Design practice and functionalism

RELATED TERMS: Co-design; Creative thinking; Design History; Modernism; People-centred design; Postmodernism; Practice; Product Design; Theoretical practice; User-centred design; User-driven design; Utopia and Utopian thinking; Ontological designing; Philosophy; Narrative environment design; Critical thinking; Modernity; Latour

Buchanan (1998: 64) considers the development of design in the 20th century to have had three distinct periods,

“Design began as a trade activity, closely connected to industrialization and the emergence of mass communication. After a period of time, professions began to emerge, with traditions of practice and conscious recognition of a distinct type of thinking and working that distinguished our professions from others. Professional practice diversified in many forms – in a process that continues to the present. However, we are now witnessing the beginnings of the third era of design, marked by the emergence of design as a field or discipline.”

It is through and against this emerging field or discipline of design that narrative environment design, as a design practice and a design intervention, should be thought.

Design practice, as it developed in an Anglo-Saxon context, is closely tied to the development of functionalism and the Modern Movement (Burkhardt, 1988: 145-146). In this tradition, the design of objects was conceived on the model of architecture. Specialisation within the field of design did not take place until the latter half of the 19th century in England and, subsequently, in Germany, followed progressively by France, the USA, Scandinavia, Italy and Japan.

As a form of design practice, narrative environment design seeks to, if not to break away entirely from the architectural model and functionalism, then, at the very least, to minimise their importance and to contextualise their significance in a rethinking of such ideas as form, function and materiality through an emphasis on ‘matters of concern’ and a questioning of the ‘matters of fact’ upon which the architectural model and functionalism rely, or rather assume.

At the time of its rise to prominence, the notion of functionalism served a particular purpose. The above-mentioned Anglo-Saxon tradition involved a certain ethical project: to restore to the object its ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’, i.e. to assert that it had some ‘intrinsic’ value in this world (this-worldly-value), and was not just a cipher for a value in an other world (other-worldly-value). This was a reaction to prevalent historicist ideas which relegated objects to the realm of appearances (accidence) rather than reality (essence). The leading advocates of this position, who effected functionalism’s rise to pre-eminence, were Webb, Lethaby, Voysey, Ashbee in England; Muthesius and Riemerschmid in Germany; Wagner and Loos in Austria; and Sullivan in the USA (Burkhardt, 1988: 146).

These thinkers considered the relationships among form, function and material, insisting that they be interpreted in a cultural perspective, taking into account contemporary life-styles and aspirations. They were also closely linked to the leading artistic movements of the time and therefore had an aesthetic orientation.

With the growth of specialisation, the relationship between design and architecture became more tenuous, and design came to see itself linked to systems of industrial production and to economic growth. It therefore took on a very pragmatic approach, form of industrialised, instrumentalised, econo-pragmatism. Design took on a key role in economic policy, as an instrument in the quest for market share and for the satisfaction of national ambition in the display of sovereign power.

Design came to mean a commitment to mass production, with an industrial logic. Ironically, in the context of the forms of contemporary design where, technically, each category of product is much the same, design enters as a means of differentiating products at the level of appearances, in the form of trade mark or brand.

Design, in this phase, is reduced to styling and designers to employees in companies within which they have little autonomy. To break with this situation, they would require greater institutional autonomy and the necessary conceptual equipment. Early examples of attempts to break free from the constraints of functionalism and econo-pragmatism include the ecological and pacifist movements in the USA in the 1960s, the Des-In group in Germany, the counter-design movement centred on the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Florentine Archizoom group. Later developments include the creation of the Alchimia group in 1978 by Ettore Sotsass, Andrea Branzi and Alessandro Mendini and Sottsass’s Memphis Group in 1980.

Nevertheless, these remain minority tendencies. For the majority tendency,

“ …this notion of an everyday culture, of culture as a means to emancipation, allowing people to distance themselves from the world and take a critical look at it – this barely exists at all in the Anglo-Saxon world, where designers are closely linked with industry, and where design associations occupy themselves not with critical discussion but merely with business problems.” (Burkhardt, 1988: 149)

Narrative environment design, then, in part, makes a positive case for that notion of an everyday culture which permits critical distancing; and for the critique of functionalism, not as such, but to combat its hegemonic ascendancy and the assumption of its instrumental simplicity. In short, narrative environment design includes the possibility that the ‘function’ of a designed environment is to subvert the way ‘function’ is understood. As Burkhardt (1988: 151) expresses it,

“Any object can be an object of design, and their multiplicity of evocations should correspond to the multiple possibilities which our society offers of identification and identity.”


Buchanan, R. (1998). Education and professional practice in design. Design Issues, 14 (2), 63–66. Available from [Accessed 14 January 2012].

Burkhardt, F. (1988). Design and ‘avant-postmodernism’. In: Thakara, J., ed. Design after modernism. London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 145–151.