Form follows function is a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.
Origins of the phrase
The American architect, Louis Sullivan coined the phrase, although the authorship of the phrase is often, though wrongly, ascribed to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, whose thinking to a large extent predates the later functionalist approach to architecture. Greenough's writings were for a long time largely forgotten, and were rediscovered only in the 1930s; in 1947 a selection of his essays was published under the title Form and Function: Remarks on Art by Horatio Greenough.
The American architect, Louis Sullivan, Greenough's much younger compatriot, who admired rationalist thinkers like Greenough, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and Melville, coined the phrase in his article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered in 1896 (some fifty years after Greenough's death), though Sullivan later attributed the core idea to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio the Roman architect, engineer and author who first asserted in his book that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful. Here Sullivan actually said "form ever follows function", but the simpler (and less emphatic) phrase is the one usually remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single "rule that shall permit of no exception". The full quote is thus:
"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, 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. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, 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."
Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building was not going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was "form follows function", as opposed to "form follows precedent". Sullivan's assistant Frank Lloyd Wright adopted and professed the same principle in slightly different form—perhaps because shaking off the old styles gave them more freedom and latitude.
Debate on the functionality of ornamentation
In 1908 the Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote an allegorical essay titled Ornament and Crime in reaction to the excessive invented ornament used by the Vienna Secession architects. Modernists adopted Loos's moralistic argument as well as Sullivan's maxim form follows function. Loos had worked as a carpenter in the USA. He celebrated efficient plumbing and industrial artifacts like corn silos and steel water towers as examples of functional design.
Louis Sullivan's phrase "form (ever) follows function" became a battle-cry of Modernist architects after the 1930s. The credo was taken to imply that decorative elements, which architects call "ornament, " were superfluous in modern buildings. However, Sullivan himself neither thought nor designed along such dogmatic lines during the peak of his career. Indeed, while his buildings could be spare and crisp in their principal masses, he often punctuated their plain surfaces with eruptions of lush Art Nouveau and something like Celtic Revival decorations, usually cast in iron or terra cotta, and ranging from organic forms like vines and ivy, to more geometric designs, and interlace, inspired by his Irish design heritage. Probably the most famous example is the writhing green ironwork that covers the entrance canopies of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building on South State Street in Chicago. These ornaments, often executed by the talented younger draftsman in Sullivan's employ, would eventually become Sullivan's trade mark; to students of architecture, they are his instantly-recognizable signature.
One episode in the history of the inherent conflict between functional design and the demands of the marketplace happened in 1935, after the introduction of the streamlined Chrysler Airflow, when the American auto industry temporarily halted attempts to introduce optimal aerodynamic forms into mass manufacture. Some car makers thought that aerodynamic efficiency would result in a single optimal auto-body shape, a "teardrop" shape, which would not be good for unit sales. GM thereafter adopted two different positions on streamlining, one meant for its internal engineering community, the other meant for its customers. Like the annual model year change, so-called aerodynamic styling is often meaningless in terms of technical performance. Subsequently drag coefficient has become both a marketing tool and a means of improving the sale-ability of a car by reducing its fuel consumption, slightly, and increasing its top speed, markedly.