Ob-Jessions: Form Follows Emotion

By: Philip Wood

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With Modernism came a belief that, through design, an object’s form can be reduced to a pure expression of its function. The modernist diktat of form follows function and its practice as a sort of three-dimensional puritanism pervades the design disciplines to this day to such an extent that it goes almost unseen.

Modernism came about as a reaction to the highly decorative Art Nouveau and Deco design movements and was augured by the machine age, with its basic mechanical production outcomes. Devotees of the Bauhaus belief system felt that an object (whether it be a phone, a door, or chair) could and should be reduced to its essence or “form type,” and that ultimately, by applying design principles, there could be only one outcome for what the object could look like.

Although today’s phone, with its sleek glass and machined metal bears no resemblance to Marcel Breuer’s 1920s Bakelite communication device, the language that Apple and others use as their design rationale is the same: Reducing a thing to its essence, purity of form, distillation of function. There’s something Teutonic and chaste about the whole approach. 

But life is messier, less predictable, and rarely as definitive.

Enter Nikolai and Simon Haas. I’m not sure when I first came across the Haas brothers’ work, but I remember I felt they were shining a bright light on a certain banality that we’d succumbed to. Their extraordinary furniture defies easy categorization—chairs with horns and table legs bedecked with scales and claws, like some incubus crawled from the subconscious into the living room.

Their use of materials and processes is highly sophisticated and boundless, from ceramic to glass, complex polymers to bronze casting and fur. They seem to have an almost polyamorous approach to making, and make they do. Their work may not fit easily into an aesthetic category, but they defy simple labeling of artist, designer, or maker. With their in-depth material research, sculptural process, and emotionally driven subject matter, they themselves happily resist easy identification and seem to operate in the worlds of art, craft, and design without being fixed to any of them.

When we survey our domestic landscape, the objects we value most are often not the most expensive. They are the sentimental, the symbolic, the emotionally significant. For this reason, the Haas brothers tap into something deep within us. It’s not about fiscal value, it’s about the emotional. In fact, while the Modernist dictum may be form follows function, theirs is form follows emotion.

For some, the Haas brothers’ forms and symbolism may be too prosaic and altogether disturbing. I can appreciate their work is not for everyone. However, within their work is a lesson and inspiration that our domestic landscape can be much richer and emotive, and that the things we live with don’t, as the marketers suggest, only have to convey a certain lifestyle choice or social status. They can, as the Haas brothers propose, be provocative, emotionally suggestive, and whimsically unconventional.

As for how to categorize them, they truly sit in the center of art, design, and craft. Some artists use design objects as furniture, and some furniture makers and designers attempt to position their work as art, but few people truly sit in between these two worlds. The Haas brothers’ proprietary material technology mixed with their tapping of the unconscious to create wild and mythical furniture and objects show an end to the dulled-down soft Modernism and bring emotion to the dining room.

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Philip Wood is a practicing cultural critic, creative director, designer and furniture maker based in San Francisco. Each issue, he shares an untold story of objects, why it makes sense to take a closer look at them and how they can have resonance for what surrounds us in our personal spaces. 

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