We Get the Design We Deserve
“Form follows function,” said the great Louis Sullivan; and partly because its author has “the great” in front of his name, but even more because it is alliterative, “Form follows function” has become the most-repeated adage in the world of design:—the most repeated, and the most misunderstood. If you had asked Mr. Sullivan whether he meant that the bare outlines of form must be presented to the world naked and without ornament, he would have told you he did not mean that, possibly including some colorful Chicago language for emphasis. He spent his whole career trying to come up with a native American system of ornament that would beat the pants off the stale European imports. We can be sure that he did not mean to leave us an inviolable commandment against any kind of decoration.
Yet that is indeed the way his dictum has been interpreted by myriad self-appointed censors of taste in design. Ornament as ornament became a cardinal sin. Form itself must suffice.
A beautiful form needs no adornment, as many a naturist has argued. Yet we do still wear clothes—most of us, at any rate. We have many reasons for waring them, but not the least important of those reasons is that we like our individuality. We like to believe that we are different and look different from the common herd.
Architects and designers also like to be different. Furthermore, we demand it of them. We use “original” as a term of praise and “derivative” as a playground insult.
But the designer of practical things who believes that ornament is banned is presented with a difficult problem. Suppose the task is to design a chair. We have been making chairs for a long while now. It is not a new science, the making of chairs. Over the past few millennia, the ideal form for a chair that is sturdy and reasonably comfortable to sit in has been worked out. Insofar as your chair design deviates from that ideal form, your design is worse. But you want to be different. You want to be original. Because you have only the form to work with, you make a chair that no one wants to sit in. It was a standard sight gag in cartoons and movies—the grumpy character actor or cartoon dog trying to make himself comfortable on a modern couch or chair. It was funny because everyone had had the same experience. Victorians could also produce uncomfortable furniture if they tried, but they did not try as often or as hard.
Victorian furniture, in fact, has a high likelihood of comfort. Victorian furniture-makers might crust their creations over with irrelevant ornament, but that was because they were working within a small repertory of forms known to be well adapted to the human body. The riot of patterns and doodads might offend your aesthetic sensibilities, but they did not hurt.
Where does that leave us? Well, a tasteful designer knows how to make ornament relevant. Consider the ancient Greeks: they made use of some complicated ornamental forms, like the volutes and acanthus leaves on a Corinthian column. But that capital is not just a florist’s arrangement tossed in any old where to appease the florists’ guild: it is placed exactly where there needs to be a flaring of the column to assure us that it is supporting the roof. The whole shape of the capital is exactly right for the place it occupies; it would be absurd anywhere else. That is relevant ornament.
It is almost as cheap to have beautiful design today as it is to have ugly design. It would be delightful to have whole neighborhoods of craftsmen again shaping each of our necessities with a master’s practiced touch, but manufactured things can be made beautiful. We can have elegant furniture, appliances, and even construction materials rolling out of our factories any time we like. If consumers demand them, capitalism will supply them.
But we must demand them. The magic of capitalism is that it supplies us with whatever we think we want. If we do not indicate that we want good design, then our world will be designed for us by the capitalists—that is, by people who love money more than art. It is good that such people exist. Our commerce could not do without them. But it is up to us, the consumers, to guide their taste. If we do not form our own aesthetic sense and make it clear what we want by opening our wallets for it, then we will continue to get uninspired and uninspiring design, and we will deserve it.