From musical wine glasses to self-filtering popcorn bowls, the distinctive variety of our collection relies on interactions of form and function. Sometimes these interactions are straight out of the design handbook; sometimes, they’re more playful and ironic. Whatever the case, a familiar phrase comes to mind: form follows function. You’ve probably heard it batted around—at a cocktail party or in your undergrad art history course—but you may not know where this quotable bit of design history originates.
Chicago, 1896: a maverick American architect sets out to define an emerging building type that will transform American skylines from coast to coast in the next century—the tall office building, or “skyscraper.” Through a progression of projects, from the Wainwright building in St. Louis to the Guaranty building in Buffalo, Louis Sullivan showed an increasingly clear vision of how the tall office building—a form driven by commercial imperatives—could be designed to reflect its essential nature as a “tall and soaring thing.” At the same time, he put down his pencil long enough to write a sort of manifesto for his skyscraper vision: “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” In this essay was an innocent turn of phrase destined for design school glory: “…form ever follows function.” Like in the old game of “telephone,” this phrase was slightly paraphrased in the retelling, becoming “form follows function,” and a design nerd’s bumper sticker was born.
Prudential (Guaranty) Building, Wikipedia
Not to be outdone, Sullivan’s famous protégé and master appropriator, Frank Lloyd Wright, adopted the aphorism but put his own transcendental spin in it, saying that “[form follows function] has been misunderstood—form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” It’s a prime example of Wright extending his mentor’s principles into his own organic definition of design. But when Sullivan coined the phrase—and when Wright re-branded it—they intended it as an assertion of an aspiration, rather than the revelation of any Platonic design truth.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Wikipedia
In retrospect, Wright’s insistence that form and function are inextricable stifles his progressive potential. Postmodern design offers examples of form forcing function—one of the main critiques of branded, “starchitect” design of the last few decades. In 2009, Alice Rawsthorn declared the demise of “form follows function,” citing its fading relevance in the age of digital design.* Counter to this obituary, some recent products demonstrate an ironic inversion of the form / function relationship: Lee Goodwin’s Driftwood and Birch iPhone Docks bring unabashedly organic flair to design-for-digital applications, while Jeff Davis’ Record Amplifier draws sound from old records in an unexpected way.
So it seems that Louis Sullivan’s most quotable concept is still on designers’ pin boards today, if only as a platform for playful inversions of his intent.