Louis Sullivan, the American architect is said to be the person who originally coined the phrase in 1896, in his article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”.
The full text is as follows:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function.
This is the law.
The phrase became a rallying cry for the Modernist Architects of the 1930s who took the idea to an extreme and believed that all ornamentation on a building was superfluous. However, Sullivan himself did not believe that architecture should be without art or ornamentation. As an architect, he would often punctuate the plain surfaces of his buildings with eruptions of lush Art Nouveau and Celtic Revival metalwork or terracotta.
The debate also extended to the heart of the evolutionary debate, where Lamarck’s (long-discredited) theory of evolution stated that anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use: for instance giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection). It is interesting which idea won the day there!
The debate as to whether or not form follows function extends right to the heart of modern design thinking. Product design, fashion design, garden design and even software design all have an inherent tension between function and ornamentation.
“Form ever follows function” may or may not be true depending on the situation. Unlike Sullivan, I don’t think it is a universal law. However, I do believe that form flows from a force that is far more mysterious than function!