Function Follows Form

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Bad Industrial Design in Ascendance

Form does not follow function

Free Will — Function follows form

Perhaps for me one of the best advances of this century has to be the presence of Wikipedia. It is a good place to start when one is researching a subject or idea. I will convey a startling fact about Wikipedia while not revealing my source. I have a friend in Vancouver who is one of the Wikipedia editors for the entry God.

Form follows function has been in my thoughts these last couple of years as I battle to understand and deal with the so-called improvements of the digital age. It seems that for many designers the idea of improvement involves the addition of unnecessary features which result in a terrible complexification.

On the other hand I could no longer live without a heated toilet seat that does not drop with a thud when one lets it go after practicing my now greatly reduced manly action of doing it standing up. I could no longer live with a car that does not have a rear camera or burn your butt seats.

I believe that form follows function is a term that many of us (or at least this guy) associated with the German movement of the 30s called Bauhaus. I also connected it with the wonderful designs of Raymond Loewy.

When my Rosemary, our two daughters and I arrived in Vancouver in 1975 my first book purchase (from a bookstore then on Granville) was The Random House Dictionary of the English Language — Unabridged Edition. It served me well but as a dictionary it is now obsolete. Or is it if you consider that function may follow form?

The dictionary props up (rather nicely) to eye level my Dell Cathode Ray Tube Monitor.

Form follows function

Form follows function is a principle associated with late 19th and early 20th century architecture and industrial design in general, and it means the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.

Origins of the phrase

The architect Louis Sullivan coined the maxim, although it is often incorrectly attributed to the sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), whose thinking mostly predates the later functionalist approach to architecture. Greenough’s writings were for a long time largely forgotten, and were rediscovered only in the 1930s. In 1947, a selection of his essays was published as Form and Function: Remarks on Art by Horatio Greenough.

Sullivan was Greenough’s much younger compatriot, and admired rationalist thinkers such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, as well as Greenough himself. In 1896, Sullivan coined the phrase in an article titled The Tall Office Building Artistically Consideredthough he later attributed the core idea to the Roman architect, engineer, and author Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who first asserted in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful. Sullivan actually wrote “form ever follows function”, but the simpler and less emphatic phrase is more widely remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single “rule that shall permit of no exception”. The full quote is:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th-century Chicago at a moment in which technology, taste and economic forces converged and made it necessary to break with established styles. If the shape of the building was not 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. Thus, “form follows function”, as opposed to “form follows precedent”. Sullivan’s assistant Frank Lloyd Wright adopted and professed the same principle in a slightly different form — perhaps because shaking off the old styles gave them more freedom and latitude.

Link to: Function Follows Form

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: