Simplicity as human history

Proposition: functionalism shaped ideas about simplicity and ideas about simplicity significantly informed the thinking of the functionalists.

My writing session this morning focused on reading the essays of Horatio Greenough. I am particularly interested in tracing the “form follows function” train of thought through the centuries, and piecing together the social and cultural contributors, leading to Sullivan’s famous framing of the dictum. From the historical long view, it seems impossible to escape the point that functionalism has profoundly shaped contemporary ideas about simplicity and that ideas about simplicity significantly informed the thinking of the functionalists.

As with any discourse, unpacking simplicity from the “history of ideas” perspective enriches and expands one’s relationship with the subject in the present. Simplicity, as a concept, did not appear out of nowhere. It is part of language, culture, and the random, if not impenetrable, past that serves as the platform for our lives today.

Among the many critiques to level against “simplicity self-help” as a genre is precisely this point: simplicity is not a god, a platonic form in the ether, but a human idea with a very human past.

The history of simplicity as an idea is brimming with preachers and shaman — individuals promising the balm of simplicity as medicine for the trials of life. From the functionalist architects (from the mid-20th century onward) to today’s gurus of minimalism and decluttering, the premise that “less is more” is ostensibly, if not ironically, a highly marketable proposition. Not that this history doesn’t make valuable contributions. It is by situating and contextualizing these contributions in a broader historical frame of reference that we are much better able to see their relevance (or lack thereof) in the moment.