Form follows function

Form follows function is a principle associated with Modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th Century.

In the context of design professions "form follows function" seems like solid good sense. On closer examination it becomes problematic, controversial, and open to interpretation. Linking the relationship between the 'form' of an object and its intended purpose is obviously a good idea for designers and architects, but is not by itself a design solution. Zeroing in on the precise meaning of 'form follows function' opens a discussion of design integrity that remains an important, live debate.

In architecture

The origin of the phrase is traced back to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, but it was American architectural giant Louis Sullivan who adopted it and made it famous. For Sullivan ‘form follows function' was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single "rule that shall permit of no exception".

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in 1900’s Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn't going to be chosen out of the old pattern book, something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was 'form follows function', as opposed to 'form follows precedent'. Sullivan's assistant Frank Lloyd Wright adopted and professed the same principle in slightly different form – perhaps because shaking off the old styles gave them more freedom and latitude.

In 1908 the Czech architect Adolf Loos famously proclaimed that architectural ornament was a crime, and his essay on that topic would become foundational to Modernism and eventually trigger the careers of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. The Modernists adopted both of these equations – form follows function, ornament is a crime – as moral principles, and they celebrated industrial artifacts like steel water towers as brilliant and beautiful examples of plain, simple, design integrity. Between 1945 and 1984 Modernism stood as the only respected architectural form in the mainstream of the profession. Everything else was illegitimate.

These two principles – form follows function, ornament is crime – are often invoked on the same occasions for the same reasons, but they don't mean the same thing. If you're willing to admit that ornament on a building may have social usefulness like aiding wayfinding, announcing the identity of the building, signaling scale, or attracting new customers inside, then ornament can be seen as functional, which puts those two articles of dogma at odds with each other.

Modernism in architecture began as a disciplined effort to return to first principles, and allow the shape and logic of the building to be determined only by functional requirements, not by a traditional style or a random aesthetic choice. It presupposes that somebody has done his or her homework and developed those functional requirements. The resulting structures tended to be shockingly simpler, flatter, and lighter than their older neighbors; their functionality and refreshing nakedness looked as honest and inevitable as an airplane. A recognizable Modern vocabulary began to develop.

At some point some architect skipped the functional homework and simply drew out plans for a building with Modern-looking materials and spatial rhythms. The necessary work behind Functionalism can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming; it can lead to the same set of utilitarian solutions; nobody could tell much difference. Shaking off those restrictions gave architects more freedom and latitude. But at that very moment Modernism became what it had been born to destroy – it became a traditional style. The experiment was over. We’re back to “form follows precedent”.

In architectural history, this is the subtle but critical break between Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson: Mies pursued Modernism as a disciplined search for order, and in the mid-1930’s Johnson adopted it, renamed it, and advocated it as a surface style. Johnson later said, “Where form comes from I don’t know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.”

Today a small number of well-known architects, notably James Stewart Polshek, argue for some measure of architectural design integrity and responsibility to users. But as a whole the profession continues to be dominated by the view that architecture is a matter of aesthetics, and that form only follows form.

In product design

In the late 1910’s the two principles of “form follows function” and “ornament is a crime” were effectively adopted by the designers of the Bauhaus and applied to the production of everyday objects like chairs, bedframes, toothbrushes, tunics, and teapots. Some of those forms were refined and purified to such an extreme degree that they became unusable by humans, but generally the Bauhaus still constructively influences the look, feel and function of consumer goods down to the present day.

One quiet landmark in the history of the inherent conflict between design integrity and consumer capitalism is in 1935, after the introduction of the streamlined Chrysler Airflow, when the auto industry halted serious aerodynamic research. As documented in Jeffrey Meikle’s “Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925 – 1939”, carmakers suddenly realized that engineering themselves into a single perfectible optimal automobile shape would not be good for unit sales. GM adopted two different positions on streamlining, one meant for its internal engineering community, the other meant for its customers. Thereafter ‘aerodynamic’ in auto design has been nothing more than a marketing buzzword.

The American industrial designers of the 30's and 40's like Raymond Loewy, Norman bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss grappled with the inherent contradictions of 'form follows function' as they redesigned blenders and locomotives and duplicating machines for mass-market consumption. Loewy formulated his ‘MAYA’ (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle to express that product designs are bounded by functional constraints of math and materials and logic, but their acceptance is constrained by social expectations.

By honestly applying ‘form follows function’, industrial designers had the potential to advance their clients right out of business. Some simple single-purpose objects like screwdrivers and pencils and teapots might be reducible to a single optimal form, and through the eyes of a teapot maker that’s simply unacceptable. Some objects made too durable would prevent sales of replacements. From the standpoint of functionality some products are flatly unnecessary, and through the eyes of an electric-carving-knife maker that’s quite follows function


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