Pythagorean Design

Mathematics played a key role in Pythagorean philosophy. The dictum of the Pythagorean school was All is number, with everything having a number as its essence; for example: one is for reason, two is for female and opinion, three is for male and harmony, and so on. The obsession with mathematics and numbers allowed the Pythagoreans to give the world around them more structure, a structure that made more sense than the other forms of mystical metaphysics present at the time.

Modern art and design movements that sprang up at the beginning of the last century have moved their craft in a direction dictated by structured reason over free emotion. The key principles of modern design were to eliminate everything unnecessary, use materials that help the item function better, use simple shapes that are easy to manufacture en masse and above all focus on function over form. The ultimate–and therefore most beautiful–form was to be arrived at by making an item fit for its purpose. Superfluous decoration was now the enemy and so had no place in modern design.

But who is the judge of what is superfluous and what is useful–by what criteria is this call made? The function of a cup is to hold a beverage, they may say, and so this is our criteria: how well does the item perform its task? The problem here is that decorations also serve a purpose–implemented well they enrich our experience using the item. Beautiful things are beautiful because we enjoy seeing them–it is this subjective experience that makes the object beautiful, not an objective attribute. Decoration does not help the cup perform its function, but what it does is make the performance of that function more pleasant in the hands of a human being.

An argument can be made that a product that performs its task well is beautiful because of this very fitness for purpose, but while this may sometimes be true is it always the case? A brick warehouse with four walls and no windows serves its purpose just fine, but it is not a pleasant sight. It may be very good for storing lots of things but those goods are not the things that will have a subjective experience of the warehouse’s design–it’s the passers by and the people who will work there. A blank wall is honest in that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, but is this honesty beautiful to the mind of a human being looking at it?

Symmetrical shapes and plain materials can be beautiful in that we enjoy looking at something that is well made–i.e. it’s precise and clean–but it’s also sterile and boring. There’s a reason we like wooden furniture (even when it’s not wooden it’s oftentimes textured in imitation wood). The material is not only practical, its complex texture is also beautiful to our eye.

The focus on function seems to me like Pythagorean obsession with mathematics–the dictum of the modern designer being All is function. The premise is clean and clear, yet the underlying reasons for that premise are not questioned. Modern, minimalist design solves a problem well, but for whom are we solving the problem? Is it a solution to an equation–i.e. arrange these materials in the simplest form in order to perform this function–or are we also designing something that will be used by human beings with their own subjective feelings and emotions, the very emotions that will be influenced by the products they use?

Published December 2011