Form follows function

The concept that “form follows function” has been discussed, debated, and argued for many years, yet it’s often taken out of context. In this post, I’m going to explore what it really means and how it applies to theatrical design.

First, here’s the quote in its original context:

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his light or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds—over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.”
—Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), in The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine #57 (March 1896) pp. 403-09.

Unfortunately, for some reason, that idea is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that the design of an object can either be functional or aesthetic, but not both at the same time. In the case of stage sets, I’ve even seen directors question whether a “functional” set that physically supports the action can be attractive, or the other way around. But Sullivan didn’t mean that they can’t be, and it has been proven many times.

For instance, let’s look at an extreme case of a form following its function — a great white shark:

As Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) said to Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) in Jaws, “…what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.” This animal is all business, yet its form — sleek, graceful, and built for speed — is actually very elegant.

Now let’s look at a bridge, a structure whose only function is to allow people and goods to cross an obstacle such as a body of water. Here’s the Golden Gate Bridge, which totally fulfills its function, yet is very elegant:

Just a few miles away (until it was replaced), was the original eastern portion of the Bay Bridge, going from Yerba Buena Island to Oakland. This structure fulfilled its function too, but it wasn’t very sleek or attractive.

Here’s another example: two airplanes.

Warplanes are designed for one specific purpose, and, like the shark, they’re all business. All the money goes into the machine’s function — there’s no ornamentation in the designs. This plane, a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt (aka a “Warthog”) certainly fulfills its job description, but it’s not very attractive:

Yet this one, a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet (as used by the Navy Blue Angels), is all business too, but is very sleek and elegant:

I think we can safely say that, in the case of three of the photos above, an object can totally fulfill its intended function and still be attractive and elegant. That’s where Sullivan was going: an object’s form has to follow its function, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be attractive too. We’ve all seen products that don’t work as advertised, and I have to believe it’s partially because the designers didn’t really understand what the products were supposed to do.

In the case of a stage set, we can (and should) start by considering the real needs of the story, and by understanding what the characters have to do and why they have to do it. That’s what helps us create a space that supports the story. As Lindsay Price said in The answers are in there, the dialogue (and not necessarily the stage directions) can give us a lot of information about this.

Then, once we have accounted for the physical needs of the story, we can get really creative and focus on the visual elements that help define the space as what it is and clue us in as to who the characters are.

For instance, in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, we can create a very nice, upscale, attractive apartment which has been pretty much trashed by Oscar after his wife moved out and took most of the furniture and artwork. That contrast, between what was once obviously a very nice home and what it is now, can tell us volumes about Oscar even before the play begins.

On the other hand, Simon’s California Suite, which takes place in two adjoining rooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel, wants to start out as two clean, elegant, expensive hotel rooms.  At the start of each segment, the rooms don’t tell us anything personal about the couples who stay there, but they do tell us about their social class, since they can afford to stay at the ritzy hotel.

One final example — here’s an item that has one and only one function, which is to tell time, yet the clockmaker was able to create a truly beautiful piece. In this case, form definitely follows function.