Form Follows Function

We are living beings—we live—that is our function. We create structures or forms to support our function of living. Function is the initiating pressure of a living force—form is the resulting structure through which function is manifested and made operative. A function creates its own form. Form ever follows function. This law is discernible throughout nature, and human works. Just as every form contains its function, and exists by virtue of it, so every function finds or is engaged in finding its form.

Creating forms appropriate for our function involves undertaking the responsibility to take the effort of creating forms. Most people on most issues simply imitate forms others have created or continue to use forms through inertia long after the functions that created them have changed. Such dead forms impede functions. Living well requires identifying one’s functions and choosing or creating forms that follow from those functions.

Forms are supported by living functions. A non-living form is either stifling a function, or the function supporting the form is other than what it purports to be, or both.


Art of Expression by Louis Sullivan

[Source: Kindergarten Chats by Louis Sullivan. Selected, edited and reorganized by Shrikant. If you find this useful, please read the original.]

How can I express poetry in my art? As one expresses poetry in anything–by first living it. For poetry is life. To express life we must know life, and understand it in its bearings. To know the simplicity of all life we must grasp its complexity; we must view it from many angles, envisage its many moods and seeming contrarieties; and to know its complexity we must grasp, with all the power of understanding its deep-down simplicity. To know the soul we must arouse the soul, liberate it and let it face the open and move in the open until it knows not fear.

Nature is ever the background across which man moves as in a drama. So have I taken you to Nature, to show you how our moods parallel her moods; how her problems parallel our problems, to make plain to you what man may read in Nature’s book, to the end that her processes may be our processes: that we may absorb somewhat of her fertility of recourse, her admirable logic, her progression from function into form, her fluency, her lyric quality–her poetic finalities. 

Should man do less in satisfying his utilitarian needs! It is the function of the poet, in whatever walk of life, to regard these things, to make them his own; to express them in his work: whatever those works, whatever his special activities may be. 

You cannot express, whatever your walk in life, unless you have a system of expression; and you cannot have a system of expression unless you have a prior system of cognate thinking and feeling; and you cannot have a system of thinking and feeling unless you have had a basic system of living.

When all is said and done, the great masterpiece, or the little masterpiece, whatever its kind, is but the condensed expression of such philosophy as is held by the worker who creates it. It stands for his views, his more or less ripened, organized and rounded views of Nature, of Man as an entity in Nature, of his fellow men, of his views and convictions concerning the human mind, the human heart and soul, and the progress and destiny of the race: in short, his philosophy of life. 

To assume that man may create a great work without in his own way having held a communion with the flow of life, without having in his own way contemplated humanity–would be to express crudely what is crudely thought. To fancy, languorously, that a man may create a great work by reproducing a Greek temple, or any past vital work, is an example in such crude vacuity of thinking: indeed, the misapplication of the very notion of thinking. It is simply minus-thinking. A great work is, always, a great individual expression; the expression of a single thought or a single mood born of a contemplative, active, clear-sighted creative mind. 

For a great work, must be an organism–that is, possessed of a life of its own; an individual life that functionates in all its parts; and which find its variations in expression in the variations of its main function, and in the consequent, continuous systematic variations in form, as the organic complexity of expression unfolds: all proceeding from one single impulse of desire to express our day and our needs: to seek earnestly and faithfully to satisfy those needs. To make our world a pleasant place.

Do not mistake my meaning, nor my attitude towards the great works of the men of the past. None can, I believe, venerate them more sincerely than do I, nor more clearly and gratefully discern their beauty, their worth, their inspiring evidence of what man can do when he wills. Bus such appraisal, such enthusiasm would go to nought were I to stultify both myself and them by denying them their privacy.

For, my lad, beauty has not really departed from the sons of Earth.
Nor is high thinking but a memory of days gone.
Nor is the winsome art of saying done for.
Nor has the power of man forsaken him.
If he has lost them, on his way, he has but to call to them:
They will answer and come gladly.
His spirit will revive.


