Louis Sullivan, employer and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote in 1896 that, “form ever follows function.” Revised to “form follows function,” this was the banner the early modernists fought under. As a notion and an epigram, it entered the popular lexicon and is still often used, even by non-designers. But what does it mean and what is its relevance today when the use of many of our objects is dictated by their invisible computer components? Designers are always making form decisions (That’s a big part of what we do.) and others involved in the production of goods make them as well. On what basis do we actually do this?
Form following function is easy to understand when we think of an object such as a hammer. It has a handle that is easily grasped both literally and conceptually, and a heavy, durable end with a flattened face. Its utility as an object to facilitate hitting is obvious. No instruction manual is necessary. We might even say its function follows its form.
The clarity of the form of tools was often used by modernist theorists to illustrate their aesthetic. As well, those objects that move through fluids, like propellors and aircraft wings, cannot be encumbered by decorative features. Their form, in a minimalist expression, was critical to their function.
But what about furniture? To fulfill the function of a table, a flat surface is required, parallel to the floor and some distance above it. There are innumerable ways of achieving this, and in many of them, form is dictated only by the preference of the designer. Is a round steel tuber eally a better description of function that a miniature, wooden, Doric column? Obviously not. It has become appar ent that often the form of what we (as a culture) make, is determined by many factors of which function may be only one.
A recently popular book, responding to the poverty of “form follows function,” just as I have, proposed that “form follows feeling.” This strikes me as accurate, but not particularly clarifying. Often when I press my students for an explanation of why they have made things as they have, they say it’s because they “liked it” that way. Although unassa ilably ac curate as a description, it is not a very rigorous accounting. And since I believe that the best results are usually intentional, not accidental, I press them and myself for a more thoughtful answer. What follows is a number of specific possibilities:
For reasons as variable as cost and intellectual laziness, geometry is often a default in form-mak ing decisions.
Price is rarely not an issue, and form decisions are often dictated by the least expensive approach.
The form that makes sense in one material may not in another. The pre-formed options of steel dictate a very different appearance of rough lumber.
The Martini theory I proposed in an earlier column is another approach to form decisions.
Whether we realize it or not, much of the form of our environment is determined by prevailing styles. We usu ally can only identify them in hindsight. For example, itsi easy to date photographs by such things as tie widths and collar heights.
One approach to design is that of developing a number of components that can be assembled in different combina tions, yielding many different solutions. The resulting forms are determined by that of their components.
Habit, and/or expedience
Much of what we do is only nominally thoughtful. We take the path of least (mental) resistance in form as we do in many other things. •
It is often a benefit to marketing that a group of objects look as though they are related, such as bedroom suites, and dining room sets.
Sometimes objects are made to look like other objects or plants or animals, to suggest a function or to appeal to a sentiment.
When I was in the canoe-building business, my foreman once asked me why boats were so beautiful. Anticipating a nugget of wisdom, I demurred. The answer was, “there are no straight lines in them.” This is a useful insight and may be why wooden boats are often considered to have obtained a level of beauty that contemporary boats, with their pre-formed componentry, lack.
It is probably true that the form of women is the mother of many other forms. Everyone seems to respond favorably to the form of certain women.
I’m not sure of the usefulness of these reflections on form, but I am intrigued by why we do what we do. .
Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.