by Felix Kosok
It is remarkable how much a single paradigm can completely determine a thoroughly complex discipline such as design in all its facets; How effective and for how long this scheme was consistently used to justify any decision. Following the creed of: it must be like that, it can’t be any different. Reductive perfectionism has always been the cheapest excuse. But all this minimalism started with such a wonderful alliteration. It is so simple that even today for many designers it seems as simply said as it’s applied to their work: form follows function.
The American architect, Louis Sullivan, is quoted not as the single author of the paradigm but as its most famous proponent. Unfortunately the problem already begins with quoting only those three words out of context. This skyscraper-builder of the Chicago school used those inspired words in his essay The tall building artistically considered, which appeared in 1896. At that time, however, one can assume that this had already become commonplace. For Sullivan the nature of a thing, its innermost being, must also be reflected in its form – and in that he was a child of his time. The gigantic skyscrapers that Sullivan wanted to erect on the ashes of downtown Chicago, which was largely destroyed in the great fire of 1871, had a completely unknown and new function for a building at that time. This new type of building also required a form which had not yet been used, in which the new function (the accommodation of offices) could be shown to the outside. The answer to this was as brutally simplistic as obvious. The new sky-storming office buildings should be designed as rational as possible and as places of reason and mental work. They were the counter-design to the bourgeois, over-decorated home, and in their smooth surfaces the progressive spirit of the time should be reflected. Because each floor was similar to the one above and below it, all units had to look the same. Only the roof and the entrance were decorated as it is the case with an ancient column’s capital and the pedestal. It is precisely this residual ornament that give Sullivan’s form follows function a dimension that was simply shortened in later use, especially by the Bauhaus. Sullivan’s functionalism was not as radical as that of German modernity. Even for the soberest of all office buildings, decor was regarded as a not-to-be-neglected function, which should show itself at least in the representative entrance area. So for Sullivan there was – even though in brackets – behind the singular function still one plural (s). In the omission of this residual ornament, in the regular plucking of the implicit plural, lies the whole drama of functionalism, which through the Bauhaus and the myth surrounding it should influence our conception of design far into the second half of the twentieth century.
Luis Henry Sullivan was born on September 3, 1856 in Boston. He studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. He worked especially in Chicago, where he died on 14 April 1924.
Die Rekonstruktion des Bauhausgebäudes. Gegründet wurde das Bauhaus 1919 in Weimar. 1925 zog es nach Dessau.
The– according to Adolf Loos – criminal ornament was the root of all evil. This had dominated the entire history, even through the bourgeois to the modern era. Pomp and decor enveloped the world of the Ancien Régiem and the nobility, turned everything into mere surface, glamor and masquerade. With the onset of the industrial revolution they became accessible to more and more citizens, who were finally given the opportunity to follow the nobles they had just overthrown in France. And although any decor was still denied to the simple workers, it became the mist that clouded the clear-cut understanding of every rational man in the cityscape, it lingered in the facades of the bourgeois tenements. Thus all technical progress couldn’t do much as long as society was still entangled in style. Unless we rid ourselves of the superfluous decor and with it the useless waste, the powerless excess, the illogical exaggeration, and all that was alien to the nature of man from the beginning and therefore harmful and degenerative to society as a whole. The Bauhaus, which was founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919 after the First World War, which finally ended the long 19th century, was the symbol of the architecture and design for this new era.
After this rough and wild ride through the history it is time to pause briefly. For after my execution one can legitimately ask some questions: progress, usefulness, reason, logic, thrift – these are all great things, right? And even more so if the idea is to spread them through products, that should finally be made accessible to everyone; Tremendous! And that was actually the case. For every criticism of modern functionalism, that focuses only on its brutal, reduction-motivated side, precisely reproduces this one-sided image and must repeat the mistake that the functionalists made themselves. Functional design, and especially the design of the Bauhaus, was more than just the contempt for all ornaments. Many designers and design historians would disagree with me if that would be my statement. If the idea of the Bauhaus had been based on this mere rejection, the reactionary coolness, it would never have been so formative for the design discipline. For what the Bauhaus wanted to do was to design no less than the future itself. A utopian future that had freed itself from the past of a class society. A future in which the industrially manufactured products had become affordable for everyone. A future in which these industrial products did not have to lose either aesthetics nor simply tried to repeat the well-known bourgeois style. The idea was to find beauty in the most limited, minimalist ways. A beauty that had a place in everyday life. Their expression was not exclusiveness, but simplicity, which everyone could enjoy because they followed comprehensible rules. Thus the Bauhaus idea was to bring beauty to the everyday life of every human being through the aesthetics of industrial products – through art. And Gropius himself actually said: art and technology – a new unity.
That is the myth that still today surrounds the Bauhaus and makes up much of the charm of functionalism. It was an unprecedented task that had never been formulated before. It was a truly avant-garde advance. The title of this article, however, already hints at my skepticism. I can not stop at this overwhelmingly positive summary. So what had gone wrong?
