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By George Nicola (Expert Stager)

What is Functionalism?

Functionalism describes the principle that the function of something is what makes it identifiable and desirable rather than what it is made of. The role played by an object determines whether it is inherently beautiful or not even before judging its aesthetic characteristics.

The article aims to inform someone interested in functionalism and multi-functional interior design or who wants to learn more as they design their house or home in this style or use its elements.  

Functionalists believe that a society can only operate within social structures and organised functions with shared values and beliefs. As such, functionalism plays a vital role in promoting social order for the well-being of all individuals and objects in the society.

What is Functionalism in Architecture?

Functionalism is an architectural movement that emphasizes the functional and practical aspects of building design. It arose in the early 20th century as a reaction to the ornate, decorative styles of the past, such as Art Nouveau and the Beaux-Arts style.

Some examples of functionalist architecture include:

The Bauhaus School in Germany, which Walter Gropius founded in 1919. The school’s buildings were designed to be functional, emphasizing clean lines and simplicity and using industrial materials such as steel and glass. A true icon that influenced generations of architects.

The Bauhaus School in Germany / Photo by Aufbacksalami on Wiki

Le Corbusier designed the renowned Villa Savoye in France in 1929. The building is an example of the International Style, a form of functionalist architecture that emphasizes geometric shapes and incorporates large windows to bring in natural light. Its unique shape and layout inspire architects to this day.

Villa Savoye in France / Photo by Valueyou on Wiki

The Seagram Building in New York City was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in 1958. The building is an example of modernist architecture, another form of functionalism that emphasizes sleek, minimalist design and industrial materials such as steel and glass.

Seagram Building in New York City, USA / Photo by Ken OHYAMA on Wiki

Jørn Utzon designed the Sydney Opera House in Australia in 1973. The building is an example of organic functionalism, which combines functionalist principles with a more organic, sculptural aesthetic.

Sydney Opera House in Australia / Photo by Bernard Spragg on Wiki

How functionalism is different compared to other styles?

Functionalist architecture is different from other styles of architecture in several ways.

  1. Emphasis on function: Functionalist buildings are designed to emphasize their practical and functional aspects. They are designed to be efficient, practical, and functional, focusing on meeting the needs of the people who will use them.

  2. Use of industrial materials: Functionalist buildings often make use of industrial materials such as steel, glass, and concrete, which are strong, durable, and able to be mass-produced. These materials allow for the construction of buildings with clean lines and simple, unadorned exteriors.

  3. Minimalist design: Functionalist buildings are often characterized by their minimalist design, emphasizing simplicity and the absence of decorative elements.

  4. Geometric forms: Many functionalist buildings use geometric forms, such as squares, circles, and triangles, in their design. These forms often create a sense of order and balance in the building’s layout.

  5. Lack of ornamentation: Functionalist buildings are typically free of ornamentation and decorative elements, with an emphasis on the functional aspects of the building rather than its aesthetic appeal.

What is Functionalism in Design?

When it comes to design, functionalism exemplifies that a building or object should be principally orientated towards its day-to-day functions or practical use in such a way that its purpose take precedence over any other aesthetic values.

For instance, the construction of a private residence that requires a driveway, garden and garage is deemed successful when the design satisfies the emotional, cultural and cognitive needs of the homeowner as well as technical requisites such as utility, durability and beauty.

How Does Functionalism Evolve in Design?

In modernist design, functionalism is the dominant idea that rejects any beautifications that are not related to the function of an object or a building, leading to designs that emphasize functional purposes. In contrast to a number of modernist innovations in art, functionalism evolvement in design seeks to simplify instead of complicating traditional design practices.

For instance, design principles are influenced by several factors in various planning and construction stages: functionality, material requirements, cost ratio, the capability of the process, etc. These factors originated from the functionalism principle, which is the fundamental catalyst for the emergence of various types of modernist designs.  

Functionalism in Art

Functionalists describe art as prearranged conditions envisioned to give an aesthetic experience appreciated for its noticeable visual appeal, or an arrangement that is naturally envisioned to possess such an aesthetic value.

A work of art at a particular time (t) is considered to possess functionalism only if:

  1. It is found among other dominant forms of art at t and fulfils a standard or accepted function within the set of dominant forms of art at t; or
  2. It is a high-quality artefact that exudes superiority in accomplishing a function within various sets of functions for dominant forms of art.

What is Functional Efficiency in Architecture and Design?

