Function Follows Form
October 19, 2006 8:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples that turn the aphorism "form follows function" on its head. The idea that functions can be inspired by new forms.

It could be examples of appropriation, ala Gibson's "The Street Finds Its Own Uses For Things". Or maybe adapting to existing forms, like Venice using canals instead of roads. Could be accidental discoveries like Silly Putty or Post-it Notes, or exploiting new materials, like the use of steel as a building material instead of wood, or plastic instead of glass. I'm even looking for ideas that stretch the notion of what a form is, like laws or religion or social norms, as long as they inspire new functions.
posted by Jeff Howard to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to use architectural examples for this, because even when an architect's expressed intent is to use modern building materials (cf. Le Corbusier), the form of the structures necessarily adheres to the inherent properties of the material. I suppose that "function follows form" could be applied to some buildings such as Peter Eisenmann's Wexner Center, which while innovative in concept, is famously poor for its "function," which is displaying art.
posted by The Michael The at 8:27 AM on October 19, 2006

Is this to say, "function over (as in, is better than) form," or the reverse?
posted by vanoakenfold at 8:29 AM on October 19, 2006

In planning or design, "form follows function" is taken to mean that one's primary consideration must be function, and only from there can form be considered. So it's not really a quesetion of which is "better," but which is the primary consideration.
posted by The Michael The at 8:34 AM on October 19, 2006

Jewelery? specifically the Right Handed Ring which until a few years ago had no purpose at all.
posted by jeff_w_welch at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2006

You could argue that in the received view of evolution by natural selection, in which new mutations selected for or against arise altogether randomly, function always and inevitably follows form.
posted by jamjam at 9:07 AM on October 19, 2006

When cellphones first came out, many didn't have a clock on them, so people still wore watches. Nowadays, every cellphone has a clock, and (at least in North America) an increasing majority of people have a cell phone.

So now less and less people are wearing watches, and instead using their cellphones as a timepiece. In fact, if you watch somebody checking the time on a phone, it looks almost identical to checking the time on a pocket watch. I know for myself that my phone has taken over the function that I used to have a watch for.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:51 AM on October 19, 2006

Is this to say, "function over (as in, is better than) form," or the reverse?
When Louis Sullivan coined the original aphorism in 1886 (form follows function) he wasn't exactly saying that one was better than the other, just that considerations for function need to come first. That is, the form should arise out of the requirements of the function.

I'm not trying to make a case for either being better than the other, just that "form follows function" isn't the only way to look at that relationship.
posted by Jeff Howard at 10:09 AM on October 19, 2006

How about the Lenna image now commonly used as a sample/test image for imamge based software?
posted by alikins at 10:46 AM on October 19, 2006

holy crap alikins, that's a FPP to the blue if ever I saw one. flesh it out a bit and post that bad boy.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:22 AM on October 19, 2006

Within the last few years, the microplane tool used by woodworkers has been appropriated by chefs and foodies for use in the kitchen. I've heard that it's so good at zesting citrus fruits, it's better than any of the tools that were designed for the specific purpose of zesting. The kitchen gadget industry has even started selling them for kitchen use, so the chefs no longer need to visit a woodworking store to get one.

It's not like the new function is exceptionally different from the originally intended one, but it sort of qualifies.
posted by vytae at 11:25 AM on October 19, 2006

cosmicbandito: someone already posted it
posted by alikins at 11:38 AM on October 19, 2006

You could argue that in the received view of evolution by natural selection, in which new mutations selected for or against arise altogether randomly, function always and inevitably follows form.

And yet Louis Sullivan's ideas were heavily influenced by Darwin, in that every form in a plant or animal has a purpose in that species' survival. Here's the original quote:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, 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.

Postmodernism in design, particularly as practised by Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group, was a reaction to the austere modernist interpretation of "form follows funtion." They exploered ways that objects have significance that goes far beyond their use. They did things like sticking a bunch of little plastic flags to the head of a spray bottle, just to give it a diferent identity. Another example is Philippe Starck's famous juicer "Juicy Salif", which is all about identity at the expense of utility.

One of the biggest design firms out there, IDEO, has a methodology based on careful obervations of what people actually do when they interact with the world around them. They're big on uncovering unplanned but obvious uses for objects, what they call Thoughtless Acts. There's a book, website, and flickr pool.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is what you mean, but the function of a protein results from its form. A biochemist (which I am not) could describe this better.
posted by penchant at 11:42 AM on October 19, 2006

Penchant, I think that's the first real answer Jeff's gotten so far.
It's an interesting question - the best I can come up with is people using abalone shells as ashtrays.
posted by Flashman at 12:26 PM on October 19, 2006

The first example I can think of offhand would be a hiking trail which forms on a natural feature of the landscape, such as a gently sloping hillside. The feature is there already, and hikers seeking to cross will consistently follow the easiest ascent/decent and eventually form a trail, which yet more hikers use because there's already a beaten path there. At some point, the trail might become further formalized with the addition of human-placed route markers and appear upon maps.