Three things can be said against the functionalism which the Bauhaus and its successor institution, the HfG Ulm, represented. First, they used an aesthetic of absolute necessity and thus restricted the horizon of possibilities for design. They absolutized the one all-determining function. They subordinated everything else. The problem here, however, is the determination of the one primary function, the essence according to which the form is to be directed. Linked to it is the degradation of everything else as superfluous. This thought is based on the idea that one can recognize and depict this function in a distilled, completely pure state, and that the resulting good form would be a general, timeless design. Timeless design, however, is a contradiction in itself. And even if there is actually a kind of hierarchical main function, this is only given to us by the complex network of different side functions and by the interaction of a particular user with the object. Which function is created when interacting with another user and which secondary functions influence the main function in that context is a completely different story. Secondly, and this is the more serious mistake because because it’s a political one, it was the declared attempt of the Bauhaus as well as the HfG Ulm to educate the people through the good form to good citizens with appropriate tastes. As much as man was generally at the center of the design, the maxim of the good form contained an elitist tutelage and equalization of the otherwise tasteless masses. However herein equality undergoes its dialectical inversion. For if you set it as an abstract idealistic goal, it automatically creates inequality. There are always those who are not yet equal enough to adapt themselves to this good taste. This is the fault of every ideology that strives for equality as a merit in itself. It does not take the people in their difference seriously.
The B3 chair – also known as Wassily Chair – was developed by Marcel Breuer between 1925 and 26 at the Bauhaus Dessau. The chair was given this name by an Italian furniture company after they had learned that Kandinsky, who was a teacher at the Bauhaus at the same time as Breuer, had admired the design and had a B3 chair made for his private rooms.
And even if a chair by Marcel Breuer or a shelf by Dieter Rams may look as if they were designed even in the smallest detail with absolute necessity and therefore with general validity; As if there was no alternative to this one solution – they only use an aesthetic of this necessity they call functionalism. They play with this calculation. If Marcel Breuer’s chair was placed in a hut of the Hadzabe from Tanzania or a Mongolian yurt, one would already have to agree with the idea of a superior culture to assert that the chair was not entirely unsuitable and out of place. The idea that there is a timeless and universal design arises from the same arrogance with which one believes that experts have to educate people on good taste. It is the eternal stumbling block of the avant-garde who thinks they know better than everyone else.
The third and final argument against the functionalism of modernity is certainly not as strong as the other two, the aesthetic and the political one. But it allows for a completely different view of the intentions of the Bauhaus and leaves unsightly scratches in the otherwise so steely ideals. It is the equation which places people at the center of the efforts of the Bauhaus. Thus, the unity of art and technology for man becomes the instrumentalization of art to the subordination of man to technology. I will try to explain that in other words. One can, of course, see that industrial production produced entirely new kinds of objects that demanded a new, minimalist and unadorned aesthetic. But if one reads this the other way around, industrial production demanded a minimalist aesthetic, because it could only produce unadorned objects and had to sell them massively. From this point of view it was not so much the aesthetics of pure form as such, but the justification of industrial, schematic production, and the associated increase in value and sales. I would be the last person to blame design for being oriented towards the market. Design was and is determined by economic interests, even if it is always able to rise above those. This change in the direction of perspective however relativises the idealistic representations of the Bauhaus and raises the question of the extent to which technology exists for man and not the other way round.
What can be deduced from this deconstruction of functionalism? What can you learn as a designer? On the one hand, the function is always a more complex thing than we would have thought and design is not always fulfilled in one purpose. It is not as useful. Let us take the quite mundane function of a pepper mill. At home in my kitchen this is a very profane process with a small plastic mill. The food is not yet spicy enough, I add a little pepper. In my favorite Italian restaurant however the wonderful, creaking, huge wooden mill from this simple thing creates an extraordinary ritual. You lean back, give the waiter the space above the plate, watch full of anticipation – you are hungry after all – how the ground grains fall on the food. Then you signal with a short »thank you« that the food is now spicy enough. So where is the pure function hiding in this? There is, of course, none. The context creates the function. Furthermore, the bad idea of the good form reminds us that we have to take the user of our design seriously. How can we do this? Good design always involves the knowledge of its own non-necessity and remains open to potentiality. There are still other solutions and alternatives, but that does not mean that the current one can not be particularly good. It may be particularly beautiful and particularly suitable; If it is really good, it is both. Only the best of all solutions is impossible, because it does not exist. The beginning is already made when we stop striving for this unachievable ideal. And as I have tried to lay out, it is actually not a truly desirable ideal. So let’s lean back a bit, let’s get confused by the clinging (s), or just brush away the complete, all too serious ending:
Form follows fun
By Felix Kosok
Felix Kosok is a research associate at the University for Art and Design Offenbach. The topic of his dissertation is the interdependence of design and democracy. He is particularly interested in the critical influence that design can have on society.