Sunday, September 28, 2008

Functionalism as a theory of form

The first timeline was an orientation to thinking about the past through an analogy and the visual organization of a thesis or point of view. We talked about where one could properly begin a history of industrial design, and the downstream consequences of choosing that beginning. Did your history emphasize continuity or change? What is at stake with each choice?

The light lecture asked you to consider industrial design as a multi-faceted discipline with one branch deeply involved with new technology and the solving of pragmatic problems. (Design as the making of a better mousetrap. Please google “humane mouse trap” for new approaches.) As we saw in various examples, these pragmatic problems can extend from how to manifest new power sources: from the electric light bulb to OLEDs to bioluminescence. We looked at a range of practical problems designers are engaged in: from solar cookers for refugees to night vision goggles for warfare.

The light timeline was designed to help you try out which branch of industrial design most interested you: Design as the making of a better mousetrap? Design as a critical modern practice? Or perhaps design as a consumer practice? Again, the goal was for you to choose 5 lights, research them, and then figure out how to visually organize this information to convey your own point of view about the history of industrial design. It is a focused case study approach that can be used to discuss the broadest historical problems. This exercise is a valuable transition tool for designers to use as they make the bridge from mind-map to timeline to confidence in writing 5-10 page text essays. If you can’t find, express, and organize your ideas in a timeline, it will not likely get clearer in a paper.

The third timeline uses the topic of the chair to cover the classic story of functionalist design from Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement through the Bauhaus and on to today. How would you tell this story to yourself? At minimum, you should repeat the story so you are sure you understand the basic outline. Ideally, you would express a point of view and comment on this approach to a history of industrial design. Please see the timeline I distributed in class and consult the writings by Hauffe and Marcus. I also refer you to the articles listed in the Reader under “Modernism and the Ambivalence of Design for Production”.

In the third timeline, engage with functionalism as an underlying theory of form in Industrial Design. We will be using Marcus’s definition:

Functionalism - “the notion that objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; well adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament; standardized; machine-made, and reasonably priced; and expressive of their structure and materials - has defined the course of progressive design for most of the century.” (George Marcus, Functionalism, 1995, p.9.)

Using 5 chairs, trace a history of functionalism from Morris to the Bauhaus to today. The written part of the timeline assignment should address the questions listed below as you reflect on your research and the timeline you are drafting.

How is functionalism a form determinant, and how not?
Is it a style, and what does that mean?
Is functionalism timeless and/or modern?
Is there an ethical dimension to functionalism? If yes, what is that about?
How does the designer’s use of functionalism relate to the engineer’s goal of functionality and manufacturability?
What are the merits and problems of using functionalism as an organizing principle for the history of industrial design? What does such a history leave out?
Is this approach relevant to your own work?

This is the third and final timeline that is due for mid-semester. The assignment for the week after next will be to revisit, revise, and develop further each of your three timelines and the exploratory, explanatory essays that should accompany these. I remind you that class on October 20th will be devoted to presentation and critique of your work, which will need to be successfully posted on a blog. We can easily make your page link to the class page after Oct 1st, when the RISD email address becomes This aspect of the work due for mid-semester will be discussed in more detail next week.

Again, I am available to comment on any drafts submitted to me ahead of time.
I look forward to seeing how everyone in the community of our ID History class understands and interprets functionalism as a theory of form, and its meaning to their own work.

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