“Hang on, I just have to put my soles on,” I call after the kids, who are racing out the door for a trip to the market. The soles in question are two dove-gray, rubber flaps that snap to the bottoms of my slippers, which I have just imported from London. A slipper-transformer that will transition me from scruffy writer-dad to euro-sleek snacks prospector in mere moments. I am excited. I am embracing design.
I have been for two weeks or more, in fact, ever since I ordered the $89 Mahabis convertible slipper—footgear that I had seen advertised so extensively online, I finally had to click. Its webpage features a young, beautiful blonde couple. Him: sporting a man-bun, his beard both wispy and full all at once. Her: mostly Cupid’s bow, likely to be “picking at her eggs” in a magazine profile. Both don their woolen Mahabis. Typeset in front of them: “reinventing the slipper.”
Reinvention is a fundamentally modernist drive. One of its sources is a famous aphorism of the 19th-century American architect and “father of skyscrapers,” Louis Sullivan: “Form follows function.”
First advanced in 1896, Sullivan’s idea is profoundly conservative, as this fuller citation from his essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” shows:
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function.
Sullivan is saying that once something’s purpose is established, there is no need to alter its shape absent new external factors. “Where function does not change, form does not change.” It’s not just that the design of an object should emanate from what that object does, but also that changes in purpose are relatively rare.