In architecture, functionality strictly follows the principle that the function and purpose of a building take precedence when designing it. Functional efficiency allows users to design a building in the safest and fastest manner or with the least input cost and effort.

During the 1920s, architect Louis Henry Sullivan proclaimed that “form follows function” in architecture and design. Functional efficiency ensures that the visualisation of architectural beauty emanates from the repetitive function of various designs. As such, a building must conform to the designer’s preconceived depiction, rigged with practical considerations, such as use, structure and material.  

Functionalism and the Modular Approach

The modular approach in functionalism emphasizes using independent parts that have standard interfaces. To complement the functionalist design of buildings, modernist architects and designers believe that a furniture’s function and materials determine its shape.

They strip down furniture to its basic components during the design process while avoiding any decorations and colour. Most modernist furniture designs are predominantly white, grey and black in colour.

You can use the modular approach to construct a building by incorporating fixtures and fittings assembled in a factory and transported to the construction site for installation. For example, modular kitchens can have 2 base units: one for the oven and the other for shelves and drawers.  

The modular approach comes with the following advantages:

  • Saves Time
  • Low labour costs
  • No need for storage
  • No bad weather delays
  • Limited amount of waste

Why Does Every Design Style Contain Functionalism?

Functionalism plays a practical/pragmatic role in all design styles, which broadly answers the question: Can this design achieve all the aspects required for this purpose or space?

Instead of theorising your design style, functionalism will help you incorporate:

  • Functional items – This focuses on the usefulness of items and eliminates decorations.
  • Minimalist interiors – This incorporates only essential furniture and removes unnecessary ones.   

Functional and Non-functional Design Styles

Functional design focuses on the purpose of the style, while non-functional designs have subverted functions and mostly focus on quality attributes, such as shape, reusability, customizability, etc.

Functional Design Styles

Zeman Café (Czech Republic)

Designed for Josef Zeman by the architect Bohuslav Fuchs in 1923, this café is purely made of simple geometric shapes.

The large red-framed windows complement the building’s rectangular shape. It was demolished in 1964, but young architects constructed its perfect replica, which was reopened in March 1995.

Credit: / Public domain

ERA Café (Czech Republic)

Designed by the architect Josef Kranz for Josef Špunar (1929), this building is of intersecting rectangles that open into the exterior. The ground floor has a dynamic spiral staircase, and its façade is divided by a minimalist arrangement of windows. It was once turned into a pub and an agricultural college before being reverted to a café in 2011

Credit: Cafe Era / Public domain

Bellavista Estate (Denmark)

Designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1934, this housing estate is made of rounded corners, storey displacements, corner windows, white-washed facades, and latticework over balconies. The living rooms have sea views that instil an exotic atmosphere of elegant modernity.

Credit: / Public domain

ADGB Trade Union School (Germany)

Designed in 1930 by Swiss architects Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer, this training centre complex is made of steel, glass blocks, visible concrete, and pronounced steel windows. After many demolition threats in the early 2000s, this “masterpiece of poetic functionalism” underwent rehabilitation to its original state by architects Franz Jaschke and Winfried Brenne in 2007.

Credit: & ArienSharon / Public domain

Lasipalatsi or Glass Palace (Finland)

Designed by Niilo Kokko, Heimo Riihimäki and Viljo Revell in 1936, this functionalist landmark building with big glass surfaces is one of the most iconic structures in Helsinki, Finland. It is home to a unique wintergarden, cinema with lobby, restaurant complex, underground exhibition spaces and shops.

Credit: / Public domain

Functional Architecture - Lasipalatsi.-Photo-Tuomas-Uusheimo-Amos-Rex-1

Designed by Niilo Kokko, Heimo Riihimäki and Viljo Revell in 1936, this functionalist landmark building with big glass surfaces is one of the most iconic structures in Helsinki, Finland. It is home to a unique Wintergarden, cinema with lobby, restaurant complex, underground exhibition spaces and shops.

Non-functional Design Styles

Parthenon (Greece)

Designed by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates between 447-432 BCE, the Parthenon is an ancient temple of the Doric order. It has eight columns at the front and 17 columns along each side. Its walls are adorned with sculptures that are highlights of Greek art.

Credit: / Public domain

Temple of Apollo (Italy)

Constructed in 120 BCE, this classical structure of architecture was erected in the Doric style to replace a former temple. The temple had 15 columns along each side and 6 columns at each end made from single pieces of stone. It was 174 feet in length and 70 feet in width.

