I recently had a discussion about form versus function. Being an engineer and having written many functional specifications, function is kind of hard-wired into my thinking. I think the first time I remember being presented with this dialectic was after reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. This book is about many things, but the one takeaway I had was that some people are “form” people and other are “function” people. The form person looks at the motorcycle and sees the form, the shape, the color, the visual design, the aesthetic. The function person looks at the motorcycle and “sees” the pistons, the rods, the crankshaft, the cam, and the gears. He sees how they are integrated into a system that performs a function.
I once went at night to look at a used car. It was a German made Ford Capri with a 3.0 liter engine. After viewing and driving it, I decided to buy it. When I returned home my wife asked what color it was. I said I wasn’t sure – blue, I think. “OK, as long as it’s not red”, she said. “I’m sure it’s not red”, I replied. It was red.
So, when it comes to designing furniture, which are you? Do you start with form? Or do you list the functional requirements? Perhaps it depends on what you’re building. A set of kitchen cabinets must be functional; with form to follow. James Krenov instructed his students to look at the wood, let it speak to you; the form follows from the wood. His cabinets were beautiful works of art. I think that for most of us, as we design, we try to put both tent pegs in: form and function. One or the other may move as the project evolves. As for me, I usually do a rough sketch, look for the form initially. But the function may obviate some design possibilities. So, it is a give and take. And eventually, the form is decided with joinery and other specifics to follow. I think there is an excitement that lives in the tension of resolving the form and the function. Of course, the greatest woodworkers have found the perfect intersection of form and function. Happy woodworking!