May 2010

On form and function.

May 18, 2010 12:22

Form, in general, follows function.

A wine glass, for example, is designed to hold a responsible amount of wine for the average person, and it's shaped in such a way that homo sapiens can drink from it. It should be transparent, so you can see what you're drinking (and if you're picnicking, to ensure that no bugs have fallen in), it should stand up when you set it down, it certainly mustn't alter the flavor of that '64 Chateau Lafite, and it would be nice if it didn't break too easily.

The more sophisticated of us will insist that the shape of the glass be coherent with the kind of wine you're sipping: a tall, narrow flute for champagne, a shorter, wider form for a good Chardonnay, and if we choose a full-bodied Brunello di Montalcino or perhaps a Barolo, well, the classic, stubby tomato-on-a-stem shaped wineglass is the only way to go.

Even so, by and large a glass that will do it's job shouldn't cost more than a dollar or so. These considerations of course did not limit the ambitions of René Lalique (1860-1945), the famous French glass-maker who put his creativity and inventive into - yes - even wine glasses. The shape remains the same (bien sur...) but they can be decorated with etched figures, flowers, or other art-deco flourishes. For the record, his champagne flutes can retail over $400, and that's not for a set of 24 at Williams-Sonoma, that's per glass. And the stuff you pour inside still tastes the same.

Artistic development of everyday articles (read that: form departing from mere functional value) varies greatly from field to field. No one would think of etching a pastoral scene on the side of a jackhammer, but in clothing - which is likewise functional, it's supposed to cover us up and keep us warm - form departs from function often dramatically when not absurdly, even to the point of contradicting the function itself. Oscar Wilde famously said "Fashion is so intolerable that it must be reinvented every six months," and seeing some Milan spring collections it's hard to argue with that.   

To a large extent, the push towards more beautiful everyday objects depends less on individual ambition, and more on the clout of corporate marketing departments. If anyone remembers the automotive industry in the '50's, they will remember that for a while even car designs changed every six months. In those days, to drive a '58 in 1959 was about as well-regarded as clapping between movements of a Beethoven symphony. Yes, Oscar Wilde would have enjoyed that too, but the true merit must be given to then GM CEO Alfred P. Sloan, who spearheaded the continual styling changes as "planned obsolescence", a term first coined in 1932 by Bernard London as a way to get out of the Depression. Which quickly became, to use writer Vance Packard's words of 50 years ago, "The systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals."*

Fortunately, it would be a disconcerting stretch of the imagination to suggest that René Lalique had the enslavement of the French middle class as his main objective in life. No, he wanted to make everyday things beautiful, and thus perhaps contribute to making society an aesthetically better place where the eye could find more peace and harmony. And achieve the satisfaction that sometimes only manual labor with an inspired dream can offer.

That said, the real problem with those $400 glasses is that they break pretty darn easily.

Cheers! Dimitri

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