An art of expression must flow from an inner reservoir. It must be the gathered and stored force seeking outlet. It is not as a garment — a something to be worn or not worn — it is inseparable from life, a symbol of life. 

An art of expression should be the earliest upbuilding element to enter into the curriculum of a thorough education. It should grow as the body grows and mature as the will evolves. It should evidence human capacity and human possibility. It should open the mind, open the heart, to direct impressions at the very beginning. These are to the human what sunlight, soil and rain are to vegetation.

Then, let utterance of these impressions begin so soon as it is evident that they are impressions. After which, new impressions, then new utterance — ever continuous, ever reciprocal, ever broadening, surely organizing, unfolding, ever growing in power, more coherent, more plastic, more fluent; ever growing in receptivity, ever growing in aspiration; ever growing in mobility, ever growing in serenity; ever growing more complex – paralleling the complexity of life; ever growing more simple — paralleling the simplicity of life; ever gaining in strength, ever gaining in delicacy; ever in ferment, ever clarifying those elemental powers which are so subtle yet the more potent of all — the power of receiving, the power of uttering!

Then, in clarity, one may see not merely over the surface of things, but into the being of things, and of man. Then may one express life, because he has lived. then will one’s works be poems, for they will spring from life, its needs, and its desires.


Now it has been part of out work to expand and concentrate the meaning of words, of phrases. To extricate them from their provincial confinement and let them go free in the world of men. Such a parlor-phrase is now before us, namely: the Art of Expression. Its use has been limited almost exclusively to the so-called fine arts and perhaps particularly to the art of writing poetry and prose. That is to say, it has retained a strictly feudal meaning, in the sense that it is a direct expression of elitism in a quite limited aristocratic and sub-sufficient sense. I call it provincial, not because it is so in actual fact but because it is so in actual use. Like almost all feudal words and phrases it ignores the needs of humanity, it centers in a narrow elitism. The phrase therefore needs liberation. 

It must take on a great expansiveness and power of symbolism. It must be exalted into a universal guiding principle and power: else shall it fail to satisfy and inspire the brain, the heart of a humanistic work. In short, we must change its significance from feudal to Humanistic. We must so broaden its scope that it shall include all human activity. For it is the function of the Humanistic Civilization to liberate, broaden, intensify and focus every human faculty; to utilize every human power now unused, abused, or running to waste. For Human Civilization in its heart would abolish all human wastages in their tortuous winding, in impasses, in sorrow, in vicious misdirection. It would, in its efficiency, its thorough-going knowledge and understanding, establish universal productiveness and human poise; the first fruits of is vision, of its discovery of man and his powers. Its conception of of the art of expression is founded on man’s evident spiritual integrity, and his high moral power of choice. It proposes to guide him, to organize him, the the exercise of his various powers of Worker, Inquirer, Thinker and Dreamer. It purposes that man shall sense himself and realize himself. 

It knows and understands why feudal civilizations have ever ended in downfall and the wreckage of disaster. It knows and understands the soul of feudalism. It knows that the thought, the feeling , of the world of man is slowly, surely passing out of that domain of provincialism of the mind. If knows that man’s heart is essentially pure, his mind essentially clean. It knows that man thus far has lived by fear alone. In its own courage, Human Civilization would abolish fear, would banish it, would dispel it as a fetid ghost. It would blow down dissolve, the wall that Fate has seemed to rear, it would expose the world to man’s clearing vision. 

[Note: What is the opposite of Feudalism? What is the name for a civilization based the nature of man? I have replaced Sullivan’s term for it,”Democracy”, by “Human Civilization” because it better conveys his meaning.]


