The Functional Spirit Of Modern Design


N recent years, a marked and growing interest in the field of design has spread through industry and education, while creative design is recognized as of vital educational merit and an avocational outlet for leisure. Recognition of design as an important part of the school curriculum, the growth of home workshops and hobby shows, the importance of beauty as an emphatic point in advertising literature and industry, indicate clearly contemporary trends in the art field.

A public, increasingly becoming conscious of good design, is further illustrated in an extensive questionnaire sent out by the Customer Research Staff of General Motors. In reply to this questionnaire, thousands of motorists voted appearance as more important than either speed or cost. It is valid reasoning to state that the presence of good taste and attractiveness in manufactured products is no longer a luxury, but a measuring stick of their desirability. It has been proved that an efficient product may be constructed perfectly, but, if poor in design, it will not sell. *

Not only is the public demanding increased attractiveness in its purchases, with beauty bringing its sense of contentment, but it is becoming aware of the fact that much pleasure is derived by participation in the creation of beauty. This is particularly true with reference to designing things closely connected with home life.

For the craftsman, there is a very real pleasure in selecting wood or other materials and, wTith the tools of his craft, creating original designs in responsive and attractive materials. This process of constructive creation brings its own sense of

completeness, of competence, of satisfaction, almost unrivalled in its emotional results.

Many professional men, such as doctors, lawyers, clerks, and salesmen, have well-equipped workshops. They have come to realize that creative activity and construction afford a valuable emotional outlet for business troubles with complete relaxation. They bring to leisure time a profitable and restful avocation and recreation.

Copying designs of others is trying to shine by reflected light and is deadening in its mere display of tool technique. Copying a piece of furniture for the sake of its beauty is not essentially dishonest, provided the copy is as beautiful as the original, and provided it is neither intended for sale as a fake antique nor has been copyrighted. In this duplication, the craftsman is striving for the beauty of the original, but frequently the duplicate is only a feeble imitation of the original. In copying, the thrill of creative expression is entirely lost; while, educationally, it has little value and often turns out to be an unhappy experience.

From the foregoing paragraphs, the following points have been developed: (1) the increasing demand for better design by a public gradually becoming art-minded; (2) the self-satisfaction and value accruing from creative expression, particularly in the field of such intimate and useful products as furniture and its accessories; (3) the inadequacy of copied designs as a means of expression.

The Spirit of Modern Design and Functionalism

Commonly accepted trends point to a new type of design, currently known as modern or modernistic, but more appropriately called contemporary, as becoming increasingly popular. In 1929 the tide of older forms started to ebb, sweeping with it much of the Victorian, along with other types of furniture. The new style, the new tide, is bringing with it new plastics, new metals, new woods, and new processes with fascinating possibilities. The plush sofa is pushed out as a dust catcher, and, in many instances, modern furniture is replacing period designs. True, modern design is in a period of transition; styles of today may become the traditions of tomorrow, but the spirit back of the movement will remain. To understand this spirit, then, is of greatest importance to the designer. Consequently this book is predicated upon contemporary trends; but, in order to grasp their full significance, basic causes must be studied.<P

If we were to search for outstanding characteristics of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they would be found in the growing interest in the natural sciences with their allied inventions and discoveries. In architecture, this interest has given rise to what is known as the theory of func-tionalism. The term "function" means the discharge or performance of any duty or emphasis on performance, in contrast with its form. For example, if the State capitol is built like a Renaissance structure, with emphasis upon its architectural form rather than its intended and functional use as a capitol of a state in the early and industrially efficient twentieth century, it is considered not as useful in its functional aspects as a modern building designed especially for the purpose of government.

Functionalism, with its axiom "Form follows Function," means that all modern architectural forms first must be determined by uses and environment, and that form must grow out of functions and construction. Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect, is quoted as demanding a function or use for every detail of the house, including, of course, its furniture.

For the extreme and radical believers in functionalism, the house becomes a machine emblematic of the machine age. Again quoting from Le Corbusier, "We no longer have money to build historical souvenirs. At the same time, we have to wash. Our engineers provide for these things and they will be our builders."

Thus strict observers of functionalism would give us a house planned by engineers for comfort in our home, service or a relief from the drudgery of unwelcome chores, and freedom from these by time-saving devices. Into this picture comes the electric refrigerator, oil and steam heating, dishwashers, air conditioning, and the numerous gadgets of this, our age of industry and mass production.

