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Form over Function or Function over Form?

Architects have been arguing about the hierarchy of form and function for ages, so where does Jeff Pelletier stand? It depends! When it comes down to it, there isn’t one, right answer: it’s always a balance. So, let’s discuss form versus function in terms of the decisions you might face when designing your project.

May 19, 2016

What should win: form or function?

This is an age-old dilemma that even many non-architects have heard of: should it be form over function, or function over form? If something looks beautiful, but doesn’t actually work properly, is it successful? If the building we attend a class in every day keeps us dry, warm, and has adequate space and light, but is aesthetically “unfortunate,” is it successful?

Truth be told, there’s really never a better question to answer with my favorite “worst answer” of, “it depends.” Honestly, there’s always a myriad of circumstances that seem to be at play. Part of good design, of course, is pushing the limits, which often means that to get over that first hump, something may look pretty darn cool, but will actually not really function the way it should. Does that make it a failure? Certainly not. What about a building that does what it supposed to do, but never inspires or elevates the basic experience inside it?

I was traveling recently, and got to stay in a really cool small town that was filled with weekenders from the local big city. This town had been reborn and "high design" was everywhere. The hipster quotient was huge and mildly painful, but some of the design work happening there was pretty great. It all seemed pretty magical until this gorgeous little hotel room I was staying in reminded me of a dozen practical things that I kept thinking of. So, inspired by that (but certainly not limited by that), here are some random incidents where I think that either form or function should have won when it didn’t.

