Max Bill’s Form

I love my copy of Max Bill’s Form, its cloth-bound cover covered in old age spots. A previous owner cut and glued the incredible dust cover on the paste-down endpaper. It was affordable though not cheap, a utilitarian purchase.

Many modernist designers believe they can determine an object’s meaning and use once and for all. They complain that putting a design object in a museum subverts its original function. This book shows that the life of an object is mainly beyond what a designer can plan.

Many critics and historians label Bill as a formalist. I think they are incorrect. He was a middle-of-the-century functionalist. Contrary to the previous functionalists, who believed machine production dictates form, Bill held that human uses determine form.

The mistake is understandable. The Swiss Style applied the same formal rules to all sorts of content, from cigarette packages to accident prevention campaigns to sales brochures. It seemed that form took precedent over function. Still, it merely expressed the belief in a fundamental unit of all human functions – a total formal system for humanity as a whole.

It was a utopian view, of course, with its own set of problems and prejudices, derived from the assumption that post-war Europe’s moral and political values were universal.

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