Form Follows Function



‘Form follows Function’ is a popular architectural principle that was first introduced in 1896 by American architect Louis H. Sullivan (1856–1924) in his essay ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’. It was actually shortened from the original phrase- ‘Form ever follows function’.

You are bound to come across it in your architectural journey. At its core the phrase ‘Form Follows Function’ reflects the notion that the function taking place within a building informs the decorative elements and overall form of it.

It has influenced a large number of modernist architects and architectural theorists throughout the years and has had an incredible impact on the field of architecture and continues to influence designs and ideas today.

In this post we will be exploring its origins, how it has been used over the years, and also dive into how it still remains relevant today. So be sure to read till the very end.

Scroll to the end to download this article as a handy PDF guide!

Function and Form

What is Function?

Function defines the purpose a project or building serves.

What is Form?

Form is the volumetric shape and appearance of a building, structure or object.

Historic Context​

To understand any architectural principle or theory fully, it is crucial to understand the historic and architectural context within which it emerged. Here is a brief timeline of the architectural styles and movements prevalent in America around the time Sullivan’s ‘Form Follows Function’ was introduced.

Form Follows Function Timeline

Mid 18th Century:
Neoclassicism (mid-18th to mid-19th centuries)

Late 18th Century:
Industrial Revolution (late 18th to early 19th centuries)
Romanticism (late 18th to mid-19th centuries)

Mid 19th Century:
1856 Louis H. Sullivan is born
American Civil War (1861-1865)

Late 19th Century:
Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1920)
Chicago School (1880s -1890s)
Art Nouveau (1890-1910)
1896 Form Follows Function
First Skyscrapers Emerge (1880-1899)

Early 20th Century:
Modern Movement
WW1 (1914-1918)
Great Depression (1929–1939)

‘Form Follows Function’ was coined by Louis H. Sullivan during the 19th century, which was characterised by rapid technological advancements that led to major growth of the steel, electric and automobile industries.

Sullivan observed that despite these transformative developments, the formal compositions of the built environment of the time were still drawing inspiration from Greco-Roman Classical architecture.

He recognised the need for new forms to represent the buildings of his time. And to him, these new forms would arise from functional considerations, i.e the purpose and intended use of the building rather than the architecture and traditional aesthetics of the past.

Now he did not abandon ornamentation entirely, but chose to adorn his works with elements inspired by nature, moving away from the rigid ideals of past architectural styles.

So, who was Louis H. Sullivan?

Louis H. Sullivan

Louis Henry Sullivan (1856–1924) was an American Architect and a prominent figure in the field of architecture, regarded as the ‘father of modernism’. He is widely known for his skyscraper designs and his contributions to architectural theory.

He began his architectural studies at MIT in Boston at the age of 16 and after only a year left he left to work for Furness and Hewitt, an architectural firm in Philadelphia. Not long after, the Long Depression of 1873 hit and Sullivan found himself moving to Chicago in search of new opportunities that came about after the Great Fire of 1871. Here he found work with the architect William Le Baron Jenney.

After a short time working, Sullivan travelled to Paris to pursue further education at the École des Beaux-Arts. Returning to Chicago in 1875, he worked as draftsman for Joseph S. Johnston & John Edelman’s firm.

At the age of 24, he began working for Dankmar Adler and the following year became a partner in his firm. This marked the beginning of their 14 year collaboration that led to the production of 100 buildings. Many of which are regarded as key landmarks in American architecture.

Sullivan’s designs demonstrate his mastery of form and function, as well as space and ornamentation. Some of his most famous works include:

  • The Auditorium Building, Chicago (1887–89)
The Auditorium Building
  • The Guaranty/Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1894–95)
The Guaranty Prudential Building
  • The Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri (1890–91)
The Wainwright Building

After ending his partnership with Adler, he went on to pioneer the tripartite Sullivan Center, also known as the Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Building that opened in 1899.

