Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 4 (December-January 1949-50)
Fitness — For What Purpose?
Fitness — For What Purpose?
It is so nice and comfortable to fasten on to a slogan — Fitness for Purpose. It creates the feeling that out of a welter of confusion we grasp the security of a firm foothold. The whole purpose of a slogan is to lull us from anxiety to quietude. From the exuberance of the last century when common honesty and practical efficiency were buried beneath a welter of meretricious ornament, was born the slogan “Fitness for Purpose” in England and the “Functional Movement” on the Continent. By noticing that objects which gave least offence and often a thrill of pleasure were those that laid no claim to artistic design, such as aeroplanes, motor cars and modern machinery, and that the better they worked the better they looked, the theory was propounded that true design should be based on function alone and unadorned.
The slogan sounds self-evident. It was intended to suggest that if you made a teapot you should see that it pours properly. It was an anguished protest against the state of wilful whimsey into which design had fallen, and was a plea that objects should do their practical jobs in a practical manner.
It has been misinterpreted to mean that good design is a strip-tease act with the disappointing result that when the clothing is cast aside nothing remains worth looking at.
What is a practical and commonsense principle on which to make a tooth brush, a screwdriver or a tin-opener, is insufficient as the sole working principle on which to design a chair, a house or a plate. To take the knobs off and produce an effect of static streamline is not the sole occupation of the designer.
With all those objects, from a tiara to a teapot, while asking that they shall do their job efficiently, we look also for vital and human character in design, in fact for the quality of “delight.” A chair is expected to be firm, strong and comfortable to sit on. That is part of its function. The rest of its function is to be friendly to its owner and give pleasure. That part of its function, the most important, cannot be defined except in terms of the designer's ingenuity and the owner's individuality.
If we pin our faith to fitness for purpose as the sole guiding principle of design, the “purpose” may prove as stable as smoke.
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