Function & Form

Modernism in architecture began as a disciplined effort to allow the shape and organization of a building to be determined only by functional requirements, instead of by tradition or traditional concepts of aesthetics. It presupposes that somebody has done his or her homework and developed those functional requirements. It also depends on what the designer decides is or is not a functional requirement.

The resulting architecture tended to be shockingly simpler, flatter, and lighter than their older neighbors, possibly due to the limited number of functional requirements upon which the designs were based; their functionality and refreshing nakedness looked as honest and inevitable as an airplane — Modernists believed, perhaps incorrectly, that airplane design did not involve any aesthetic decisions by the airplane designers.

Form and function is a principle that is most likely associated with modern architecture and industrial design — that the shape of a building or an object should be predicated or based on its intended purpose or function. In this discussion I decided to choose the Teapot by Marianne Brandt (1925). Its specifications are as follows: 7. 5cm in height, 15. 5cm in diameter and made of brass, ebony and silver. In an attempt to create new forms from geometric constructions, Marianne Brandt applied the lessons to design a teapot.

Envisaged as a household object with sections of circles and spheres, the body lid and handle of Brandt’s teapot are each clearly defined with the essentials necessary to modern aesthetics. In the context of design professions form follows function seems like good sense but on closer examination it becomes problematic and open to interpretation. Linking the relationship between the form of an object and its intended purpose is a good idea for designers and architects, but it is not always by itself a complete design solution.

In the late 1910s 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.

Taking for example the teapot, in its truest sense it still serves its purpose as a teapot. Taking a closer look at its specifications, I do not see any problem that it poses to hinder its functionality. Here, the form of the object follows its functions. The teapot may be small in size, but aren’t teapots made that way? Should the teapot have been made more complex in style and design, there is a possibility of deviating the principle “form follows function.

” Sometimes, there are things better done simpler because the sophistication only adds to the complicated use of the object. Style and design should only be regarded next to function. Although the aesthetic value one derives from a beautifully crafted object heightens the appreciation for the object, its functionality should be the primary concern. But then again, if you could incorporate function and sophistication together, then all the better it is. And so, this point in question leads us into a discussion of integrity?

Is ornament functional? In the essay Ornament and Crime, Loos’s “passion for smooth and precious surfaces” informs his expressed philosophy that ornamentation can have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete. It struck him that it was a crime to waste the effort needed to add ornamentation, when the ornamentation would cause the object to soon go out of style. Loos introduced a sense of the “immorality” of ornament, describing it as “degenerate”, its suppression as necessary for regulating modern society.

He took as one of his examples the tattooing of the “Papuan” and the intense surface decorations of the objects about him—Loos considered the Papuan not to have evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man, who, should he tattoo himself, would either be considered a criminal or a degenerate. With Loos’ statements, I sense his point that is moreso on absurdity of creating objects that emphasizes on the aesthetic values other than the function.

In a way he has a point — why focus on beautifying your creation when it will soon loose its glitter and glamour. Just like life, why invest too much in making money when you loose everything you have worked hard for after you die. The material wealth that you have gained while on earth is worthless after dying because you can’t even bring them with you after life. In the same way that why create a pair of jeans or clothing that will become a fad and trend for now but will sooner loose its position in the fashion market.

In short, why not create the usual style of jeans with its original cut rather than flared jeans when you know that the next day you wake up you won’t se anyone wearing the trend anymore? And as for the consumer, it is just rational for them to purchase the original jeans with the presence of longevity rather than that with all the glitz and glam on it. Think and create something just like a pair of jeans which gets better in time. These two principles—form follows function, ornament is crime—are often invoked on the same occasions for the same reasons, but they do not 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. Conversely the argument ‘ornament is crime’ doesn’t say anything about functions. It’s just an aesthetic preference for the machine age. In an epoch where the machine does all the work, the ornament is a relic that we can surpass.

Therefore, another stylistic ‘non-functional’ features rest untouched — the feeling of space, the composition of the volumes, as we can see in the subsequent abstracted and non-ornamented styles. Much of the confusion between these two concepts comes from the fact that ornament derives traditionally from a function then becoming a stylistic character. Take for example the statue from the central park. Do you really think it has any other purpose but to beautify the structure? This is an illustration of ornamentation without the functionality on hand.

But then again, think what is the function of a statue on a park? To ornament the place. To be pleasing to the senses. We, as corporeal beings, are in the habit of categorizing the physical world around us using personal preferences. The point here is that, by being beautiful, the statue is fulfilling its function. While I firmly believe that function is always more important than form, if, all other considerations being equal (ceteris paribus) and you can embody the same functionality in a design with greater style and form, then why not? This, I guess, is the challenge for modern day innovators.