Put two or more designers, or one journalist and a designer, in a room and the subject of form and function inevitably comes up. “Form follows function” has always made me uncomfortable. As a craftsman/designer, I have found that form and function exists as a flow rather than a causal relationship.
The discussion of form and function in modern times has its origins in the nascent industrial education system forming in Europe in the late 19th century. Differing schools of thought touted either “classical orders” or a return to agrarian regional design. The latter as represented by Ruskin and Morris’ Arts and Crafts and the European Art Nouveau movements were primary influences on one of the fathers of modern design, Louis Sullivan.
“Form follows function” is based on “Form ever follows function,” a quote from Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea. It was an era were iconography and narrative so overshadowed functional concerns that buildings and objects were expensive, dark and inhuman. I have no doubt that Sullivan and his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright sought to bring the delicate dance of form and function back into balance and harmony.
Both of their works and writings celebrate an organic, fluid relationship between form and function. Form follows function implies a causal relationship between form and function, where form ever follows function implies a delicate balance and a need for both to be emphasized.
Both Sullivan and Wright knew that they were creating iconography as well as shelter and that the iconography came first. Both also came under critical fire for faking technology in order to demonstrate their ideological principles. Function often accommodates form.
As a craftsman/designer, I am constantly doing a delicate dance between form and function—form exists hand and hand with function.
What came first the chicken or the egg? The answer is obscured by the question. Neither came first. There was a long evolutionary process that resulted in a chicken. A chicken and an egg are the same thing at a different level of development!
When I am designing or building, I might pick up a stick and its function and form will do a little dance of intention, discovery, accident and imagination. That stick might morph from a window picket, to chopsticks, to a glue applicator and later to kindling. Even the most mechanical design process is often driven by poetry, craft, fetish, technological prejudice and budgets. I have been in many design meetings when faced with daunting technical challenges, we opted to break our backs to preserve intangibles like joy or lightness.
Poetry and narrative are a primary cause for even the most rudimentary seemingly practical designs. Poetry and narrative are the most important aspect of any design. People will go to great lengths to celebrate their culture with their buildings, cities, churches and objects. Emotional connection to form usually overrides functional imperatives, even when the original use changes.
Architectural history is resplendent with examples of form forcing function. Ancient cultures often keep the design details of their traditional culture even though their building technology had advanced significantly. Stone elements would be fashioned to emulate the wooden structural elements of the older buildings.
Colonial architecture was constructed using details and architectural typologies that crumbled because the weather and materials were completely different than Europe’s. When I design, I dream and I analyze, but the line blurs as to what is driving what?
“Form ever follows function” allows us to start with our emotions, gesture or happenstance and create designs where we can conceive of something that is completely impossible and somehow figure out how to make it function. This relationship of form and function has always inspired and troubled me—form for form’s sake is close to my heart, but I make objects and interactive systems that must function well. Our online projects are highly responsive to the communities they serve and the form is driven directly by their emotions.
I found this eloquent article in the NY Times The Demise of ‘Form Follows Function’ when I was checking to see what Louis Sullivan actually said. Alice Rawsthorn tells this story in more detail and explains how the relationship between these two old friends will get even blurrier in the world of cyber environments and real-time networks.