Form follows function

Form follows function

Form follows function is a principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.


Origins of the phrase

The authorship of the phrase is often, though wrongly, ascribed to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough,[1] whose thinking to a large extent predates the later functionalist approach to architecture. It was, however, the American architect Louis Sullivan who coined the phrase, in 1896, in his article «The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered». Here Sullivan actually said 'form ever follows function', but the simpler (and less emphatic) phrase is the one usually remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single "rule that shall permit of no exception". The full quote is thus:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.[2]

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn't going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was 'form follows function', as opposed to 'form follows precedent'. Sullivan's assistant Frank Lloyd Wright adopted and professed the same principle in slightly different form—perhaps because shaking off the old styles gave them more freedom and latitude.

Is ornamentation 'functional'?

In 1908 the Austrian architect Adolf Loos famously proclaimed that architectural ornament was criminal, and his essay on that topic would become foundational to Modernism and eventually trigger the careers of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit Rietveld. The Modernists adopted both of these equations—form follows function, ornament is a crime—as moral principles, and they celebrated industrial artifacts like steel water towers as brilliant and beautiful examples of plain, simple design integrity.

These two principles—form follows function, ornament is crime—are often invoked on the same occasions for the same reasons, but they do not mean the same thing. If ornament on a building may have social usefulness like aiding wayfinding, announcing the identity of the building, signaling scale, or attracting new customers inside, then ornament can be seen as functional, which puts those two articles of dogma at odds with each other.

Conversely the argument ‘ornament is crime’ doesn’t say anything about function. It is an aesthetic preference inspired by the Machine Age. While human performance may be enhanced by a sense of well-being endowed by aesthetic pleasure, machines have no such need of beauty to perform their work tirelessly. Ornament becomes an unnecessary relic, or worse, an impediment to optimal engineering design and equipment maintenance. Other stylistic ‘non-functional’ features may rest untouched (e.g., the feeling of space, the composition of the volumes) as we can see in the subsequent abstracted and non-ornamented styles. Much of the confusion between these two concepts comes from the fact that ornament traditionally derives from a function becoming a stylistic character (e.g., the gargoyle from Gothic cathedrals).

Modernism in architecture began as a disciplined effort to allow the shape and organization of a building to be determined only by functional requirements, instead of by traditional aesthetic concepts. It assumes that the designer will determine empirically (or decide arbitrarily) what is or is not a functional requirement. The resulting architecture tended to be shockingly simpler, flatter, and lighter than its older neighbors, possibly due to the limited number of functional requirements upon which the designs were based; their functionality and refreshing nakedness looked as honest and inevitable as an airplane. Modernists believed, perhaps incorrectly, that airplane design did not involve any aesthetic decisions by the airplane designers. A recognizable Modern vocabulary began to develop.


Utilitarianism in architecture can mean several things.

  1. The belief that the value of a feature is determined by its utility. The quality of being utilitarian: housing of bleak utilitarianism.
  2. The aesthetic of exposing necessary materials and features, such as metal or heating pipes, which are normally included in a design for their utility rather than their aesthetic appeal.[3][4]

Application in different fields


Louis Sullivan's phrase "form (ever) follows function" became a battle-cry of Modernist architects after the 1930s. The credo was taken to imply that decorative elements, which architects call "ornament," were superfluous in modern buildings. However, Sullivan himself neither thought nor designed along such dogmatic lines during the peak of his career. Indeed, while his buildings could be spare and crisp in their principal masses, he often punctuated their plain surfaces with eruptions of lush Art Nouveau and something like Celtic Revival decorations, usually cast in iron or terra cotta, and ranging from organic forms like vines and ivy, to more geometric designs, and interlace, inspired by his Irish design heritage. Probably the most famous example is the writhing green ironwork that covers the entrance canopies of the Carson Pirie Scott department store on South State Street in Chicago. These ornaments, often executed by the talented younger draftsman in Sullivan's employ, would eventually become Sullivan's trade mark; to students of architecture, they are his instantly-recognizable signature.

Product design

One episode in the history of the inherent conflict between functional design and the demands of the marketplace happened in 1935, after the introduction of the streamlined Chrysler Airflow, when the American auto industry temporarily halted attempts to introduce optimal aerodynamic forms into mass manufacture. Some carmakers thought that aerodynamic efficiency would result in a single optimal auto-body shape, a "teardrop" shape, which would not be good for unit sales.[5] GM thereafter adopted two different positions on streamlining, one meant for its internal engineering community, the other meant for its customers. Like the annual model year change, so-called aerodynamic styling is often meaningless in terms of technical performance. Subsequently drag coefficient has become both a marketing tool and a means of improving the saleability of a car by reducing its fuel consumption, slightly, and its top speed, markedly.

The American industrial designers of the 1930s and '40s like Raymond Loewy, Norman bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss grappled with the inherent contradictions of 'form follows function' as they redesigned blenders and locomotives and duplicating machines for mass-market consumption. Loewy formulated his ‘MAYA’ (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle to express that product designs are bounded by functional constraints of math and materials and logic, but their acceptance is constrained by social expectations.

By honestly applying ‘form follows function’, industrial designers had the potential to advance their clients right out of business.[citation needed] Some simple single-purpose objects like screwdrivers and pencils and teapots might be reducible to a single optimal form, and through the eyes of a teapot maker that’s simply unacceptable. Some objects made too durable would prevent sales of replacements. From the standpoint of functionality some products are flatly unnecessary, and through the eyes of an electric carving knife maker that’s quite unacceptable.

Victor Papanek (died 1999) was an influential recent designer and design philosopher who taught and wrote as a proponent of "form follows function."

Software engineering

It has been argued that the structure and internal quality attributes of a working, non-trivial software artifact will represent first and foremost the engineering requirements of its construction, with the influence of process being marginal, if any. This does not mean that process is irrelevant, but that processes compatible with an artifact's requirements lead to roughly similar results.[6]

The principle can also be applied to Enterprise Application Architectures of modern business where 'function' is the Business processes which should be assisted by the enterprise architecture, or 'form'. If the architecture dictates how the business operates then the business is likely to suffer from inflexibility unable to adapt to change. SOA Service-Oriented Architecture have enabled Enterprise Architect to rearrange the 'form' of the architecture to meet the functional requirements of a business by adopting standards based communication protocols which enable interoperability.

Aerodynamic shape of Ferrari F430
1938 Type 57SC Atlantic from the Ralph Lauren collection

Automobile designing

If the design of an automobile conforms to its function, as in its aerodynamic shape or wide stance for better vehicle dynamics, then its form is said to follow its function[citation needed]. "Form follows function" can also be an aesthetic point of view that a design can heighten, as often seen in the work of Ettore, Rembrandt, and Jean Bugatti.


According to Lamarck's long-discredited theory of evolution, anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use; for instance, giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection). That is to say in Lamarckian evolution the form is altered by the required function, whereas in Darwinian evolution small variations in form allow some parts of the population to function 'better', and are therefore more successful reproductively.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Horatio Greenough, *Form and Function: Remarks on Art*, edited by Harold A. Small (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1947), who was in his architectural writings influenced by the transcendentalist thinking and the unitarian kind of protestantism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  2. ^ "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered"[dead link],” published Lippincott's Magazine (March 1896).
  3. ^ Distinguished Utilitarian Architecture | Planetizen
  4. ^ utilitarian - definition of utilitarian by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Jeffrey Meikle’s “Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925 – 1939”
  6. ^ Spinellis, Diomidis (May 2008). "A Tale of Four Kernels". ICSE '08: Proceedings of the 30th International Conference on Software Engineering. Leipzig, Germany: Association for Computing Machinery. pp. 381–390. doi:10.1145/1368088.1368140. Retrieved 2011-10-19. 

External links

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