Natural form

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

The evolving nature of design

It is often said that form follows function, but it rarely does — at least not that simply. Form follows many other things: convenience, efficiency, geometry, propriety, habit, whimsy and, predominantly among many others, it follows fashion.

The forms we give to those things we make must be agreeable to the user. This is often based on a kind of familiarity. In our early 21st century urban and affluent culture, much of what we surround ourselves with has some reference to geometry. This reflects our debt to Modernism and the machines that made our affluence possible.

We have cubes and rectangular solids of many sorts. Edges are straight and curves are geometrically determined. We find this, the evidence of an enduring fashion, to be comfortable if for no reason other than that it is now familiar. We may also find it to be a bit meaningless — at those times that we notice it.

Cultural influences

But there have been other earlier points of reference for form. Some of these focused very much on meaning. Various cultures, at various times, were very candid in their appreciation for the female human form, for example. Sinuous lines, gentle curves, voluptuous containment. Our culture still appreciates female beauty, especially that of the young, but we don’t form our artefacts in their image. We demonstrate our admiration in other more discrete ways. Maybe we should blame the Victorians, who put skirts on furniture to hide the suggestive legs.

In addition to this anthropomorphism, there is a long tradition of animating form through references to other living things. Sometimes this may have been to capture the spirit of an important animal, and sometimes it may have been only a playful and affectionate reference to the familiar. Now this is no longer common.

There used to be many references to nature in the things we produced. But we don’t live as close to nature anymore, making it less familiar, less known and therefore probably less comfortable. So we seem to have lost a very rich source for form generation, visual imagery and inherent meaning.

Modern malaise

When we do make reference to nature in our contemporary forms, the results are often disappointing. The objects so produced often seem contrived, or sentimental, or naïve. And they are often crudely done. Many of us would not even recognize the animals or plants that we could refer to, wild or not, except for those we have domesticated into our urban world. So we seem to be left in a somewhat barren domestic landscape. We have clean objects, but very little meaning in them.

But for those of us who work with wood, we have a viable option. Form can follow growth. A notable and successful demonstration can be found in the work of the late George Nakashima. He often left intact the outer edges of boards on his tabletops: the wane edge. The description describes what was usually viewed: waning, in decline, decreasing. But Nakashima found in it a source of both beauty and commercial success. He was so successful, in fact, that he is now widely imitated. And I’m glad he is.

The outer edge was also made both conspicuous and valuable in the woodturnings of Nakashima’s contemporary, Bob Stocksdale. And he, too, has been widely imitated, to our mutual benefit.

Don’t forget the trees

Trees give us a lot more to work with, in their burls, crotches, knots, blisters, curls and butts — then only the consistent interiors of their trunks. In industrialized woodwork, this evidence of life has often been avoided and discarded (culled) as waste.

Where I first started purchasing wood, my supplier threw the birds-eye maple up on top of the lunchroom, where I could, with awkward effort, retrieve it if I wanted that sort of thing badly enough. But the trees persist in giving their evidence of an interesting life to us, and now, it seems, more of our woodworkers are recognizing this as a gift to them and the people who buy their products.

Maybe we can’t avoid our “modern heritage,” and maybe we shouldn’t. I want my iPhone to look as it does. But we can also flavour our near environment with some natural evidence of a different and richer environment. And who knows: if we’re reminded of it, we might even take better care of it.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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