Elegance in Design

by Jim Leftwich November 18, 2005

[Editor’s Note] By popular request and with permission, Functioning Form is publishing some of Jim Leftwich’s writings on design.

I've long been aware of a basic and fundamental differentiation (speaking in broad generalizations, but still there) between the American approach to design (more “advertising” and “styling” oriented) and the European approach to design (whole-ism, integrated experience, generalist design approaches, elegance from integration of function with beauty and aesthetics, etc.). I don't want to get off in the weeds with this simplistic division. Europe has a lot of difference between Dutch, German, and Italian design, etc. But it is true that much of American design is "styled." Think about the streamlining of Ramond Loewy, vs. the intellectual integration and ideals of the Bauhaus as representative of these two departure points.

The quote below speaks of a beauty, which is not (at least as the first priority) styled (though anyone that's ever looked at the routing of lines and shape in a locomotive, it's obvious that thought is given to this aesthetically). Today we're beginning to see a mix of this type of beauty, integrated with playful or metaphorical styling (product semantics, as explored by the Cranbrook School of Design in the early 1980s).

This quote is my favorite on the topic of how beauty and design are integrated with and emerge from form and function.

“One characteristic of functional design is elegance. Most people find a buttercup beautiful, and many would say that the locomotive was at least pleasant to look at. However, the buttercup has an essential elegance, much more fundamental than its mere appearance. It is an elegant solution to a difficult problem in functional design; it has leaves to gather sunlight, oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air, and roots to extract water and minerals from the soil and hold it fast in the ground. Its stems support the leaves and flowers and transmit materials and signals (in the form of special substances). In its cells it makes and distributes many substances. It grows, it repairs damage to itself and it flowers and produces seed. It does all this in a fiercely competitive world with an extreme economy of living material, and its beautiful outward form is a reflection of its economical design.

"The buttercup is a splendid piece of engineering, much more advanced and refined than the locomotive. But even so, the locomotive is an elegant design, economical in its use of energy and material, with its balanced mechanisms and well-proportioned parts, full of ingenious detail and thoughtful refinements, and the overall coherence and unity that results so often from a single purpose intelligently pursued. It has beauty for the educated eye - and because of its simple action the education need only be slight - and that beauty comes nearly all from its functional design, and very little from conscious aesthetic intention.” -Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Invention and Evolution: Design in Nature and Engineering by M.J. French