The ABCs of Design – Great Design is Balanced

The ABCs of Design – Great Design is Balanced

By: Jay Johnson This blog article is the second in a series of 26 related commentaries that seek to answer the question, “What is Interior Design?” by exploring various terms associated with the profession. This entry, Great Design is Balanced, discusses the importance of balance. Sometimes it is helpful, when defining a term, to look at what it is not. For the purposes of this article, balance does not refer to symmetry. I am not suggesting that all of the elements on one side of center must have equal elements on the other side. While many great designs use symmetry effectively – even beautifully – that’s not the sort of balance I’m talking about here. Instead, this article will explore the idea that great design should seek to balance form and function. In order to qualify as great design, even the most beautiful thing in the world must accomplish its purpose. Conversely, the most functional design should have an inherent beauty. Form and function should work together. When they do, it is great design. “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, Louis H. (1896). “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”. Lippincott’s Magazine (March 1896): 403–409, emphasis mine. When I was around 12 years old, I somehow acquired a book called “Form and Function” that examined several of the architecturally-significant churches of Columbus, IN. It was a lone paperback volume, probably 100 pages or so, with simplified floor plans of the buildings and a few photographs – all in black and white – accompanying the text. I don’t remember much of the actual content, but the title made a big impression. Over the years since, it has repeatedly caused me to wrestle with the notion that these two great ideals, form and function, were usually at odds with one another. Must it be this way? To what end? Can the two ever be harmonized? What does that look like? According to Sullivan, “form ever follows function.” Form is an outgrowth of function. He calls this the “pervading law of all things.” Each example he cites is a solid examples of great design. In whatever way form and function were manifested in the eagle, the swan, or the apple blossom, in the end, balance prevailed. Function, as Sullivan posits, may indeed always precede form, but, in the end, form must catch up in order for great design to result.

Here’s your chance. Answer this question: What other examples of balanced form and function come to mind?

Consider the eagle. It is said that eagles can see a rabbit a mile away and that they can dive at speeds up to 100 mph. No matter the accuracy of these statistics, it is obvious that their sharp eyesight and great speed facilitate their survival. These are functional traits. Eagles have many such traits. Strong talons, curved beaks, expansive wings, and hollow bones each play a specific role. Countless rabbits and rodents have ultimately fallen prey to the functional excellence of the eagle. At the same time, after seeing an eagle soar effortlessly overhead, or watching its alert yellow eyes dart this way and that, one might conclude that those same wings and eyes are majestic and beautiful. To the casual observer, it’s all about form. As Sullivan expressed it, “the sweeping eagle in its flight.” Societies throughout the ages have heralded the eagle as a symbol of freedom and strength. Sages and poets have long lauded its beauty. Is the eagle more beautiful than it is purposeful? Which aspect of its design is more apparent? Who can say? The eagle embodies balanced form and function – the two great ideals working together in harmony. Balance. Great design. Applying this concept to interior design, you might be wondering how this sort of balance would manifest itself. Here’s one example: Several years ago I came across a well-designed bookcase. I immediately knew that I had to own it! To me, it is an extraordinary piece of furniture. Why is this? It is because the form – specifically the arched shelves – accomplishes the function – neatly storing books. The arched shelves cause the books to lean upon one another. This eliminates the need for bookends. It can be said that the function is accomplished by the form. Form and function in balance. In concord. Ah! Great design. At IDO, our vision is “To advance the quality of mission critical interior environments…” Form and function are both addressed in that phrase. Quality equals form. Mission critical equals function. In the end, the two are meant to complement and complete each other. This is balance. This is interior design.

Here’s your chance. Complete this sentence: Balance, as described here, is important in great design because _______________.


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