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Essay: Form follow function of design in Modernism and Post Modernism era

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Form follow function of design in Modernism and Post Modernism era
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This academic essay will discuss about form follow function of design in both Modernism and Post Modernism era. Since there are no clear line or date to separate Modernism and Postmodernism, design produced before 1970 will be consider Modernism and after 1970 will be considered as Post Modernism. Before understanding how are the form follow function in both era, the term form follow function must be defined itself first. So, what is form follow function in design? Think of the design of a scissor, the handle is for gripping and the open edge is for cutting. The handle and open edge is a form that design for cutting, the function. However, it is also important to acknowledge that the word ‘function’ also could mean purpose, in design era are versatile. For example, poster design could use as propaganda tool during 1941-1945 war period. Every design has its own concept of form follow function.

So, what are the form follow function in Modernism and Post Modernism? How are they different from each other? Are post modernism actually a breakage from modernism, something new and exciting? Or is it just a continuation of the past?

Looking into design of Modernism era, usually embodies four main principle of form follow function. Mainly self-reflectiveness which means artist building artwork using shape and colour, montage is the distortion of mixed items, ambiguity refers to anything nonsense and finally the missing of integrated individual subject (Boyne and Rattansi, quoted by Barnard, 2013) p.112. To further understand what the concept is and how do these concepts come in place, some examples are here to help the demonstration.

First and foremost, self-reflectiveness principle is displayed in most of the Harpar Bazaar’s magazine designed by Alexey Brodovitch. For example, this 1952 cover magazine shows his use of dots and dots arrangement reflected designer’s self-reflectiveness and because of the striking red dots, one’s vision would be captured at one glance.

Other than that, he often cuts and distort subject and sometimes it doesn’t make sense. For instance, he cut off a women’s half body and placed an gigantic high heel next to the tiny woman which makes the high heel looks absurd in size. This shows his use of montage which causes the missing of subject parts and because of alteration. The subject may look out of reality. Similarly to Brodovitch’s photomontage, Games uses montage method and he created posters that subconsciously designs new symbolic language such as this one named ‘Grow your own food’. What is symbolic language? For example, the use of spade and fork transform into spoon and fork (Rennie, 2004). The spoon and fork is the symbol of cutlery which function as eating tools. So, when the cutlery extended and sink into the plantation, it is understandable that the poster is encouraging people to grow their own crop especially during the period of food scarcity. Where is the absurdness then? The way the tiny spoon and fork manage to break through the table and the fact that the spade and fork replace the table legs as support of table weight. There is the absurdness.

As mentioned earlier, all modernism artwork will consist of four design principle. However the truth is, post modernism design also embodies these principle as well, but with more furnished ideas and newer concept which is more specific. Babara Kruger is a good example of these. In Kruger’s poster, that punchy line of ‘I shop therefore I am’ shows 20th century modern human shopping culture (Whang, 2015) (p.20). The new culture of buying something not because of physical necessity but the mental desire as portray by Kruger’s hand floating in the mid-air as if trying to grab something reflected human nature and desire to own something.

Similarly to Kruger, Klefisch whom is inspired by constructivist El Lissitzky (Poynor, 2003)(p.70), uses constructivist idea and colour to portray electropop, a new music culture created by German music band named Kraftwerk. He uses bright red to show the band’s boldness for being different form the norm album such as pop, rock and disco at that time and he uses solid, black typography as well. In matching with the title ‘machine’, he crop off the four bottom body and arrange them to be slanted and they all look to one side blankly. When all these details come together, it matches with the album’s title of ‘Man-machine’ which is, design that speaks in robotic tone but not in a boring way. How so? Mainly thanks to the bright red background, it looks exciting and futuristic.

From the above examples, it shows that modernism and post modernism art does share the same old design principle. This raise a concerning question: does that mean that the design world are deteriorating? Since everyone has been following this old design principle? It’s true that post modernism art is the result from born of new culture or new trend. However, these art are more towards like an mature experimentation than an old art. For instance, both models for Harpar Bazaar’s cover magazine share the same gesture. Although they both are engaging, somehow the modern one looks more alluring and comfortable to look at. The choice of colour also plays a big role too. Other than that, both uses shape except that the current matured into working with organic patterns instead of rigid shapes. Instead of allowing multiple similar pattern running across the same page over and over again which can be disturbing and tiring for eyesight, the modern magazine choose to let it flow naturally which is portrayed by the baby pink and softer looking flowery patterns.

Even the typography is more freely compared to the older one using solid black outlines. This proof that although modernism principle still holds, post modernism design are constantly improving by experimentation and also together with new culture such as those mentioned in previous examples: new consumerism behaviour and music. Just as postmodernism critic Hyussen said, ‘Postmodernism is far from making modernism obsolete… it casts a new light on it and appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies and techniques, inserting them and making them work in new constellations’ (Hyussen, quoted by Moszkowicz, 2013) Metaphorically speaking, postmodernism design sees modernism as sea of library to revisit and constantly experimenting with new design.

