The Functions of Form

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The Functions of Form

A character in one of the books by Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi observes that in Pakistan, with the population of 180 million, the number of locks must be twi

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A character in one of the books by Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi observes that in Pakistan, with the population of 180 million, the number of locks must be twice as many1. The great Urdu writer’s comment upon the ratio and relationship of locks and human beings is pertinent, because in actuality, each lock signifies and certifies the threat or presence of a potential thief. The practice of locking one’s valuables: houses, work places, vehicles –even such mundane things like letter box, a ballpoint pen at an office counter tied to a plastic wire, or a cheap steel glass hanging with a metal chain at railway stations and bus stops – instead of being a sign of safety is the testimony of societal insecurity.
If one takes the case of a lock and probes the history of its design, which for some may be a formal and pictorial matter, it reveals the psychology of a people and their interaction with each other. In the subcontinent a hundred years ago, locks were heavy, so it was difficult for a stranger to open without keys. Over the years, when these turned vulnerable and easy, the slick looking Chinese lock came into fashion. The look of those locks was pristine, complex and highly technological in order to keep off intruders. Yet these mechanical devices were soon and easily conquered, so today we have a different type of lock, which does not disclose to an outsider if a door is locked or not.
The passage from a big, solid and unmissable lock to a discreet and secret device is a shift in the psychology of the consumers – if not the makers. These differences determine that the change in design is more related to social, cultural and economic factors in than to aesthetics reasons. And not only locks, but every other object manufactured by human beings for their comfort are a narrative of human minds, attitudes, behaviours and interactions.
Beginning from archaic flint stone tools to the most sophisticated personal computers, man has created a range of extensions – for both his mental and physical facilities. The development of these devices is the history of man’s evolving mind, which competed with nature and created culture. Another great Urdu writer, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, in his Persian poetry addresses God declaring that “If You created night, I manufactured lamps; You made dust, I shaped pots; You created desert, and I created gardens”. The verses are a proclamation of man’s triumph over harsh and difficult nature.
That was not possible without early experiments in forging tools. Thus the history of objects is a recounting of human intelligence. But perhaps from the early stages of human existence, the question or divide between the function and beauty of artefacts must have intrigued our ancestors. Despite the fact that then there was no idea of art, and society was only need-orientated, yet even at that time probably man was forced to include a sense of beauty in objects, which were made. Forms which are read today as decoration, were definitely codes and had functional value, yet the way these were developed and rendered invoked and still convey a sense of beauty. However, perhaps only at a later stage, did man discover the presence and existence of beauty in objects shaped by him. Actually, the history of beauty can be the history of ideas as well, as the fondness for flowers is a sign of how the man can indulge in an obsession that is useless on a practical ground. Yet man strives to make objects, which, without or along with fulfilling a function appear ‘nice’.
The matter of beauty and function is not just a relationship of outer self and inner soul, because on the surface, what appears as decoration, has an economic aspect as well. The sleek coat and finish of a Mac computer does not increase the function of the machine, but adds another layer, which communicates a certain class that is able to afford/access the brand. The link between aesthetics and affordability is further explored in many products, which like pretty faces and attractive bodies entice spectators – who are bound to become buyers, users and consumers.
But the object that is used for market transactions – or to possess beauty, functionality and efficiency – money, in its paper and metal forms – manifests ideas of aesthetics and utility in a unique manner. Although human societies have been exchanging valuables in different materials – from salt, seashells to gold and silver, currency notes have been a popular, convenient and useful medium for commercial exchanges.
Admittedly, currency notes in our surroundings are not worth a second glance, but these have become an indispensable part of our social life. Even with the recent advent of credit cards, online shopping and the paying through cheques, most of the public deals through these pieces of paper. An article, which almost everyone (except poor, dollar account holders and credit card bearers) uses can be a relevant object for the study in terms of formal aspects and ideas towards aesthetics that exist in a culture.