Credit: / Public domain

Non-funcitonal Classical-Building-Reconstruction
Maison Carrée (France)

Constructed during the Roman Empire around 16-20 B.C., the Maison Carrée is one of the well-preserved temples. Standing 23 feet high, the temple had an ornately decorated facade with deep pronaos accentuated by the profound porch and a six-columned portico at either end.

Credit: / Public domain

non-functional Famous-Classic-Architecture
Library of Celsus (Turkey)

Designed by the architect Vitruoya in114 AD, this is one of the surviving structures from the Roman Empire. In the 1970s, archaeologists rehabilitated its damaged façade and decorated it with intricate designs and prestigious symbols. Four pairs of columns border each of its entrances.

Credit: / Public domain

non-functional Classic-Architecture
Temple of Hephaestus (Greece)

Designed by the architect known as ‘The Hephaisteion Master’ in 449- 415 BC, this well-preserved temple was made from marble obtained from Mount Penteli. It has a centrally placed cella for storing cult images. Some decorations reveal a blend of both Doric and Ionic sculptures.

Credit: / Public domain

non-functional architecture Classical-Period

How Functionalism Architecture Evolve to Multifunctional Spaces

Since functionalism architecture focuses on the purpose of a building, it can be used to design multifunctional spaces. For example, a central space can house a theatre, a school, a public library, a cinema, and a café to bring people together in an inclusive manner.

By incorporating diverse architecture in one place, multifunctional spaces play an essential role in the future development of cities by seamlessly designing functionalist buildings for people to live, socialise and work.

Relationship between Function and Form

Function describes a building’s functional and structural requirements, such as construction materials, occupancy, use, organization, and program, while form describes its visual appearance, such as shape, outline, and composition. The relationship between function and form gives the architectural work its meaning.

The function is a product of matter, while the form is a product of the mind. Function and form usually combine to give an observer an effortless expression of interpreting the architectural creation without following any exact rules about whether the form must follow the function or vice versa.

Note: Humanistic architectures usually show the contradiction between form (human mind) and function (material world) in their designs.

Multifunctional Spaces Architecture and Design: What are they?

A multifunctional space combines different functions within a building by adding tasks to a design to create spaces with multiple purposes, for example, designing an open floor plan with a dining area within a kitchen. It’s ideal for people who want to cook and socialize simultaneously.

The objective of creating multifunctional designs is to incorporate different functions within a space and to provide reduce costs, reduce clutter, and save installation space. However, it is essential to note that you may encounter challenges when incorporating additional functions.

How to Design Multifunctional Spaces = Space-saving

Globally, living spaces are shrinking by the day, as occupants try to find innovative ways to save space. Below are some creative ways of maximising every square foot of your interiors:

  • Fit a bathtub in the master bedroom
  • Fix a playroom in the children’s bedroom
  • Incorporate a dining room in the kitchen
  • Convert a bedroom to a home office using fold-down beds
  • Create modular wooden shelves and cabinets in the living room for books and seating.

Pro Tip: Choose minimalist furniture, plan the overall layout beforehand, use colours with lighter tones for walls, and store things in the right place.

Multifunctional Spaces Examples

Located outside of the bathroom, the storage units contain a fold-out bed, work surfaces, and shelves when fully closed.

Credit: PKMN Architectures / Public Domain

A logically well-laid-out bedroom fitted with a tub for unwinding with a bubble bath.

Credit: / Public Domain

Key Takeaways

  • Functionalism is the principle that the function of something is what makes it desirable
  • In architecture, the function and purpose of a building takes precedence of its design.
  • Functionalism plays a practical/pragmatic role in all design styles
  • Functional design focuses on the purpose of the style
  • Non-functional designs focus on quality attributes, such as shape, reusability, etc.
  • Function describes a building’s functional and structural requirements, such as construction materials, occupancy, use, organization, and program
  • Form describes a building’s visual appearance, such as shape, outline, and composition
  • A multifunctional space combines different functions within a building by adding functions to a design to create spaces with multiple purposes.

If you need guidance on your design project or have questions, feel free to drop us an email at

George Nicola

VIRTUAL STAGING EXPERT / After eight years+ working in high-end design and property business I realised that we are missing a critical part of the property business. We were not providing enough value to these old and empty properties. Not every buyer would have the opportunity to see the potential of vacant property or in a bad state. The idea of Virtual Furniture Staging the property gives the buyer and seller an incredible chance in seconds of taking the critical decision.