The Joy of Simple Living

A look back at Sara Berman’s Closet, and exhibition at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art that brought to life the idea that even our most modest belongings can resonate with life and meaning…

by: Robert M. Lamb

When visitors stumbled upon a white and featureless closet in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, they didn’t know what to make of it at first. The exhibition’s title, Sara Berman’s Closet, didn’t provide a lot of clues either. Writer and curator Alex Kalman narrated, “We overheard visitors of all nationalities saying: ‘Who is this Sara Berman?’” Seeing such an “ordinary” object in a space dedicated to great art was certainly unusual. But it is precisely this anonymity and ordinariness that eventually charmed visitors and piqued their curiosity.

Sara Berman’s Closet contains piles of white clothes, a few pairs of shoes, three watches, a potato grater, and a couple of other oddities. These things are actually what Berman, a native of Tel Aviv, Israel, had in her suitcase when she moved to a small studio apartment in Manhattan’s West Village in 1982. She left a life of relative comfort as well as her husband of 38 years to start again in a different city. She was 60 years old.

The idea to exhibit Berman’s possessions came from her daughter Maria Kalman and writer-curator Alex Kalman. Captivated by “this beautiful landscape of a closet and a life,” they decided to share Berman’s valuables with the public in the form of an exhibition and posthumous memoir.

(Image credit: Andrew White/New York Times/)

The fact that it was exhibited in the Met, where everything is based on wealth and status, highlighted its mundane characteristic. It was something that captivated visitors. But more than this “usualness,” Berman’s life as embodied by her humble possessions eloquently spoke to the visitors about finding joy in simplicity.

“Rather than an endless accumulation of matter, what she had was intentionally acquired and placed there,” Kalman says, describing the idea behind the exhibition. Berman’s life had been defined by a fanatical devotion to routine, precision, and intention. She wore white clothes every day, not because of vanity, but because of a “sense of pleasure and wellbeing.” She watched Jeopardy! every night, wrote letters to her sister back in Tel Aviv every Wednesday, and was enthusiastic about ironing clothes. Her senior life may be considered unremarkable, yet it was founded on deliberate decisions, both big and small.

The exhibit came at a perfect time when every possible source of pleasure needs to be bought, and people are losing control over their own lives chasing these costly pleasures. Sara Berman’s Closet reminds us of the importance of stillness and contentment. It tells us to stop in our tracks, reassess priorities, and look for meaning in simplicity in this dizzyingly complex world.

Fortunately, more people are learning the value of simplicity. Marie Kondo’s best selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up now has a popular TV series, and scores of shows about tiny houses have debuted in recent years. Meditation and mindfulness practices are becoming mainstream, and the gig economy is opening up opportunities for people who like to break free from a typical 9 to 5 lifestyle.

The idea of simple living has changed consumer habits and, in effect, how brands conceptualize products. Brands are riding the minimalist wave and release items with simpler designs. For instance, minimalism and cyclical economy have become Japanese brand Muji’s signature aesthetic. Clothing brand Everlane focuses on producing simple yet high-quality garments, even going as far as being transparent about where they source their materials. The flats and slip-ons featured by Woman Within are also made for consumers who have a low-key sense of style and prefer laid back outfits. Countless local brands, from furniture makers to soaps (and everything in between), are moving towards “rustic” branding and “authentic” experiences, rejecting the mass-production often seen by fast fashion brands. Thus, Sara Berman’s wardrobe is a microcosm of an ongoing paradigm shift in what constitutes a valuable product and a meaningful life.

It’s fascinating how big an impact a humble closet can have on people. After all, as a previous Across the Margin post has explored, we tend to overlook a lot of things when we experience them within the context of everyday life. But once we look at them separately and more closely, we can begin to grasp their innate value. If Sara Berman’s Closet can make such a powerful statement, that means even our most modest belongings can resonate with life and meaning.

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