01 December, 2008

On Humanist Fashion

The Steampunk post generated some chatter, so I’m working on some variations on a theme by Clark, opus No. 2 in the return to blogdom.

Playing the worthy role of perpetual thorn in my neo-traditionalist backside, Clark has skillfully baited his hook by referring to humanist design elements as mere fashion. I will, of course, rise to the bait and hilarity will ensue as Clark proceeds to beat me with his puritanical stick. For some odd reason we enjoy this little Kabuki dance so here we go…

Just about everyone has heard the axioms by now:

A) “Form follows function.”

B) “Form and function are one.”

C) “Function follows form.”
(for the Gehry-ites out there)

Surprisingly enough, I tend to think more along the lines of Option A. While every aspiring architect loves to spout off about how their design is oh, so critical and every single piece only adds to the function of the whole, it tends to reduce the design to such a level as to be clinical in its sterility. Being trained as a Bauhaus modernist made me strive long and hard to achieve that perfect synthesis of form and function that just made you melt it was so sexy. Unfortunately, as I encountered more and more of these masterpieces “in the wild” I realized that the livability of the spaces was compromised by the puritanical desire of the designer for unadulterated functional forms. They lost their sexiness in a heartbeat as soon as a lowly human worked up enough courage to actually inhabit the space and try to put all of their stuff, their cultural detritus, into the environment. I didn’t so much see “Machines for Living” as “Living for Machines”.

I have no problem admitting that form follows function. In fact, I revel in it. It’s the form that contains all of the bits and pieces that make the thing fun. Take the somewhat nonsensical problem of identifying linens in the household. I have never in my life owned a monogrammed towel, nor do I have any desire to do so. Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that my wife and I had the irrational and admittedly effete desire to differentiate our identical bath towels. The puritanical American streak would tell me to grab a Sharpie and put our initials on the seam, supremely functional and utterly artless. If I were a suburbanite yuppie I would get the monogrammed towels from Pottery Barn and my attractive towels would match entirely too many other suburbanite yuppie towels. For me personally, if I had to have a way to tell some towels apart, I would hop on Adobe Illustrator and bang out a family crest to use on anything I wanted. I’d buy some nice quality towels and have them embroidered with the family crest and our initials underneath. Yeah, it’s completely goofball, but it sure would be fun and I’d have a connection to my towel that I wouldn’t get by using any other method. There would be a symbolism to the function that would provide satisfaction beyond the function. And now you know exactly why I DON’T have monogrammed towels.

Let’s look at a more plausible conundrum for me. I have the desire to eventually get into brewing my own beer. In fact, I’ve already identified some of the styles that I like the most and I even have some names picked out for my versions. I’d love to brew a good Helles Lager, and when I do it will be called Dante’s Nine Helles. I’ll probably end up kegging the beer and trying to get some good tap handles to use for it. Once again, the puritanical approach would be to hook a picnic tap right onto the keg, cheap and effective. The fun for me, however, would be designing the logo for the custom tap handle or the cool label to put on the bottles. None of this would change the flavor of the beer one iota, but it would greatly impact my appreciation of the beer and hopefully that of everyone else who got to experience the imagery along with the taste.

There is so much more art for me in putting those personal touches onto the things which impact my life on a regular basis. They are almost always decorative, meaning that there are invariably cheaper and simpler methods to perform the same task with similar results. While it may be fashion, I would not rid my life of it for any reason, and I have no doubt that many fashions will still manage to long outlast me. I love the old English apothecary logos as examples of decorative art that are still classy and effective hundreds of years after their creation. I would venture to say that this sort of “fashion” never really becomes “unfashionable”. If it’s good design it will last, even if it isn’t directly tied to function.

That’s the long way for me to get back around to the idea that fashion (or decoration) doesn’t necessarily put an expiration date on aesthetic appeal, as I still find the Parthenon to be incredibly appealing as a structure. I find that decoration often enhances the appreciation of a thing, and that to me is incredibly important for things I come into constant contact with. It’s exactly why I would get more satisfaction out of an artfully designed keyboard, no matter what style, than the mass produced crap I type on every day. It isn’t all about the function or how the form enhances the function, for me it’s about how I perceive the thing as it performs its function.


clarky pooh said...

First a defense on my ability to create offense.
Which is both true and it rhymes; so bonus.

What follows is a review of mine that people didn’t too much like about the book: American Masterworks: The Twentieth Century House (Universe Architecture Series)
Kenneth Frampton

“Nice pictures but Frampton always gets stuck on the theory, Yeah I understand old Pete E. is a genius, but there is a hole in the floor of the bedroom that my kid just fell through. Architecture as art as home is a triple threat; but in the end somebody has to live there. You can have an all glass house if you are an exhibitionist wealthy gay man with a 100 acre manor estate; but what about if you have kids and a broom, or an xbox. Where do I sit to chill? I can wax poetic about the minimal art grand master that is Donald Judd, but sometimes I want to curl up on the coach with the little lady and watch Ashley Judd, shouldn’t “design” incorporate both of these conditions. The written copy is bombastic hyperbole fan-boy schlock but the pictures are end all images of the greatest piece of building art ever formed by the hands of men, design by those who are more than men and not yet gods.”

Matt said...

Nice little review. See, we don't disagree on absolutely everything!