The Philosophy of Form Following Function: Development & Works

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  • 0:00 Design Cliches
  • 1:00 What Is Functionalism?
  • 2:05 The Chicago School and…
  • 4:30 Influence on Product Design
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the buildings and products designed in accordance with the philosophy of form follows function. Learn about the meaning and development of the philosophy. Discover the designers whose works pioneered the style of functionalism.

Design Clichés

'Form follows function' joins a host of other clichés in popular culture and design. Less is more. Make it pop. Think outside the box. But 'form follows function' is one of those phrases that is often misunderstood and misused.

American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase in an 1896 article in which he described his philosophy for designing tall buildings like Chicago's Auditorium Building, St Louis' Wainwright Building, and Buffalo's Guaranty Building. The basic idea he wanted to get across was that buildings and products should be designed with use and function in mind. If an architect takes on a project to design a new art gallery, he or she should place utmost importance in the character of the building as a gallery. The architect should focus on how visitors will move through the space, and consider how curators will hang the art on the wall and display pieces in the space.

What Is Functionalism?

Architects don't always follow this approach, which leads in its most extreme to pure functionalism, a design philosophy that values utilitarianism characterized by sparseness and the absence of all ornamentation. Functionalism follows from the assumption that if designers emphasize intended use, the beauty will eventually arise on its own accord.

But when designing products such as furniture and handheld tools, the philosophy of form follows function becomes most practical. After all, what good is an uncomfortable chair?

This may seem like a given, but when Sullivan suggested it in 1896, it opened a window to innovation. Before then, architects operated on the assumption that form should follow precedent. They designed buildings according to the traditions of Greek and Roman architecture. Don't reinvent the wheel. That's another design cliché . It wasn't until Sullivan and his generation of designers, that people started to think about how to merge design (form) and function (the social use and everyday practicality) of architectural structures.

The Chicago School & Frank Lloyd Wright

The Chicago School, also known as the commercial style, was a form of architecture practiced by a group of designers working in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century. The phrase is used to refer both to the architects and to their buildings. Sullivan was a key member and representative of this group.

When Sullivan suggested that designers consider the intended function of a building, he didn't mean to advocate simplicity or minimalism. Sullivan himself was fond of decoration, known for ornate wrought iron on the fronts of his buildings. Sullivan's buildings are distinguished by his use of plain geometry and concentrated flourish of decoration. The Wainwright Building in St. Louis provides a great example of how Sullivan combined decoration with simplicity.

Later, Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect who apprenticed with Sullivan, adjusted the phrase as 'form and function should be one.' He advocated a more creative approach, suggesting that the designer need not be tied to a functionalist directive but rather meld the two purposes. Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum, for example, fuses the concept of the viewer, with that of the art gallery, designing the route of travel for the gallery visitor into the structural plan.

Wright practiced the idiom 'form and function are one' by drawing inspiration from nature. Sullivan also drew inspiration from nature, providing examples of how his principle was already modeled in the environment.

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.

Wright's approach to architecture took into account the form and function equally, emphasizing the beauty of natural forms in exposed wood and deep browns, while also integrating an appreciation for the flow and rhythm of everyday use.

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