Thus is it necessary in a Human Civilization that men in all walks of life (especially those who assume to be leaders in thought) qualify, each in his way, in the all-inclusive art of expression. For Human Civilization has real things to express, it insists on their expression, it will make sure that they are expressed. The steady gaze of Human Civilization pierces all feudal screens, all veils, all pretense, all subterfuge, all hypocrisies, all cant. It sees through them and beyond them to the feudal realities of our day. With ever accumulating power it seeks and will surely find expression in social function and form. It is seeking and will find a consistent, highly diversified, highly organized expression springing with superb logic from the contained power of its germinal idea: the sole social idea that stands for complete Sanity, the sole spiritual idea that is worthy of man and his powers. Therefore the art of developing Human Civilization into a complete, complex yet simple, working civilization is the one great art of expression confronting man today. It is the one art including all arts, all activities, individual and social. It is in the development of the technique of such art that modern man is to concentrate his thought, bend his faculties, and exercise his superb powers as creator. 

Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the universal art of expression.


Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the universal art of expression.

Sullivan’s student complains… “You have the singular habit of assuming, when you suddenly make a compact statement, novel in character, that I am capable of digesting it at once. I am puzzling over your statement–I can’t see that a problem contains its solution; still less that it suggests it… It is not self-evident to me. My training tended the other way. And yet the suggestion excites my vivid curiosity. It sounds neat if nothing more.”

I admit the impeachment. It is likely to happen, when one has given years of thought to a particular subject, that his working idea concerning it is apt to concentrate into a statement so terse that, while self-evident to himself, it is not self-evident to others. 

I have come to regard as valuable those truths only which are universal. And it is a bit surprising to note how many truths are universal or may be expanded into a universal application. [Use only universal principles.]

I don’t suppose that anyone who succeeds in solving a problem really goes out of it for the solution; and this assumption doubtless also accounts for innumerable failures. And the failures certainly are self-evident: the world is full of debris of this sort. Particularly is this characteristic of the intellectuals. The unsophisticated man is often better qualified to go straight to the core of a matter: by a process of feeling to sense its reality. [Focus on the problem itself; ignore all arbitrary things said about it.]

Now to give a very simple case: if you are given a peanut-pod and the problem is to find the peanut, you simply open the pod and there is your peanut. The conditions are extremely simple, but the truth is there: the germ of a universal truth, which, with sufficiently extended experience will formulate itself into a law. If we gradually enlarge out problem, we find its husk of conditions becoming complicated, and its contained germ of solution less and less obvious. But when we have solved our problem by confining our attention to it, we find the law holds good. And we have had further experience, we become aware that the very nature of limiting conditions suggest to us what must be the nature and the limitations of the solution. Thus a given problem takes on the character of individuality, of identity. And you become aware that your solution must partake of that identity. [The process of limiting the nature of a problem to a sufficient degree of precision leads to its solution.]

If you come across a problem which does not possess identity, you know by such token that the problem is not a problem but a figment. [Most of so called “problems” are arbitrary assertions. They cannot be solved because they are not problems. The process of limiting shows that they have no identity.]

As the problem becomes more complex it becomes necessary to know all the conditions, to have all the data, and especially to make sure as to the limitations. [Complex problems have multiple limits. Wider limits need to be figured before narrower. Limiting process is hierarchical.]


Now suppose we extend the problem to its broad human limit and pose it as a problem of the nature of civilization: What is the nature of civilization? The conditions seem enormously complicated and complex, and sternly limited by what is called human nature; the solution not only doubtful but nowhere in sight. Yet, let us but patiently stick to our law, and we finally, perhaps after many years, penetrate this vast husk of humanity and fictions, and find the germ of the solution to be individual man himself, and the fundamental nature of man within him. Having discovered one man, his spirit and his powers, we have discovered all men. Having discovered man, the problem reverses, takes on a new, a constructive aspect; an aspect and purpose born of the desire to create–[leading to creation of a truly Human Civilization based squarely on the true nature of man–unencumbered by the soul-mind-heart-body-wealth crushing institutions and practices of past civilizations based on cornucopia of fictions.]

[The text is from Kindergarten Chats, selected, condensed and edited, with additional notes added in square brackets. Please read the original yourself if you find them interesting.]

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