Pecha Kucha Talk: Form & Function

Watch Jess in this informal Pecha Kucha ("chit chat") style talk about Form & Function and what it means for Wootten today.

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For the written version, read below:

Hi everyone. I’m Jess Wootten and today I’m a Shoemaker and Leather craftsman. Why do I say “today”? Well, because throughout my life I’ve always been a designer and maker. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made things and drawn things, imagined things into existence. It just so happens that I’m here today because I make boots for a living.

I once was a car designer, designing cars for international motor shows and developing advanced materials that, frankly, would never see the inside of a production car. Prior to that I was an award winning transport designer, designing a new tram system for Melbourne’s 2030 initiative… I’m still waiting to see it rolling down Flinders Street… there’s still time.

Last year I was outed as a building designer and, actually, not a terrible Builder. And truth be told, if I hadn’t ended up studying Industrial design, Architecture is my real passion. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I do make boots and bags, but fundamentally, I’m a person who thinks far too much about why… Why what? You ask? Why EVERYTHING. I currently have an almost 3 year old. And believe me, WHY is a question I’m getting very good at answering…

So, why does form follow function? American architect Louis Sullivan is credited with coining the phrase “form follows function”, an axiom that has shaped a century of design thinking. The phrase has often been attributed to modernist greats such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, perhaps because this ethos so closely aligned with early Bauhuas and Modernist approaches to design and their drive to strip back the frill of arts and crafts and Victoriana excess. Their philosophy was to revel in the utility of objects and both expose and elevate manufacturing techniques.

Whilst the axiom still rings true, advancements in design capability and manufacturing technology mean that materials and their inherent properties, and limitations, have much less of a bearing on the form which an object might take. Making the relationship between form and function ever more tenuous.

I had a brilliant lecturer at university. His ramblings often seemed ludicrous, until one day it clicked, perhaps the future is his Knitted car? I mean, if Nike can knit a shoe, why not? There are people, right now, somewhere in the world literally working on Growing products. For example, a dress made from mushroom mycelium. Or imagine, your next boot was grown in a Petrie dish…

A good example of this tenuous relationship is the piece of technology we all carry with us every day. Our “smartphones”. These have become ubiquitous within our “modern” lives, yet does the form they take inherently tell us what their function is? Indeed, beyond mere ergonomics, the phone could take whatever “form” we might like. Technology and information processing has become so infinitesimally small in scale and precise meaning the device performing the function is so miniscule it has nearly no bearing on the objects form.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as beguiled by a beautiful aesthetic as the next person. But when substance is substituted for style and form is freewheeling then, for me, the spell wears off rather quickly. As the saying goes necessity is the mother of invention, and it is absolutely my view that good design is brought about under limitations. Be it budget, material or utility. Take for example Issigonis and his design for the original BMC Mini. What a brilliant piece of packaging design, one that endured for some 50 years and is now iconic. Born out of compromise and it sings because of it. Utility and beautifully resolved problem solving design has an enduring appeal. What would Australia be without the holden “Ute”? RM Williams or the Toyota Landcruiser? They are ubiquitously Aussie. This function led utilitarian design has pervaded our national identity to such an extent that today they have become cultural symbols. So it follows that: once we have evolved past meeting mere utility and have developed advanced materials and processes, form and function can be (and often are) quite separate considerations. However, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Ultimately, as Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”. There is one key word in Wrights re phrasing of the axiom “spiritual”.

Having pulled ourselves out of the dark, cold and wet and met the basic need of utility there is a space created for the “human”. What do I mean by this? We now operate in a world where virtually anything is possible, and “stuff” is plentiful yet we are finding ourselves less fulfilled. Why? Humans require community, connection, inspiration and meaning to thrive.

What if the function was to enhance connection, foster community, better our environment, create more diverse and inclusive workplaces and fundamentally inspire us to make the world a better place? Clearly the form of a shoe is dictated by the feet which they are tasked to protect. They wear out, we need to replace them. And now, there are a bazillion shoes in the world, Crocs make 150 Million pairs each year, Nike 800 Million. Suffice to say, there are more than enough foot covering devices being produced globally to accommodate the populations needs. So why do I still have a job?

Our function is not merely to produce “traditional” shoes so that there are welted shoes in the world. There are enough of these already. Our function is to ensure that our industry continues and to foster the community surrounding our small team. After all, our four jobs and 400 pairs of boots annually is a drop in an increasingly vast ocean. But, by supporting local farmers, tanneries and raw material suppliers, the ripple effects of our existence have much broader impacts outside our walls. Beyond our four jobs, there are tens, if not hundreds of others, supported in our faltering industry.

The form our shoes take follows this function. Materials, sourced and produced locally make them uniquely of their place. The very construction we use, designed to be durable, repairable and enduring. Our small team, expert in their craft, sharing the process transparently with our customers to foster connection, both with community and what we consume.

When we talk about the “spiritual union” between form and function, we are now bound to consider more broadly the legacy of our creations and the function which they play in enhancing and enriching our lives, our communities and our human connections. Considering all of this perhaps a more apt word than function, is purpose. So we could now say: “form follows purpose” and our purpose is to positively change the world.