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Posted on July 27th, 2012, by

The development of design contributed to the emergence of new styles and trend which influenced the art consistently. At the same time, the concept of form and function were traditionally fundamental for designers of different epochs. In this respect, the late 19th century and the 20th century design is not an exception. In spite of numerous experiments, designers could not ignore form and function which actually defined the development of design. At the same time, the form and the function were often closely intertwined and interdependent since form, to a significant extent, defines function and, vice versa, function can define the form. Nevertheless, the 20th century marked a considerable shift from the dominance of form in design to the dominance of function over the form.

The reason of such interdependence in design is quite obvious. If an object’s form does not meet its function than the object cannot perform its function properly. And, vice versa, a designer needs to take into consideration the function of the object when he works on its creation. In such a way, the interdependence of the form and the function is obvious, but, nevertheless, views of specialists on the form and function can vary consistently.

Moreover, it is important to underline the fact that the development of any new style naturally implies the development of new forms, while functions often remained similar. In such a context, it is possible to speak about the different level of functionality of objects having different forms since some objects can be more functional, if their form meets exactly the original function of the object, or objects can be less function, if their form does not fully meet their functions. At this point, it is also possible to speak about objects which have dysfunctional form as objects of art which rather express ideas or emotions of their designer than have any practical, functional value.

On analyzing views of different specialists on form and function, especially in the design of the 20th century, it is possible to refer to the work of Susan Lambert, “Design in the 20th century: Form Follows Function?”¯, in which the author discusses the evolution of design in the 20th century and pays a particular attention to the change of the form and the function. First of all, the author points out that the wide implementation of machinery has changed consistently the design of the 20th century, especially at the beginning of the century. She points out that the development of design, being influenced by the impact of machinery economy, resulted in the deviation from the close interdependence between the form and the function.

The author argues that many objects were deprived of their original forms[1], while their designers attempted to preserve their functionality. In other words, the design of that epoch was characterized by numerous experiments in form, though functions of objects remained practically unchanged. The functionality has started to play the dominant role in the design since designers believed that the beauty of modern machines lied in their functionality[2]. Consequently, it is possible to estimate that functionality and the function were prior to forms. On the other hand, the orientation on the functionality contributed to the emergence of the variety of forms.

At the same time, the author argues that the emergence of the constructionist movement stimulated the growing concerns of designers with forms. For instance, Lambert points out that Le Corbusier paid a lot of attention to forms and he was a renowned admirer of ancient forms, which he defined as the “most beautiful forms”¯ (p.26). Eventually, the author concludes her analysis of the development of the 20th century design underlying the idea that functionalism dominated in the design of that epoch that means that forms were, to a significant extent, defined by their functions and the practical, functional applicability of objects were prior to their forms[3].

At the same time, it should be said that the idea of functionality can be traced in works of many specialists working on the problem of the development of design in the 20th century. For instance, Adolf Loos in his “Ornament and Crime”¯ also repeatedly conveys the idea that the functionality is prior to the form, which plays a secondary role in design. However, unlike Lambert, Loos mainly focuses his attention on ornaments as elements of design. In fact, the author is very critical, if not to say skeptical, in regard to the wide use of ornaments in design. Throughout his article, he attempt to convince readers that ornaments are absolutely unnecessary and useless since they do not actually have any practical or functional value.

For instance, he argues that “ornaments are wasted labor[4] that proves his disregard to ornaments as elements of design, which can affects consistently the form of objects but have a little impact on their functions. In such a context, he cannot understand the interest of designers in ornaments and he wants to eliminate ornaments from design, freeing it from “the yoke of ornament”¯[5].Instead, he argues that “the form of an object should last, that is, we should find it tolerable as long as the object itself lasts”¯[6]. In such a way, the form is important for him, but it is important from the point of view of the object’s functionality. No wonder that the author concludes by expressing his admiration with the end of ornaments that, Loos believes, contributed to the blossoming of arts[7].

In order to understand the importance of functionalism in the 20th century design, it is possible to refer to George Marcus’s “Functionalist Design: An Ongoing History”¯, where the author traces the emergence and evolution of functionalism in the design of the 20th century. The key idea the author wants to convey to his audience is the idea that functionalism persists, even though many critics of functionalism argue that functionalism is in decline and this movement does not have any prospects in the future design[8]. Marcus apparently disagrees with such a view on functionalism. At the same, on analyzing the essence of functionalism and its evolution, the author underlines that initially functionalism was oriented on the simplicity of form, which allows designers to create objects which are highly functional. To put it more precisely, he states that functionalism is the notion that “objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; well adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament”¯[9].