While considering the designs of these notes – the most widely circulated items – one ponders upon why the term ‘to make’ was replaced by ‘to design’, in reference to man-made things. Perhaps, the difference between these two synonyms lies in their implications: ‘making’ signifies the actual process of fabricating an object, whereas ‘designing’ denotes the thought and having a plan or layout before producing it. However the phenomenon of creating any artefact involves the physical construction as well as a prior or simultaneous idea.
Any object, important or ordinary, two-dimensional or in round and ‘designed’ by professionals, usually possesses certain characteristics, including utilitarian and decorative elements. Each designer has her preferences in enhancing one side or the other, but it is often experienced – especially in our circumstances – that functional features are buried under excessive patterns and ornamentations in the majority of designed articles.
Currency notes in Pakistan are apt example of this trend, since both sides of these notes are fully decorated with innumerable patterns, motifs, lines and shapes. The variation in their colours and sizes indicates their value (if these still have any!), yet each follow a deeply rooted aesthetic system, that is evident in all the currency notes ever designed in this country, and shares a few features with the currency that is available in other countries. (And it feels that you can exchange the currency of one country with that of other, but – like the symbolic worth of ‘money’ – the design of the currency remains constant and identical everywhere). Along with some of these, international attributes, our notes seem to be part of a local design sense, which replicates in other domains of life, but has hardly being questioned or analysed.
Presumably for that very reason, the layout of these currency notes is hardly – or drastically – altered once a set of them is finalized. Like the coins, these notes also have two sides, and one side, of all denominations, has a uniform design – not necessarily the best conceived in this country. The only human figure appears on this side is of Quaid-e-Azam. This testifies that in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, we have just one undisputed national hero. But that reverent individual is also ‘corrected’ by placing a cap bearing his own name on his head, while he is in Western outfit. This image reflects a primary conflict of our society, that we cannot remain detached from the contemporary world around us, yet we are forced to cling to our ‘concocted’ identity. And we prove it by making changes, such as in the dress combination for the father of nation. It also alludes to, another much important issue or habit: Of making amendments in the past of this country. This attitude can be seen in other social spheres, especially in the realm of education, which with each new government system – democracy, dictatorship, interim bureaucratic arrangement – goes through a whole (and what must be a tiresome) exercise of reconstructing and re-interpreting the history of the Pakistan movement, for the desired agenda and usage of that regime. The new version of history constitutes the altered characteristics of individuals from bye-gone days. Thus for the reasons of convenience these important personalities are daubed either, liberal, Islamic or conservatives. The specific attire of the father of nation is just one – visual proof of this behaviour.
Still, the fact of having the picture of Jinnah on the currency notes suggests a healthy approach. That contrary to all notions and assumptions about Islam’s prohibition of making the image of a living being, to print the heads of states and national leaders on currency notes, is a normal custom in all the Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, the holy guardian of Islamic faith. Hence no one – blissfully – has objected to this practice in our surroundings. Apart from paper money with human images, here in other areas of life, it is usually believed that Islam does not permit reproducing the human bodies. This belief – though normally based on the assumption of Islam discouraging the worship of idols – has a more, and deep-rooted cause/background. That not only in Islam but also in other systems of thoughts, the re-creation of human figures was not allowed, because this activity was supposed to interfere with God’s designs/work. This aspect was mentioned in one of the essays by Borges, where he writes about a Chinese Emperor, who banned mirrors in his kingdom, as these re-procreate human beings.2 Actually, in Islamic culture, it is not just the figurative art that is not practiced much, since there exists an aversion to ‘naturalistic’ art as a whole, because not only the human bodies, but also other elements from the nature – or nature as created by God (a Unity) is not supposed to be recreated. This aspect was explained by Syyed Hossein Nasr in one of his lectures at George Washington University: “The consequence of that in the context of Islamic art is shunning of any form, which would in a sense imprison the spirit and instead of reflecting Unity would try to ape Unity on the level of the Creator. Which is quite something else. The consequence of this is two things: first of all, the creation of what is called an ‘abstract’ art. Secondly, an aversion, and opposition completely to naturalism.” 3
However the printing of human faces on the currency has turned into an ordinary practice in our environment, even if the single figure of the first governor-general of Pakistan occupies the right hand corner of all the notes. The other side of the Pakistani currency has the impressions of historic sites and buildings. This choice must have been made for security purposes or for monetary reasons; otherwise nobody is interested in seeing repeatedly – and every day – some college in Peshawar or a railway tunnel in Quetta or the building of a bank in Islamabad. If these visuals are not indispensable, than the samples of art from the past and contemporary, can be a better option. Since the currency notes reach everyone (so we believe!) and may be utilized as a vehicle to bear/bare and introduce the art pieces of this country to the masses, especially when no other system exists through which their exposure to art is possible.
