Among its many achievements, modern design opened our
eyes to the beauty of functional objects without ornamental disguise, of
compact and efficiently arranged working parts, as well as machinefabricated
materials like tubular steel, wire mesh and carbon fiber. In
the hands of designers like Marianne Brandt, Walter Gropius or, more
recently, Jasper Morrison, even humble domestic items like a corkscrew,
a tea set or a coffee pot might brilliantly marry form to function. From
an early modernist point of view, furniture too should adhere to strict
principles—a chair is not only a piece of sculpture made for visual
enjoyment, but also a seat that must abide by the determinants of physical
facts and human necessities.
Broadly, one can say that every object that functions properly is a viable
product, a successful expression of the designer’s intent and integrity,
the fulfillment of a need or desire. Yet, there are certain things—
buildings, tools, tables, chairs—that reveal more clearly their nature as
an artifact, as an item made by the hand of man or his machines to serve
a particular purpose. The wood beams of a building, the articulated
parts or brass connectors of a piece of equipment, the exposed joints
of a chair, offer evidence of constructive assembly and attentiveness to
practical matters. Far from rendering such things inelegant or dull, the
honest expression of function often comes as a breath of fresh air in a
world of visual complexity and stylistic eclecticism.
While modernism or functionalism has been sharply criticized for
becoming as formulaic as the traditions it abandoned, today’s best
designers have recaptured individuality while honoring the precedents
of the 20th century. No detail is either hidden or celebrated, just
thoughtfully considered and utterly appropriate in the hierarchy of a
product’s features. The details of design express and support function,
without serving a doctrine that insists that practicality trump aesthetics.
At the same time, we would do well to remember that the beauty of all
natural objects, and many man-made objects, when examined, turns out
to be a by-product of function—the helix of a snail’s shell, the structure
of a woven material, the materials and contours of a work chair.