Previous discussion talks about function follow form. How about form follow function then? What is the debate and which side should design take? Actually, this topic has been argued since long ago. It all started when the word form follow function first introduced in 1930s by Richard Sullivian whom believed that all, no matter lifeforms or not on earth should have its own recognizable expression, their form are there to suit their function (1998, p. III).

However his golden axiom is soon challenged by other critic such as Lewis Mumford. He criticized and reminded Richard that he should open up to new possibility too, as functionalism was design principle that stops architecture,’(quoted by Lewis Mumford, cited by Laurence, 2016) p.110. Likewise Mumford, Marcel Duchamp also react vigorously towards the statement but different from Lewis criticizing architecture, Marcel refuse to see art only as ‘art’, solely for aesthetic purposes. He reacted by exhibiting a urinal in the art gallery and it challanges people’s view (Keiner, 2009) p.930. Thus, raising a question for people should see urinal functioning as an urinal or an art? Although Duchamp’s action bewilders many, it actually helps designers sees design in a different light. Designers now are more aware of there are exception of design that do not just scream beauty but design like art, should have various form too.

There are design like coke bottle that function for people to hold, and there are design that function as visual identity such as logo design. Will the four-design stated earlier still apply then and what are the obstacles that faced by logo designers for both modernism and post modernism era? Tracing back to early modernism days, logo designs are more detailed and treated as if a drawing or sculpture. Modernism logo are more decorative and there is layers of shadow to which gives viewers a depth of feel just like sculpture and painting. Unfortunately, all the detail drawings make everything harder when it comes to production. For example, Apple logo and grand starbucks siren (featuring a mermaid with her two tails spread open, looking inappropriate) before 1970s uses gradient and complicated details would challenges the scaling and reproduction (Capsule, 2007).

Postmodernism Starbucks’s logo designer realizes this and that is why starting from 1980s when they redesign the new Starbucks, they are mindful of graphic presentation of which new logo resolved with cleaner and graphical lines. Do the four rules of modernism design still apply then? Yes, the new Starbucks logo build on self -reflectiveness, montage, ambiguity and subject missing parts. Self- reflectiveness is where they added the stars and clean up the sketchy lines, they crop away bottom part of Siren. As for ambiguity, the mermaid itself is already an unbelievable mystical existence. As for montage, the logo mixes Il Giornale colour and styling, color from Il Giornale (Simmons, 2012) (p.71). Advancing from modernism, post modernism logo becoming more mindful with logo presentation that could carry functionalism such as Paul Rand, whom uses simple dynamic lines in his IBM logo to suggest ‘speed and dynamism’ (Alsop, 2006) p.182. Furthermore, the gaps of lines within logo making it on and off is an illusion created by Paul, is a denotation of a computer’s screen and numerical system. But are they real? They are not real but ‘it is hyperreal, produced from…combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere (Baudrillard, 1994). What people are getting from the logo is a fraction of reality, a sign that represent computer culture.
Logo design is not simple. Before Paul successfully introduce IBM, his design actually goes through multiple alteration and faced challenges especially in visual culture area. An area and the cause of which why people fail to recognize art, because people ‘look for the context, the world which they came’(ibid.)(Barnard, 2001). When there is lack of knowledge of form, people would read it from their boundry of understanding which explains as to why IBM executive interpret IBM logo proposed by Paul in 1962 as prison bars because of the horizontal lines (Maffei and Lees-Maffei, 2019) p.40.

Different from the past, logo design no longer circulates only around traditional medium but also as media landscape culture extended into digital era, the form follow function of post modernism logo also faces new issue. What are the new issues? Designers now have more consideration of design’s flexibility because successful logos are those fit multiple platform including the digital ones, such as the mobile phone and laptops. Take Swobowool, a San Francisco based fabric company for instance. The company requested for design that would fit in advertisement printing, websites and various range of media (Silver ,2001) p.32 and p.33. However, because of thinking design’s functionalism and practicality, this creates a problem as well especially for logo design on mobile app. When all the tiny apps are squeeze side by side, they look seemingly identical. Even though the logos are flexible but where is the originality? Does not this defy the talk of art should remain unique and individual?

Art should remain unique and individual, but it depends on the form and function of a design as well. How is it the rule of originality still remain when they are designed to be shared with the rest of the world, be it in the form of product or poster? Although design are meant to be shared with others but that does not mean that they are losing their originality. Take starbucks for instance. There might be other coffee brand but Starbucks Coffee might be the one most people thought of and visit for that special neighberhood coffee experience. Starbucks actually refurnish and tailored their design to accustoms each place (Akdeniz, 2014). So, design does have originality.

In conclusion, the form follow function of post modernism design rules is more corresponding as now more emerging new culture and for design to be successful, it needs to have social linkage such as IBM logo mentioned earlier, the design is linked to computer culture. However, the four rules of form follow function of modernism rule still proves to be applied. Although modernism rule still applied, postmodernism designers should not be intimidated by the form follow function. Instead, designers should use them as design reference to search for more possibilities that have yet to be discovered.

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