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On form and function.

May 18, 2010 at 7:22 PM

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

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 9:40 PM

Hi, lol this is true!  I know someone who has a chair of a few K's by a famous designer... but no one is allowed to sit on it!!! 

But when we look at expensive violins, many have been played very much. Sure they can look somehow"beaten" but their sound has improve from all these talented (and the word talented is real when we speak of Strads or Guarneris!) hands that played them.  If they have survived to all these energical players, storms and wars, they surely are more solid than we think and the fact that these instruments were so used add to their charm in my opinion! 

Perhaps violin is are a bit an exception to this??? But it's also true that old Italian violins (or even just good quality violins) are darn more capricious than cheap instruments...  (capricious but I still find that violins are incredebly tough for the fragile or "breakable" impression they give contrarely to such things as cristal wine glasses per example. Maybe this is just my impression?)

Interesting discussion! 



From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 4:49 PM

Hi Anne-Marie,

The point is that in "non-Fine Art" (Fine Art is that which is beautiful but otherwise useless) there are fortunately people out there who strive past the purpose of the object itself towards making it a higher form of creation.

From your words, Stradivari comes to mind: the perfection of his detailing went way past the purpose of making the instrument sound well. He wanted to make a statement, and most probably, because he wanted to, and not because he had to. For his own, intimate satisfaction.

Perhaps the best field in which to view endeavors of this sort is in architecture, although there what's beautiful and what's not becomes hotly debatable. And in addition, enters the timescape as well, as what's deemed ugly today can be defined beautiful tomorrow.  But this applies to music too, how many works were scorned upon their debut to then rise to ultimate, unchallengable appreciation: think of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, for example. 

But all of us (at least us V.comers!) strive for the same objective (through our practising), as an amateur painter will, or as will anyone else with a hobby that concerns aesthetics.   

What I'm trying to say is that as long as some people are willing to forgo the profit motive and try for higher goals in their inner research, maybe there's hope for humanity!    

From al ku
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 6:47 PM

hello dimitri, i confess that i am mildly disappointed that with a title on form and function, you did not even mention your thoughts on your own highly esteemed works of art, violin cases that is.  perhaps you are too humble and have decided to stay off topic:)

maybe at one time or another, this question has come up to your mind:  do violinists really know what kind of violin cases do they want? what shape and form...what features,,,  perhaps they don't if we look at this amusing parallel:)

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 7:23 PM

Al ku, if you get me started on that, then I'll never stop!! ;-)

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 8:54 PM

I'm still stuck on Hilary's violin silk bag, made of a Hermès scarf.  That sounds like a perfect marriage of form and function. Sigh.

As far as culinary art is concerned, I am always seeking the perfect latte -- and the perfect vessel for it. The paper cup with plastic lip -- it's functional, but not exactly art.

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 9:09 PM

Oooh, Laurie, did I ever tell you about the case I made using a Hermès scarf?

Regarding the search for perfection, I've given up on ever achieving it, but trying to achieve it has become something of an obsession..! (As if that makes any sense)

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