Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Form and Function

I was planning a post about my tap and die project. Or more accurately, my tap and die case project. The focus was going to be “how” I made a wooden case to replace the plastic case that came with the new tap and die set. But - then I thought, hmm, it might be more interesting to talk about "why" I would spend shop time replacing a new, functional plastic case...

Something like:

With a new, functional wooden case.

This is really a discussion of aesthetics. The plastic case was useful to me – that is, by any objective measure, it did all that I needed it to do. It closed tightly, held each tap and die separately and securely, and was tough and durable. In fact, I think I could argue that measured only objectively, it would surpass the utility of the wooden case, being more durable and accepting of physical abuse. However, subjectively, in terms of being aesthetically pleasing to me, it failed miserably.

There is a school of thought (championed by architect Louis Sullivan) that “form ever follows function.” I interpret this to mean that the function of an object is of primary importance, and its appearance or form is of secondary importance, and driven by the function. Objective trumps subjective. The plastic case fits this ideal – the way it looked was determined by what it was being asked to do namely, protect the contents. However, what if I expand the notion of function, of what I am asking it to do; to include being aesthetically pleasing to look at, touch or smell? I mean, come on, I am going to be spending precious shop time with this thing - what if I want more than mere utility? What if the job of the case is to both protect the contents and do so with some degree of beauty? I guess this would change the statement to “form is function” or at least “function is at least partially composed of form” or maybe “Form’N’Function BFF” or something like that.

In The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, architect (and wood worker) David Pye wrote: “It seems to be difficult for people in our day to accept the fact that the subjective results of design are ultimately as important as any objective ones can usually be and that they are indeed necessary to anything worth calling life.” I think what he is getting at here, is that we humans are not robots. We have, and should nurture, a soul. And the soul craves art and beauty as much as the mind craves function and utility.

So, I guess this is how I would explain it: Why did I make a new, wooden case for the tap and die set? Because it made my soul happy – that’s why.

Now, why did I do it with hand tools only? Ahhh… well… same answer actually.


  1. Nice post, Dan! I have met people who would disagree with you. Their only concern is to get something done the most efficient way possible and they care nothing about aesthetics. (One is a former marketing director/client, but we won't go there...)

    I'm an art for art's sake person, but my projects tend to be practical. However, I will stand by your right to build a one-legged stool with spaghetti noodles for back slats.

  2. makes perfect sense to me! Great post, love the pictures.

  3. VC - Thanks! I am sure there are a lot of people who disagree with me. It seems many use a completely different yardstick on measuring value. I recently saw a show on Food Network that discussed how the industry was selectively "improving" tomatoes. They were focusing on bruise resistance, uniform color, uniform size, uniform weight, growing qualities, etc. What was missing from the list? Oh, just a little thing called FLAVOR!

    And thanks for having my back on the spaghetti stool thing- now if I could just get the spaghetti to stop bending so much - am I cooking it too long?

    Ravensong - Thanks for the comment - glad you liked the pictures! I believe we have had a couple of related conversations - more about form with absolutely NO connection to function. As in, "Did the person who designed this bloody thing ever try to use it? Even one time?"

  4. Dan,

    I agree with you. When you look at what are considered the furniture masterpieces, none are built for function alone. I think everyone, whether they think they do or not, considers form to some extent. The difference between opinions mostly being the extent. If form truly didn't matter, we probably wouldn't be building furniture as we could employ cardboard boxes and Hefty bags in place of furniture. They serve the same function ;).

  5. Great blog Dan.

    You did what you wanted, made something that you didn't need, but wanted to.

    Now you get to enjoy what you made, you enjoyed making it, and you get the enjoyment of showing it to others.

    Great job.



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