The Function of Form

October 29, 2008

Before I continue with The Interior Dimension, I want to put down some of my thoughts on the question of form and function.

These two words are some of the most used and abused in the design community, and are loaded with connotations which vary widely based upon each individuals experience.

Louis Sullivan, an architect from chicago at the turn of the 20th century, coined the phrase.

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.

(“The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, Louis J. Sullivan, March, 1896)



Sullivan believed that any aesthetic consideration must be subservient to the function of the structure. This didn’t mean that Sullivan left all ornamental elements out of his designs, he just felt that they were secondary to the functionality of the building.

Some have taken form follows function to extreme levels and have eliminated all aesthetic considerations out of their designs. This can create some rather soul crushing buildings.


Others have said that form and function are the same thing; that a functional building draws it’s form and beauty from it’s ability to do a job and do it well. While this can often be true, I think that it still falls short of ideal.

I think that form and function are inseperable, and must be considered at the same time, but they are still two distinct elements to design. I think that form should support the function of a building, and should not be elevated to a status which hinders the use of the building. I think that function should have a beauty in the simplicity of it’s fufiling the needs of the users.

Let me phrase it this way:

“Form is the soul of function. Function is the thought behind form.”



  1. There is a consistent theme we see all the time in biology and that is, form determines function. The way something is designed gives a clue as to its function. A red blood cell is shaped like a donut so as to make it an efficient transporter of nutrients in the body. If a blood cell were to become sickle shaped, its function becomes compromised. In a way, form is everything. To change the form is to alter the function or compromise the quality of function. That’s not to say function is secondary. On the contrary, it is the function that brings out the beauty of the form.


  2. I am not a member of the aforementioned ‘design community’ so forgive my ignorance. But it seems to me that the form of the blood cell was determined by its function. Certainly if it is formed differently, it’s function changes, even to the point of becoming dysfunctional. What is intriguing to me are the examples of form in nature which defy functional explanation. Evolutionary biologists struggle to come up with explanations based on this or that, but some presumed distinction of function cannot really explain the existence of multiple colors, shapes, and varieties of butterflies, can it?

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