Suitability to Task

Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard

"The kind of beauty that emerges from absolute suitability to task"  -Yvon Chouinard

From his book Let my People Go Surfing, the inspiring activist and Patagonia founder describes what he is striving for as they develop new products for their thriving outdoor company. In the world of outdoor adventure and climbing where you often have to carry everything with you, the virtues of suitability-to-task are difficult to ignore.

Yvon and Buckminster Fuller would have been fast friends. Thinking only of practical utility when designing but acknowledging that a lack of beauty in the result was a sure sign that you were off-track.

In his essay Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos argues that it is criminal to spend resources decorating functional objects because it is not only wasteful but hastens the obsolescence of the object. The nature of decoration and fashion forever condemns both to the landfill of trends. Decor and fashion are defined by their imminent irrelevance while good design is defined by lasting relevance.

Other icons of Modernism Kaare Klint, Peter Behrens, Richard Neutra and others also made reference to the importance and value of functional pragmatism in design and the suitability of materials to a specific application.

The Shakers (now famous for inspiring the likes of Kaare Klint) made simple, unadorned furniture and other home goods admired for their lasting beauty and relevance. Decorating objects was believed to encourage the sin of pride and also was taking up time that they believed could be better spent making another chair or otherwise serving their community or god (i.e. immoral and wasteful). I know of few other communities where lifestyle was so well aligned with espoused beliefs. I believe it is called integrity, more on that another time…

As designers or consumers we could ask which material, feature, attribute or product is most suitable to task and end up with something that costs less and is longer lasting. (i.e. better, less wasteful) But do we have the knowledge, insight and understanding to even recognize these attributes and products in our modern consumer economy? Probably not. After all, it is a market where aesthetic fashions and ego drive emotional decisions and value is determined largely by price and what Kylie Jenner is doing. But I believe we can at least reasonably hope that rational pragmatism will become fashionable once every couple of generations…only to succumb again to the next post-modernist trend celebrating the virtues of novelty.