It’s often seen as more of a cliche than an element of style, but the paraphrased maxim, that form follows function (or at least that it should) is an essential primer for all forms of design. It’s the idea that an object’s use should determine the way it is built and placed. There’s a contrast in the image above (credit: SEIER+SEIER) that perfectly highlights the difference between functionalism and other styles. The famous maxim comes from Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, shown in this excerpt:
“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 recognisable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Sullivan explains that the size of a building, the spacing of its features, and so on, should as a law only be driven by the building’s function – ‘the life is recognisable in its expression’. An example of this is the two pictures below. The building is very simple, and there is no ornamentation. It’s implied that if you follow the law of functionalist, the end result will be aesthetic. And it is a specific type of aesthetic – very pared back, understated, clean, yet elegant. Some people find this boring, but there is still opportunity for variety in colours, and the surroundings of a building – the excitement is more subtle.
Yet what does ‘form follows function’ mean for interiors? This is the foundation on which a lot of Scandinavian design is based. Below is part of a library designed by Alvar Aalto, a Dane, in European Russia. The room would be relatively plain if it weren’t for the wood used. The plants could be described as ornamental, and maybe in this regard the room isn’t purely functionalist, but to me it’s about softening the gap between the outside and in. That has purpose.