At the same time, Marcus lays emphasis on the fact that such a trend to the simplification of the form and dominance of the functionality became dominant in the 20th century design and, what is more it has “defined the course of progressive design for most of this [20th] century”¯[10]. In his article, Marcus reveals that functionalism evolved and progressed in the course of the century and after its appearance in architecture it soon became very popular in design of the 20th century (p. 9) that proved the superiority of the functionality over forms.

Another proponent of functionalism is Dieter Rams, whose work “Omit Unimportant”¯ is another argument in favor of the domination of functionalism in the design of the 20th century. As the matter of fact, Dieter Rams stands on the ground that “every industrial product serves to a specific purpose”¯[11]. Obviously, such a purpose-oriented approach defines the further support of the superiority of objects’ functionality compared to their form. On analyzing the work of Rams, it should be said that his ideas are quite radical since his principle idea “omit unimportant”¯ is, in a way, similar to Loos’s neglect and contempt of ornaments.

But if Loos considers ornaments useless, than Rams beliefs that any element of the form that does not contribute to the functionality of the object is unimportant and should be omitted[12]. In such a way, he promotes the idea of the utilitarian, functionalist approach to design, which implies simplicity and functionality of objects. At the same time, Rams mainly refers to his personal experience on the ground of which he arrives to two major conclusions. Firstly, he states that “items should be designed in such a way that their functions and attributes are directly understood”¯[13] and, secondly, “the fewer the opportunities used to create informative design, the more design serves to evoke emotional responses”¯[14]. In such a way, Rams appreciates the functionality and the usefulness of objects to people above all, including the form[15].

Finally, it is worth mentioning the article “Styles of Modernism”¯, by K. B. Hiessinger and G.H. Marcus, who attempted to analyze the evolution of the 20th century design. The authors point out that the development of modern styles was characterized by the progressing trend to abstract, geometric, cubist-inspired forms[16]. A the same time, they argue that the traditional design of the past, which paid a lot of attention to the form, gave in to the modern styles, which put forward the function as the defining element of design. The authors research the development of different modernist movements and they attempt to view them not only from utilitarian point of view, but they rather view them as objects of arts and the seeming simplicity forms is interpreted by the authors just as a new style in the 20th century design[17]. On the other hand, they note that traditional luxury objects were steadily replaced by new industrial objects which have “entirely new forms”¯[18] and were more functional than traditional objects and this was the common trend of the 20ht century design.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the development of the 20th century design was marked by a considerable shift in the perception of the form and the function. In fact, instead of the dominance of beautiful forms, the 20th century design was mainly concerned with functionality. As a result, functionalism became the mainstream movement in the design of the 20th century defining the dominance of the function over the form. In such a way, the 20th century became an important, transformational epoch in the development of the design. At the same time, the changes in the 20th century design laid the foundation to the modern design and the impact of the 20th century design still persists.



[1] Lambert, S. 1993. Design in the 20th century: Form Follows Function? Victoria and Albert Museum, p.16

[2] Lambert, S. 1993. Design in the 20th century: Form Follows Function? Victoria and Albert Museum, p. 21.

[3] Lambert, S. 1993. Design in the 20th century: Form Follows Function? Victoria and Albert Museum, p.29

[4] Loos, A. 1998. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ariadne Press, p.171

[5] Loos, A. 1998. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ariadne Press, p.168

[6] Loos, A. 1998. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ariadne Press, p.172

[7] Loos, A. 1998. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ariadne Press, p.175

[8] Marcus, G. M. 1993. Functionalist Design: An Ongoing History. New York: Prestel-Verlag, p.15

[9] Marcus, G. M. 1993. Functionalist Design: An Ongoing History. New York: Prestel-Verlag, p.8

[10] Marcus, G. M. 1993. Functionalist Design: An Ongoing History. New York: Prestel-Verlag, p.8

[11] Rams, D. Omit the Unimportant, p. 111.

[12] Rams, D. Omit the Unimportant, p. 111.

[13] Rams, D. Omit the Unimportant, p. 112

[14] Rams, D. Omit the Unimportant, p. 112.

[15] Rams, D. Omit the Unimportant, p. 113.

[16] Hiesienger, K.B. and G.H. Marcus. 1993. Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design: An Illustrated Handbook. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, p.77.

[17] Hiesienger, K.B. and G.H. Marcus. 1993. Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design: An Illustrated Handbook. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, p.79.

[18] Hiesienger, K.B. and G.H. Marcus. 1993. Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design: An Illustrated Handbook. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, p.79

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