Under conditions now prevailing, these modern labor-saving devices are usually introduced into existing Colonial, Spanish, Georgian, or other traditional houses manifestly not adapted for the multiplicity of electrical outlets and other connections necessary for their installation—equipment unknown to former originators of these types. In other words, the house does not function as an integral part of its equipment.

To overcome this incongruity, wre have arising a new type of house, often built of concrete, steel, glass; frequently prefabricated, which is the functionalists answer to modern conditions and new ways of living. In this house, there is plenty of space for sunlight and ventilation; flat, unenriched planes; glistening metallic surfaces, new materials, extreme simplicity and utility: all characteristics of the modern house-smoothly running and efficient machine of this age, embodiment of forms generated by the proper functioning of good living conditions and of the various appliances connected with living.

In these houses, beauty rests solely in proportioning, sculptural massing of parts, precise adjustments, and correct coloring. What type of furniture harmonizes with this house? Surely traditional design is questionable. Moreover, extreme functionalists are prone to question many things: the cellar with its waste of space, the use of moldings around the room (are paintings, then, nonfunctional?), the uses of small panes of glass, relics of times when large panes were too expensive for general use. And, of course, we see that extremists are against decoration which cannot be interpreted as contributing to use. Many houses of this character have been built abroad, but they hardly fit into American

Figure 1. Simplicity and Functional ism in Modern Design

ideals. In their over-plain, stark, almost factory-like masses, they fail to enshrine our ideals of home.

But the extreme functionalists and traditionalists are compromising; the functionalists introducing more beauty into their designs, while some traditionalists are relaxing the purity of the period forms. The influence of this is towards modifying design in the direction of greater beauty without strict questioning of its absolute utility. And so there are architects, while refusing to accept period furniture, who build, in the modern spirit, houses with a high degree of comfort, service, and freedom; but, with this difference: enrichment is permissible, provided it does not interfere with the structure of the house, is not artificial or "stuck on," and is in organic unity with the entire plan. The term

"simple beauty and efficiency" may best interpret this latest development in both houses and furniture in its most modern aspects, of which Figure 1 and the frontispiece are expressive.

It may well be that the doctrine of functionalism eventually will do away with our present detached furniture in favor of the built-in type. The argument in favor of this is an improved appearance of the room and less chance for cluttered disorder.

As few of us have purely functional houses, can we then make modern pieces of furniture and expect them to harmonize with existing conditions? Many people meet this condition by gradually replacing obsolete and functionless furniture with the more conservative of modern designs. Conservative functionalists still retain certain characteristics of period furniture, removing such meaningless curves and ornate decoration as are shown in Figure la, but with certain proportions and even curves intact. This is in no sense traditional furniture with a few modern touches added to it, a mongrel breed with characteristics of neither school of thought. The doctrine herein set forth and in which the author believes, does not concern itself with period or traditional forms; it considers either a reforming of period types, making all nearer functional, or adopting new forms based upon their functions in the affairs of life.

Two points may be noted regarding modern design: (1) Period furniture, representing as it does the lives and activities of ages differing from the present and with conditions far

Figure ía. Ornate Period Furniture different, cannot be regarded as harmoniously planned for the modern house. Indeed, much period furniture illustrates the reverse of the axiom already discussed, "Form follows Function." Page 17. As a result of this condition, we have many homes from which furniture constantly is moving towards the repair shop or to the junk pile in the attic. Some of the period furniture has been cheap and poorly constructed, but much of it was broken because it was over-decorated and thus structurally weak. Functional forms of the modernist are intended to have a long span of service (too long, some manufacturers believe), and this purpose is built into their construction. (2) There may be a growing suspicion that the functional house with its furnishings lacks the charm and sentiment imparted by the older forms of furniture, rich with associations and memories. This is not necessarily true, for the functional house has its attractiveness in uses of beautiful materials, harmonious colors, comfort, space, and efficiency. It has its psychological and sentimental appeal, as we shall find, but of a different type from that assigned to the traditional.

After all is said, we are a people of differing tastes and standards; the home is the most conservative of our institutions and usually the last to respond to changing styles. At the present time, some individuals prefer period furniture— indeed, it may be in complete harmony with the lives of many; but, according to sales reports, the younger people seem to be moving in the direction of the modern.

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