If you ever want to study the form vs. function debate, pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times when it includes the NY Times Style Magazine. The pictures range from rooms that shout about comfort to those that say “go away, we don’t really like having company” and don’t get me started on the shoes because functional shoes will never be featured in a magazine. I’ve already covered the fact that I shouldn’t be trusted to shop for shoes, but I have had some success in the balancing act that is form v function.
When I operated a cabinet shop, I frequently found myself in the middle of the battle between those two goals. I had one customer who wanted to keep the ugliest mantel piece I’d ever seen in the center of an 18’ wall unit that I was building. The mantel was so ugly that I included a new one at cost just so it wouldn’t make my work look bad. Another customer, who saw my work at a friend’s house, had no concern whatsoever for function. She simply stated: “I want something that looks better than hers.” Pleasing both camps was hard work but sometimes we got it right. An example I remember vividly is from a kitchen that I renovated where the homeowner wanted a pullout cutting board but, as she put it:
“I want a real cutting board, not something that sags when I’m slicing bread. It needs to look like a drawer, be strong enough to carve a turkey on and easy to clean.”
I made a 2” thick Maple cutting board, wrapped it in an open drawer frame and supported it with heavy-duty Accuride full-extension drawer slides. After I installed the cabinet the cutting board was housed in, the homeowner asked me “is it strong?” I replied. “Those slides are rated at 125 lbs when fully extended.” She said, “I weigh 120” and then she pulled the cutting board all the way out and carefully sat on it. My mind was racing as I tried to remember if I used all the screws when I anchored those slides to the cabinet sides and whether my insurance would pay for this damage. Fortunately, everything held solid.
I’ve been thinking about the form-function debate recently as business travel has landed me in a few recently renovated hotels. I’ll spare the brands any damage and keep their names out of the story, but as far as I’m concerned, they gave their designers a little too much freedom. Consider for example the lamp shown at the right. It might be pretty, but the leaves of the pineapple are metal. Each night when I reached up to turn that lamp off, or worse, when I reached up in the dark to turn it on, I felt like I had stuck my hand into a blender.
I decided to ignore the lamp and rely on the Mini Maglite that I carry. The Maglite line is full of great examples form balanced with function. Unfortunately, on my most recent trip, the form-function battle had been fought and lost in the bathroom. I don’t normally pack an alternative to the fixtures and amenities in that room.
Let’s start with the tub. It looks nice, but as soon as I walked in I thought “where’s the rest of the shower door?” Maybe the configuration works for shorter and thinner people, but at 6’ 2” and 195 lbs. I’m not exactly cozying up to the front of that tub. Suffice it to say, the floor was wet after each shower and I had the pleasure of stepping onto a squishy bathmat. Not only that, but the fixtures, high-end as they might be, are square. Square metal objects should never be combined with naked. Also, the opening in the spout is a rectangular slot which causes the water to shoot halfway into the tub.
The spout in the sink follows the same design, and when I tried turning the pressure up a bit to rinse my toothbrush, I was soaked by water splashing out of the front corner of the perfectly square sink.
Perhaps more frustrating was the little decorative Kleenex origami dunce cap that the housekeeper wrapped up every day to adorn the tissue box. Aw, isn’t that pretty. Well, I don’t think I want to use that tissue – I’m not a clean freak, but the person who worked their artistic magic had just finished cleaning the bathroom – just saying. However, once I disposed of the decoration, I was left with a tissue box where the tissues had been tamped down to support the artwork, leaving me and my fat fingers to dig the first olive out of the jar, as it were.
I’ll leave you with a simple bit of technology where function ruled the day. The device recharging station shown here is ugly at its best, but it works so well on so many levels. First, it accommodates the largest transformer brick ever made without blocking an outlet. Second, it has enough outlets to serve a power-hungry crowd in between conference sessions. Third and perhaps most important, you’re not likely to forget who paid for your chance to fill up. And right there next to the water cooler, how sweet is that?