make life a misery for local residents.Airplanes also fuel the oil industry.Air travel should only be for essential journeys.Air travel is another aspect of mass consumerism.Cheap flights for a damaged planet.

  • Jen

    Wow the lanterns in the mosque are beautiful. It’s really cool to see places that value beauty over blatant gaudiness and opulence. There is definitely something to be said about clearing away the clutter to let the effortlessly beautiful shine through.

  • Jessica P.

    My husband and I had our honeymoon in Istanbul – what a gorgeous city!!! I love reliving some of our moments viewing your pictures.

    Thanks so much for sharing your insights on minimalist design throughout the country. We loved all of the colors/designs and have hundreds of pictures of the tiles throughout Topkapi Palace. Enchanting!

  • what beautiful photos!

    i am a big fan of the built-in divan.
    we have just finished a new room at our place and the window seat (with storage!) is the main feature of the room.
    it functions as a reading spot, a music-listening spot, a garden-viewing spot…and a guest bed.

  • John Jones

    The story uses this analogy to better illustrate the point: CO2-induced global warming is equivalent to slow-cooking the earth, while vapor trails act more like “flash-frying it in an extra-hot wok”—and that the wok is likely to be more disastrous, even if they ultimately generate the same amount of heat.

    Not good, considering the urgency that’s needed to prevent wholly irreversible damage, at least according to Bill McKibben, one of the leaders of the call for urgent action: “We’re at 390 parts per million or so today and rising about two parts per million a year. That’s why the Arctic is melting. It’s why the oceans are acidifying. And it’s why we need a movement around the world to force political action sooner rather than later. We’re running out of time.”

    There’s more to it, but the bottom line is that non-CO2 greenhouse gases, such as methane, are the fastest contributors to climate change.

    I’ll skip the rest of the nitty gritty here, but read more about the findings from the Guardian, or from the study itself, and consider your next flight’s flash-frying wok effect on the atmosphere before booking your ticket.

  • Adam

    Sounds like wonderful trip – How was the food in Istanbul ? – Adam

  • Urooj

    Francine, sorry for the totally unrelated comment, but I was wondering if there was an e-book version of “the joy of less”?

  • I can’t describe how much I definitely appreciate the geometric standards and designs of the tile work and art. Simply breathtaking. Great post!

  • Tina

    Notice the absence of knickknacks. I was at one of my favorite thrift shops yesterday-it benefits battered women. I bought a pair of silver earrings, and my friend bought 4 tops and a pair of pants. I have some pins to get rid of. And more art supplies to pass on.

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