Reclining Figure – Henry Moore (1898 – 1986) An art historian once asked Henry Moore: “Why do you make bronze sculpture?” he said, “Because I can afford to” and went on to explain, that as a young man, he had to use lead because that was all he could afford.

I was always fascinated with the way things are made. When I was a kid I loved making stuff. During my education I met some wonderful people who explained and showed me how to make things. As I started to teach and design I tried to bring my fascination with materials and processes to the students through various courses and my own work with Knoll. As a student I was only limited by my imagination but as a professional designer I began to realize that I was limited by my understanding of materials and the processes that transformed them. That the more I knew about how materials were transformed the better designer I could be.

I also discovered that if I really understood the processes and the materials I could try to push the boundaries a little bit. That maybe a new form would emerge from that understanding. So that’s why I think that “Design is A Performing Art” and that “Form Follows Facility.” If you have the facility and the facilities to transform wood from lumber to furniture you will probably make wooden furniture, but, if you understand and have the facility to work plastic, you might design and make plastic furniture.  Being a designer is wonderful because you are learning new stuff all the time. I hope you enjoy “Design Is A Performing Art.”

Design is a Performing Art

“Design is more than good intentions”

To say that design is a performing art means that it is a hands-on process but it also means that we design or own process to design. One doesn’t design a product so much as one designs a way of reaching a solution within the criteria presented by a specific problem.

Designs happen for real reasons, not strokes of genius. They happen because of the ability to do certain things. The bicycle is a classic form because of the development of high strength, light steel; a new understanding of structure (the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge) based on the idea of tension and compression; and the ability to manipulate the material, steel, made it possible to create bent steel forms.

Classic forms come about when there is a need and when the designer can recognize the possibilities in the material. All classic forms follow the maxim that form follows facility. Once a classic form is developed derivations from it are understandable in terms of the classic form – they can happen without classic forms but then they are invariably idiosyncratic (mere style.) Style is always derivative. It never succeeds in making classic forms.

Form Follows Facility

Facility is the designer’s understanding of different industrial processes and materials. Form follows facility is not simply saying that you need this understanding before you can design a product but that new design ideas come out of increased understanding of these processes and materials. They happen because of new opportunities afforded by the changes in technology. The form that classically designed objects take reflect the processes and materials of a time. Facility is not a necessary condition but a motivating force.

Form follows facility is a general statement about the process of design and an expression of the conviction that the form of a designed object is determined by how it is made. When this process is intentional and when the designer’s abilities to manipulate materials and understand production processes are directed toward the expression of a specific idea, we sometimes end up with good design. When the process operates by default, when materials and methods of production are applied to a preconceived formal notion, such as injection molded wicker chairs, we often get more of the dismal artifacts we see around us everyday.

Explaining the proposition that FFF involves: explaining the difference between forms that obviously function equally well (a chair made of plastic and a chair made of wood) and explaining why materials demand different expressions of form. We are discussing the ability to create form, not necessarily a formal philosophy. We are describing the situation in which the creation of new facilities demands the creation of new forms.

How new materials create new forms; how new economics creates new forms; new methods create new forms. How do we understand the myriad varieties of the formal expression of boat? By understanding the material chosen and the method used to work it. Reeds, bark, skins, canvas, wood all lead to different formal expressions of boat that function equally well. Without the facility to work the material there would be no boat no matter how hard we wished for it or how intensely one envisioned it. A true understanding of material and process produces form that then can be judged philosophically.

It is always true that we make us of those materials and processes that are available — whether it is because of social, economic, educational reasons. The forms of the objects we create are derivative of these factors much more than they are of function. The intention to create a particular form or object often involves lip service to the notion of function. We are constantly bombarded by philosophy about objects that were ostensibly intended to be useful objects but are presented as art and defended as art. Design is not art although it maybe very beautiful.

Design is not art although it maybe very beautiful. Designs are the result of a design process, one that includes method of production. We have to apply our design intentions (including beauty or grace or sense of animation) to specific materials under the constraint of working those materials to evolve the form of the object. New materials and new ways of working them provide the fertile ground for new formal expressions.


Design is a Performing Art
Bruce Hannah 1997©