Form Follows Function. So wrote the renowned architect Louis Sullivan over a century ago. But oh, how he might regret coining that phrase today. Time and again, it’s been invoked to justify design that’s the furthest thing from functional.
Despite his role as a founding father of Modernism, Sullivan lovingly adorned his buildings with great swaths of the most sinuous and delicate ornament. He’d be aghast at the bristly, hard-edged stuff so many designers call “functional” these days.
To see the dishonesty in passing off haphazard design under the rubric of functionality, we need only consider the beauty and simplicity of a truly functional object. Take an ordinary, dime-store bottle opener: Stamped out of a mere scrap of steel, it could hardly be simpler or cheaper to make. And as if opening bottles flawlessly weren’t enough for such a humble tool, the other end opens cans as well.
Other examples of truly functional design spring easily to mind: a pencil; a violin; a pair of blue jeans; a spoon. What makes these objects paragons of functionality is that they’re as simple as they can be while still perfectly fulfilling their tasks.
But what architects and designers term “functional” is often something else again. For instance, I recently received a brochure for ultra-high-end bathroom fixtures designed by an artisan with truly impeccable taste. As works of art, they’re stunning. As usable objects, however, they sorely flunk the test.
The lavatory sink, for example, resembles a kitchen funnel, and is in fact hardly bigger than one. It would require utmost caution to keep water inside it instead of all over the floor. This funnel is in turn is supported by an elaborate network of rods and braces that, for all their complexity, don’t look terribly sturdy. The whole assemblage is executed in high-polish stainless steel, a material that sounds easy to keep clean, but most assuredly isn’t. In short, this “functional” lavatory isn’t the kind you’d buy to brush your teeth at. It’s the kind you’d buy to stun the neighbors.
A genuinely functional sink, on the other hand, would probably look pretty much like the one you’ve got in your bathroom: a generous surface area to catch splashes, an absence of exposed pipes or brackets, and a finish that’s durable and easy to keep clean. Yeah, I know—that’s the way sinks have looked for the past hundred years. Boring? Maybe. Functional? Definitely.
Functionality is a quality that evolves over decades--and sometimes centuries--of continual refinement, not during some overnight design catharsis. This evolutionary process eventually brings an object asymptotically close to its ideal form, after which it doesn’t have to change much any more. Would a spoon be improved by adding some “functional” rivets? Would that bottle opener be better if it had a digital readout showing how many beers you’ve drunk?
Domestic designs evolve toward ideal forms, just as other objects do. Functionalism has more to do with history, evolution and a timeless way of building, than it does with trendoid malarkey.