I am almost embarrassed to confess that none other than the worst cliché in the history of design continues to haunt me. You’ve heard it before, and here it comes again:
Form follows function.
I do not resurrect this tired homily because it’s true — in fact, hardly anyone has been able to give a cogent explanation of what it even means. But therein lies its power to perplex and provoke.
The phrase seems to have its origins in the fevered brain of Horatio Greenough who, in his intemperate 1843 essay, “American Architecture,” called for “the adaptation of forms to function.” It was picked up a generation later by Louis Sullivan in his famous treatise “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”: “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,” he thundered, “of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman … that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
This irresistible catchphrase, with all its moral, spiritual and legal overtones (“This is the law!”), continued to rumble across the 20th century with barely a dissenting voice: It can be heard in Adolph Loos’s indictment of the criminality of ornament; in the Bauhaus campaign for a “rationalist” aesthetic; and in the modern movement’s insistence that — whether in architecture or typography or furniture — how a thing looks should be the “honest” expression of what a thing does. At some point, it was even sanctified with a name: functionalism.
Betraying my roots in ’60s counterculture, I am reminded of Abbie Hoffman’s dictum: “All isms should become wasms.” Is it time, finally, to put this one to rest? To dethrone the titans of functionalism, or at least add some substance to what Reyner Banham, in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, impishly dismissed as “Louis Sullivan’s empty jingle”? “Functionalism,” as Banham wrote in 1960, “may have a certain austere nobility, but it is poverty-stricken symbolically.” Surely we are ready for a new set of symbols.
There is certainly a point to the functionalist ethos of legibility, simplicity and honesty. But the heresies of an earlier age can easily become the orthodoxies of a later one, and the notion that “form ever follows function” may be a case in point. Consider an electrical appliance, circa 1935: it likely consisted of a shell wrapped around an assemblage of heating coils, speakers or a motor. For all the infinite varieties that a table radio or an electric fan might take, at the end of the day these appliances tended to converge around common physical languages. Indeed, it can plausibly be argued that the profession of industrial design arose precisely to impart some formal variety to functionally interchangeable products.
But what happens, we might reasonably ask, when society submits to the regime of the microprocessor? When a device is bristling with sensors and arfids and QR codes and its power plant is no longer a bulky electric motor but a chip that can fit comfortably on the tip of one’s finger? What is the objective form that expresses the function of a smartphone or a dashcam or the Bluetooth-enabled fitness monitor embedded in your shoe? Form, it would seem, becomes subject to an entirely different set of determinants: The body? The soul? The state?
We are sailing into new and uncharted waters, and our analog past would seem to offer little guidance to our digital future. But still, it will not go away, that “empty jingle,” that mesmerizing mantra of modernism: form follows function. What it invites — what it demands — is a renewed introspection into the relationships between ourselves and our things.
What, really, are we expecting of our products? Our spaces? Our visual images? As objects find their way into ever more intimate zones of human experience, commanded by voice and gesture and even brain waves, as they disappear into a vaporous electronic cloud, does it still make sense for us to relate to them as objects at all? Or have we crossed the great divide separating person and product and entered fully into what Bruno Latour calls “the conjoined networks of human and nonhuman actants?”
If so, then the 19th century demand that form follow function may in fact take on a new relevance. We just need to figure out what that function is.