  1. Wood floors in bathrooms. Let’s dive right in here. Form can win over function, if there’s a commitment to take care of what you are building. I remember years ago when I was working at a different firm and we had a client who really wanted wood floors in bathrooms, before that was as popular as it is now (side note: it is popular now). As architects, it was our job to express that water pooling on a wood floor was not a good scenario. Water for a few minutes isn’t the end of the world, as long as it is cleaned up properly (look how easy it is to put wood floors in kitchens – my toddler boys certainly don’t keep that dry). So, all it really takes is a commitment to clean up any water and dry it out. It will not last as long as tile, but as long as you’re aware of the conditions to keep it in as good a shape as possible, I think this is a case where form can win over function. Our hotel bathroom had wood floors outside the shower, and seeing as it is going to be cleaned daily, and was going for a more rustic look on the floor, I think it gets a pass. I think, though, that they were crazy not to put in a glass shower door, as I believe strongly in doing all you can to avoid getting water on the wood floor in the first place. I hate feeling like I have to carefully wash my hair so I don’t splash water on the floor.
  2. That brings me to the door-less shower enclosure. This is a gorgeous look, and almost all of our clients want it. I convince very few to actually go that route. Honestly, with a 5’ or 6’ wide shower and a typical 2’ wide clear opening into the shower, there isn’t enough clearance from the splashing to recommend it. Your floor will get wet, and water, over time, is going to damage your house. Yes, you could clean it every day, but let’s first try and avoid that. If you have a longer shower or a configuration that limits the splashing then you should absolutely consider getting rid of that door. Until then, I vote for function over form.
  3. Don’t let me slip. This one is simple. The hotel we stayed at had this really beautiful and simple natural rug under the bed on top of the wood floors. I loved it until I walked up to it and almost fell on my butt. Who needs an anti-slip mat under the rug, you say? It’ll ruin the rug. Screw that. Any surface we walk on needs to be safe. When it comes to slippery tile, rugs not secured to the ground, or anything that seems like a tripping hazard, always go the function over form road.
  4. Spacing your furniture. There are lots of good rules about how far furniture should be from walls and from each other – really solid, common sense sort of things that work well in corporate environments or big homes. I say screw them when you’re in a tight urban environment. When you’re in a tighter city, you are willing to live with a little less space and the same applies in your house. Get smaller-scaled furniture and put it a little closer. So what if it means people have to push in their chair to get by you? If it is that or not having a dining table at all, go with what looks great and sacrifice a bit on the form. Form over function wins this time.
  5. Lighting in restaurants. I love lighting, and I love dramatic lighting scenes. Every project I have gets personally reviewed by me to ensure there’s enough dimmers and layers of lighting. I want dimmers in toilet rooms even! So, I get that, when I’m designing a café, retail space, or restaurant, that it can look amazing to have a really cozy and dark space. But you know what? I want to read my damn menu. I already can’t hear myself in half the restaurants (read some of my previous thoughts on that), so it would be nice if I could at least read my menu. You can provide some limited light down at the table that doesn’t ruin the mood. When I have to hold a hot candle and try not to burn myself to see the menu (never mind seeing my $30 entrée – isn’t visual appeal part of food presentation?) then I think someone has failed. Function over form wins this round.
  6. Yellow metals. Phew, this is going to be touchy. I’ve likely been destroyed by the really bad brass fixtures of the 1980s, so that when I first saw yellow metals coming back into vogue, I got very nervous. Honestly, anxiety got pretty high on my end. So here’s the deal: I think that there are some great yellow metals right now and I’m excited to include them in our design palette now. Still, I wonder how long they’ll stay in fashion, and if there won’t be a hangover at some point. (I think we have at least five years.) I think that white metals are more timeless, and something that is inherently more timeless is going to be higher functioning, as it’ll get used longer. But there’s nothing wrong with going with what looks right even when you know it might get swapped out in a few years. So, go with things that can be easily swapped out in a few years to suit new tastes, and avoid massive investments in giant gold chandeliers. You can thank me for that, and for giving form a slight nod over function on this one.
  7. I don’t want to hit my head. This is stupid specific, but there was this gorgeous solid wood shelf on the wall above the toilet in our hotel bathroom. It was clearly custom-designed and not cheap. I bashed my head on the damn thing twice in 12 hours (leaving a bit of a gash on my forehead the second time). It was placed poorly, and a good reminder of why so many hotels have rounded metal shelves in this scenario. People shouldn’t hurt themselves on your beautiful little custom piece of design. If they do, you’ve failed. Form slays here over function.
  8. Maintenance. I don’t have a specific example here, but it needs to be said that building a house, a restaurant, or a store is an investment. You’re spending a lot of money, and it isn’t done when you move in. Like a car, your space needs maintenance. Some things need annual upkeep, and others need work every couple of years. Others may need attention every month. That’s all part of the experience, but as an architect, it is our job to walk you through those expectations and match that up with what suits you. If we design you a beautiful façade that needs to be stained once a year and you have zero patience for home maintenance, then I call that a big fat failure. Form can win over function here, but everyone needs to go into it with eyes wide open. And remember, something durable and not requiring constant maintenance is always the most durable and, I think, beautiful.
  9. Bathroom carpet. In a flashback to the 1980s that scarred me over brass bathroom fixtures, let me remind everyone that carpet in a bathroom gets a big fat NO from me. Nope, never, not at all. It isn’t good form, it isn’t good function, and it was a horrible idea then, and an even worse idea now.
  10. Making sacrifices for the view. This is a challenge that Seattle has to face head on, as so much of our housing stock has outrageous views that are just barely out of reach. We’ve all seen lots of odd additions with a deck on top and we all know why it is there. This is one hell of a beautiful city, and often times that means having to stick our neck out to see a better view of the mountains, or the water, or our impressive skyline. Sometimes that means there isn’t a pretty way to get there. Does that mean you shouldn’t try? Well, here’s what I know: it is our job as architects and interior designers to design you a beautiful space that perfectly meets your program, and is a perfect harmony of form and function. Sometimes, though, you just need that view. I think places in Seattle get a “view freebie,” and I don’t fault anyone for many of the “ouch, that really is an ugly dormer” additions that I see all over town. Try your best to make it look great if you have no other choice, and we’ll all just be jealous of your jaw-dropping view, while we mock the ugly thing it did to your house. We can laugh all we want, but you’re the one with the view we want. So function, you win over form here.

The funny thing about what I do, is that I get to walk the line as a mediator all day long. I get to work with married clients, or business partners, who are approaching a problem from two often very unique points of view. I get to walk the line and find a solution that works for them and looks beautiful: form meeting function. But sometimes, like with anything in life, one side is going to win a bit more over the other. When you’re faced with any situation, I recommend you do what I do: do your best to see both sides of the story, and then chart the best path forward for whatever situation you’re in. One size doesn’t always fit all, and sometimes that means that form will win, or function will. Life would be boring otherwise.

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