Another would be stone sculpture. A stone carver will often start with a general idea of what he or she wants but allows the features and flaws in the particular block of stone to dictate where the carving takes place. A common response from stone sculptors are words to the effect of, "The [whatever he or she carved] was already in the stone, I just revealed it." Arguably, this is a lesser example as the stone would have lain uncarved until someone consciously decided to apply a function to it.

A third example would be the effects of automobile ownership saturation to single-family home design. Older (pre-WW2) homes were not routinely built with garages and the ones that do have the garage as a detached structure (often converted sheds or barns), usually sized to accomodate no more than one vehicle, placed in the back yard, accessible by a narrow path alongside the house. From the mid-1950s on, new home designs started featuring an attached garage which had moved to the front of the homes. As the saturation of auto ownership in the USA continued to increase, the one car garage grew to fit two cars, and now (sadly) three is becoming standard, with four car garages not unusual in McMansion developments. The multi-car garage has spawned yet another function following form: two car families which use the extra indoor parking spaces solely as storage of household items (and interestingly, returning the garage to its roots as a place to store stuff, not vehicles).
posted by jamaro at 12:30 PM on October 19, 2006

Penchant, I really like that example. I need to look into it more, but in general it goes into a category I'm thinking of along the lines of physical laws (physics or chemistry) as forms. This also touches on your example jamaro of a stone sculpture. People carve stone because its form allows carving. We don't carve things like liquids because their form doesn't normally allow that function.

The garage example is also interesting for how it reveals the cyclical nature of forms shaping other forms, and other functions.
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:00 PM on October 19, 2006

Many designs by Raymond Lowey, for example, the streamlined toaster.

Or for that matter, tail fins on 1950s cars.

Harlequin glasses.

Deeley Boppers, propellor beanies.

Bustles. Butt falsies.
posted by KRS at 1:11 PM on October 19, 2006

We can't carve water (I'm not including ice, here) but we do shape water's liquid state in artistic expression and as functional tools.

The other thing I thought of after my initial comment was log canoes, the builders of which exploited the natural assets of a fallen tree: soft, easily removed heartwood, bouyancy and durability of the outer layer of wood, and the hydrodynamic shape of the trunk.
posted by jamaro at 3:58 PM on October 19, 2006

A very interesting quotation and link, hydrophonic.

I wonder if Sullivan understood that his approach directly contradicted Darwin's theory-- Sullivan seems to be Lamarckian, if anything-- or merely invoked Darwin because he was what was new, mysterious and exciting, somewhat the way New Age gurus now invoke quantum mechanics.

The appearance of spontaneous, random mutation, upon which evolutionary innovation depends, would seem to have much more in common with the playful effusiveness you attribute to Sottsass and his circle, except for the fact that the very great majority of mutations are harmful, and commonly fatal.
posted by jamjam at 6:43 PM on October 19, 2006

What occurred to me was the Audi slogan Vorchsprung durch Technik (Forward through technology), but then I read the more inside and realized you did not want examples of aphorisms, but instead real-life examples.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:50 PM on October 19, 2006

jamjam, I'd agree that Sullivan was under the influence of the zeitgeist. I don't know if he ever invoked Darwin specifically, and he seemed not to understand the process of mutation. (He says, "Where function does not change form does not change.") Anyway, he'd be more interested in the outcome of natural selection than the process. The "law" as he calls it, means it's not random--it's the intent of the Creator or the Force of Nature. If you take away intent, where does that leave a designer? Or maybe the mulitple ideas a designer generates in the creative process are akin to mutations. You might sketch out hundreds of ideas on napkins before selecting the solution that's fittest.

Just to be accurate I should say that sticking plastic flags on things was an exercise of Studio Alchimia, from which Sottsass left to form the Memphis Group.

To go back to the original question, I think we're really stretching the definitions of "form" and "function" here, and we're ending up with a chicken/egg conundrum. Is the adhesive in Post-It notes the form? I'd say the form is the size of the paper and the way they are packaged pre-stuck together in a neat stack and how there's only a strip of the adhesive on each sheet.

But in regards to new technologies and materials: a market push is product development that follows new advances in technology (as opposed to a pull, which is when you meet consumer's existing needs.) Google "technology push" and you'll get a lot of papers on the subject.

There are a lot of cases where discoveries are accidental.

Here's a consulting firm that helps companies find uses for new materials.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:02 PM on October 19, 2006

Thanks everyone, lot's of food for thought here.
posted by Jeff Howard at 9:34 AM on October 20, 2006

Jeff, try this link for more about the protein thing. I didn't read it all, but the first sentence basically says what I was trying to:

"The properties of a protein are determined by its covalently-linked amino acid sequence, otherwise known as its primary structure."

Any googling of protein, structure/form, and function should yield a wealth of information.
posted by penchant at 11:25 AM on October 20, 2006

marshall mcluhan immediately comes to mind. "the medium is the message." also, slightly less directly tied in, but it still relates, is the whole "art for art's sake" aesthete bit. mmhm.
posted by ifjuly at 11:25 PM on October 24, 2006

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