A peculiar feature of the currency notes is the intricate and complicated patterns on these. This practice has a functional aspect, as it discourages (if not prevents) to forge the counterfeit money. But apart from this special requirement for currency, complicated designs are found everywhere around us. The examples of these can be viewed on the official documents and academic certificates. These sheets, along with the notes, are issued by the state or its various semi-government organizations, and are meant to provide factual data, i.e., obtained grades, dates, names and addresses. But these pieces of papers are loaded with such elaborate designs/patterns that the actual information gets lost in the arabesque. Thus the overt motifs, in reality, negate their reason d’art.
This tendency of blurring the actual information into the decorative periphery substance is not limited to printed papers only, but permeates into other sections of life as well. On a day-to-day basis, one encounters posters announcing plays, music concerts and fashion shows designed in such a style that it becomes difficult – almost on the verge of being impossible – to decipher the intended knowledge.
Instead of ‘form following function’, this phenomenon of ‘form failing function’ can be observed in architecture as well. The details on the surface of buildings, ornamental elements and artistic touch in designing the spaces are always of prime concern. Hence the brick and stone structures appear as the combinations of small – and separately resolved – units, which hinder the overall impact of the building. Enumerating the examples of this frame of mind, one must mention the plays at Pakistan Television, which in fact steal the show. As in most of the dramas, at the sentimental moments and crucial scenes, the background music is so loud that dialogue cannot be heard, and one can manage to comprehend the plot only if one is trained in the skill of lip reading.
This custom of hiding the facts and information with unnecessary decorative ingredients is linked to our national character and the usage of language. We are accustomed to concealing and camouflaging facts as rumours; if ever the truth is told, it is delivered in flowery language. No one tells real incidents/intentions/thoughts unless they attached to jokes, fables and analogies. This trait is an aftermath of the Mughal rule and English colonial eras in this region. Because, at those times, the institution of huge and an over-powerful court may have moulded the behaviour of the public in such a way, that the only safe mode of expression must have been a disguised and hidden discourse. So every one would have acquired the tendency of speaking (and writing) in a tone, that real intention and content was covered/coated with the superficial superlatives. That in its course formulated a formal character of the language, which was employed at the courts. This type of discourse was so popular that this kind of language seemed a natural, sophisticated and civilized scheme of using the language. This had such an influence, that the language beyond the court also adapted flowery tones and complex expressions, a legacy still visible in our discourse of various kinds.
We may not be able to transform our behaviours in relation to every area of life and culture, but it will not take a lot of effort and organization or policy decision to improve upon the ‘insignificant’ matters: For instance the designs on the currency notes, which are essentially for public consumption. Probably, a similar approach can be detected in the development of design, whether those are locks, lingerie, lampshades or any other products which we have grown to love and long for, but hardly look at.
1. Mushtaq Ahmed Yousfi, Zarguzisht, Maktaba Danial, Karachi. 1976
2. Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library, Allen Lane The Penguin Press. 2000.
3. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Philosophy of Islamic Art, Newsletter Anjuman Mimaran. May 2002-Febrary 2003.