The Art of Great, Functional Design

I stopped into a shoe store the other day to look for a new pair of sneakers, and was surprised when the salesperson asked if I wanted “something you’re going to really use, or just something that looks good.”

It felt like a trick question; while I’m not planning any marathons right now, I generally feel that a sneaker should have more than just decorative value. In fact, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want a sneaker with a bit of fashion pizazz that also provides arch support and holds up to a hike with the dogs or an end-of-day workout at the gym.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to choose between something that works well and something that looks good, as if, somehow, there needs to be two different classes of products to meet these two different needs.

In the design industry, we know better, of course. Yet for many years, the divide between fashion and function has persisted. Even among talented kitchen and bath professionals, we talk about the importance of function, but there are still an awful lot of really pretty kitchens and baths that are designed to dazzle the eye, with far less thought paid to how well they actually work.

To be fair, there are clients who want just that – the ones who desire a gorgeous suite of appliances that’ll likely never be used for anything except heating up take out, or the ones who don’t worry if their countertops are porous because they’re mostly for show – and if they do get messy, it’s the cleaning crew’s problem.

Likewise, there are the pragmatic consumers who are far more concerned about function – easy care and durable are their top priorities, and fashion comes in a far-distant third.

As one designer once explained it to me, “Sure, design has to be practical, but let’s be honest – the really fun part is in the aesthetics.”

While there’s some truth to that, there seems to be a new way of thinking of late, with the industry showing a subtle shift toward what I like to think of as “Functional Artistry” – products and designs where there’s a clear degree of artistry, but some of that artistry is devoted to the intricate design of its functionality.

This concept is explored in Mary Jo Peterson’s column this month, where she talks about a new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan. Titled “Access+Ability,” the exhibit would, at first glance, appear to be about Universal Design, but it’s actually as much about fashion as function. Indeed, the exhibit is filled with super cool design ideas that have mainstream appeal – even as they happen to work well for those who face physical challenges that too often put them outside of the mainstream.

This same type of functional artistry was on display at the January Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Orlando, as well as last month’s Architectural Digest Show in New York City – with products designed to work so cleverly that the functionality is, in and of itself, something of an art form.

In this month’s countertop design feature, a number of the projects showcase not only creative use of surfacing, but a mixing of materials that speaks not only to the artistry of the design, but to the functional needs of the space – functional artistry at its best.

And many of the early entries for Kitchen & Bath Design News’ third annual Design Awards, currently in progress offer even more evidence of the intertwining of art and function.

As our industry continues to evolve, we can expect design to become more diverse and inclusive. That means our standards for beauty will likely expand, and take into consideration factors beyond just what the eye can see. We’ll likely have more consumers wanting answers to questions like: “How does it sound? How does it feel? How does it interact with me and my family?” For those looking to get ahead of the curve, now is a great time to adapt a ‘functional artistry’ approach to design, one that will not only recognize the art in beautiful design, but also the artistry in design that works…beautifully. ▪

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