Function describes why a thing exists. A thing with a function was designed, made, and used, to do something specific. Form, on the other hand, describes the visible shape or form of a thing. Unless, of course, you subscribe to Plato’s Theory of Forms (with a capital F, for ‘Fuck off, Plato, and your damned solution to the problem of universals), where that guy argues that non-physical forms or ideas represent the most accurate reality.
Back to function.
A boat performs the function of creating a hole in the water into which you pour your money.
A blog performs the function of splattering my thoughts all over the internet.
A hammer performs the function of whacking something.
Function, Purpose, Role (playing)
A function is not the same as a purpose or a role, although these words are often used as if they all mean the same thing.
A function always remains the same.
If something has a function, it is used for a purpose, which changes depending on the situation, the person(s) involved, and quite possibly, which way the wind’s blowing that particular day.
Finally, if something has a function, it’s role is defined by where it fits into the purpose.
Let’s use a good construction analogy. Say you got a hammer. It is a large and substantial tool. It’s function is to hit things like nails and thumbs really, really hard. It’s purpose — what to strike and why — is to connect pieces of wood or other material together, or to strike fear in those with lesser hammers.
Whatever, it’s your hammer.
By defining your purpose for using the hammer, whose function is to strike things, you are giving the hammer a role.
Function also describes the job or a duty of a person. Functions, purposes and roles all have the same kind of meanings for jobs as they do for hammers. A function is something about their job that doesn’t change, a purpose is variable and the role of their function depends on the purpose.
The function or the form? Which comes first?
In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve essentially been indoctrinated. In a whole bunch of ways, but in terms of design, ‘form follows function’ has been the law since Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s one-time boss said it was so. Of course that didn’t leap out of Sullivan’s mouth without influence but, he was the one to turn it into a 3-word slogan.
If you take it to the extreme, function, under this law, must essentially determine beauty. The form that something takes is reliant on the function. So you get Brutalism in architecture and retail outlets with walls full of high tech products from a variety of manufacturers, but that all look the same, because they all have the same function. You get businesses that run on the same model and you get software that varies as little as the design of devices it powers. Taken to the extreme, ‘form follows function’ is utilitarian at best, reductionist at worst.
Obeying this law kicks the quirky out of life. Leaves the handcrafted unmade. Makes the maker redundant.
While the Arts and Crafts movement preceded Louis and Frank, by a couple of decades, those Brits were pushing against the machine. They loved the hand in handmade. Crafty old William Morris and gang made beautiful houses and objects, all beautiful and functional in a supremely different way than the Bauhaus or the FLW school.
To counterbalance this in my own special way, I am creating a line of houses that mash up mid-century modern and steampunk styles. More on this later…