The Sullivan Center

Louis Sullivan was also a prominent figure in the development of the Chicago School of architecture which emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. This movement sought to revolutionise commercial building design through the use of steel frame construction. Architects such as Dankmar Adler, Solon S. Beman, Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, William LeBaron Jenney, Henry Hobson Richardson, Martin Roche and John Root were associated with the Chicago School.

Form Follows Function

Louis H. Sullivan’s work stepped away from using the classical Greek and Roman elements that were popularly used by many of his contemporaries.

He cleverly maintained the tradition of ornamentation seen in historic architectural styles into the tall, vertical forms of his skyscrapers. He made use of intricate elements like floral motifs, geometric patterns, scrollwork and more to add visual interest to the facades of his designs. These helped him express the structural and functional elements of his designs.

He brought together historical ornamentation with modern construction techniques, and pioneered a distinct American architectural style that would influence generations of architects to come.

In 1896 Sullivan wrote the essay, ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ and expressed his thoughts on how skyscrapers should be more than just practical structures. He believed that they should also be beautiful and emphasised the need for bringing together both functionality and artistic design in order to set good precedents for the tall buildings of the future.

He reflected on the inspiration for this phrase being Vitruvius, another key architectural figure known for his ‘De architectura’ or ‘Ten books on architecture’. Vitruvius also introduced the popular maxim – that all buildings should comprise these three – ‘firmitas, utilitas, and venustas’ to the world of architecture. In English these words translate to ‘strength, utility, and beauty’.

Original Intention and Misconceptions

Sullivan intended ‘Form follows Function’ to signify the idea that the design of a building should primarily be based on its intended function or purpose. He believed that the aesthetic qualities of a building should emerge naturally from its functional requirements, as opposed to being purely for the sake of decoration.

However, over time, the interpretation of this principle has shifted. With the misunderstanding being that ‘Form follows Function’ strictly implies that function must always come before form.

Responding to this, Frank Lloyd Wright, another notable figure in architecture, who also worked as Sullivan’s apprentice for six years at his firm, expresses:

‘Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.’

Sullivan’s Influence

Louis H. Sullivan played a very influential role in modern architecture and on architects that succeeded him.

He brought new ideas and perspectives to designing buildings, especially through his tall steel frame skyscrapers that transformed urban landscapes. He believed buildings should not just showcase beauty but also be practical and show their purpose through their design.

His design philosophy also formed the basis for other architectural theories, design principles and famous essays like ‘Ornament and Crime’, written by Adolf Loos in 1913.

Sullivan’s legacy still endures today.

Applications to other industries

This idea of ‘Form Follows Function’, despite having its origins in the field of architecture, is a fundamental concept embraced by designers across various disciplines.

Some examples of these design related industries include:

  • Automotive industry
  • Software development
  • Industrial design
  • Product design
  • Web design
  • Fashion design
  • Graphic design
  • Interior design
  • Urban planning

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In summary, ‘Form Follows Function’ is not just a popular architectural catchphrase but it is a key piece of architectural theory that shapes the very essence of the designs we produce today.

By carefully considering the functional requirements of a building we as designers can create effective design solutions that truly add to the lives of the users of our buildings and structures. Sullivan’s work shows us that we can successfully and creatively determine form through function and create such spaces without compromising the aesthetic qualities of our designs.

We hope this post gave you some insight into the meaning of this popular saying in the world of architecture.

Thank you for reading! 🙂



Your Comments


What are your thoughts on the phrase ‘Form follows function’? Do let us know in the comments below.

Also, feel free to share this post with a friend.

Thank you!


Written by Valanne Fernandes, a Part 1 Architecture graduate. Valanne is a content creator with First In Architecture, spending her time researching, writing and designing inspiring new content for the website.

Image Credits

Louis H. Sullivan

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  1. I love these articles. I share them with my students that take Architectural Design classes at my school. Keep up this great content!!

    • Thank you Jennifer 🙂


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