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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Form Follows Function

    In a culture known for its quilts, furniture, and quality handicraft in general, one is not surprised to find a deep appreciation for quality design amongst the Anabaptists.  Evident at any MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) fundraising auction, or Schmekfest quilt sale is the Anabaptists’ response to God’s injuction, “In whatsoever ye doest, do heartily as unto the Lord.”  Noting that the Saviour himself began as a carpenter by trade, the pursuit of sturdy and good workmanship could almost be seen a sort of worship.
    I see design and craftsmanship as playing important three important roles in our lives.  First, they witness as to the values and characteristics of the crafter.  Secondly, they fill others with a sense of beauty and comfort.  Finally, they should make life easier, simpler, or more bearable.  Taken only slightly out of context is the Scriptural admonition, “For by your works will ye be known,” (Matt 7: 16). 
    Our built environment both reflects our inner spiritual lives and personality and influences them.
    In her memoir, Tramp for the Lord, World War II concentration camp survivor Corrie ten Boom recalls her first night back in a real bedroom, “I was then taken to a cozy bedroom so I could rest.  How lovely was the combination of colors.  I was starved for color.  In the concentration camp everything was gray.  But here in Holland the colors were vivid again.  My eyes could not seem to get enough to satisfy them. 
    “And the bed!  Delightfully soft and clean with thick woolen blankets.  One of the little nurses brought an extra pillow and tucked it under my swollen feet.  I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
    “On a shelf was a row of books.  Outside I heard the whistle of a boat on a canal and the merry sound of little children calling to one another as they skipped down the street.  Far in the distance I heard the sound of a choir singing and then, or joy, the chimes of a carillon.  I closed my eyes and tears wet my pillow.  ONLY TO THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN IN PRISON DOES FREEDOM HAVE SUCH GREAT MEANING (emphasis mine).

Corrie ten Boom (c)
   “Later that afternoon one of the nurses took me up to her room where for the first time in many months I heard the sound of a radio.  Gunther Ramin was playing a Bach trio.  The organ tones flowed about and enveloped me.  I sat on the floor beside a chair and sobbed, unashamedly.  It was too much joy.  I had rarely cried during all those months of suffering.  Now I could not control myself.  My life had been given back as a gift.  Harmony, beauty, colors, and music.  ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE SUFFERED AS I, AND HAVE RETURNED, CAN FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT I MEAN (emphasis mine).  I knew my life had been given back for a purpose.  I was no longer my own.  This time had been ransomed and released.  I knew that God would soon be sending me out as a tramp for the Lord.  But right now, He was letting me enjoy the luxury of thanksgiving.  I was drinking from a fountain I knew would never run dry -- the fountain of praise,” (ten Boom, p. 198-199).
    Having been without, ten Boom understood the aspect of praise that good design, comfort, and color could bring into one’s life and that such is also a reflection of God’s glory.  In such an environment, she felt her spirit restored and experienced the freedom to relax and praise God.  The nurses at Groningen’s Deaconess House probably thought they were merely putting together a pleasant room.  In post war Holland, each luxury was probably a small sacrifice to their operating budget -- each color and piece of furniture a small luxury, but in this humble way, they ministered to ten Boom, herself one of God’s most effective ministers. 
    Ten Boom’s reflections come at a moment of extreme emotion and unique singularity, yet her need for spiritual and physical rest is common enough to every person on a day to day basis.  Comfort, restfulness, and beauty in form and color are part God’s gift to us through our handiwork.
     Most contemporary designers will recognize the dictate, “Form follows function.”  This is a general architectural and design principle pioneered by the likes of Louis Sullivan in Chicago, Le Corbu in France, and the Bauhaus designers in pre-war Germany.  Simply put, it means that a chair should look like and function primarily as a chair.  In the 1920s, the Bauhaus group established a workshop cum school cum design laboratory to research the use and design of buildings and all that went into a building.  Functions were isolated and simplified.  Designs were stripped of excessive ornamentation so as to facilitate use and even the Germanic script was studied and modified.  Bauhaus designers championed the modernization of the script while stripping the characters of excessive flourishes -- more-or-less inventing the sans-serif (without the tiny little crossbars) fonts.  With the exception of the alphabet (most Anabaptist communities seem to have retained the use of the heavy, Gothic scripts), Bauhaus was merely catching the outside world up to the standards and practices already in place in the workshops of Mennonites and Amish around the world. 
    Where do these characteristics originate?  For the Anabaptist, simplicity is part of our relationship with Christ.  The whole point of the Radical Reformation was to simplify the process by which a person came into direct knowledge of Christ and experienced a direct relationship with God.  Early Anabaptist reformers strove to strip anything extra away from the religious experience in order to allow us to experience God more fully and to have a clear, unobstructed view of and relationship with Christ.  Gone were the ornaments of fancy vestments, ornate cathedrals, and Byzantine church rites.  Elements of Christian worship such as the sacraments, baptism, and the role of the priest were examined and either abolished or simplified to their most basic and effective elements.  Utilizing the early principle of Form follows Function, baptism was evaluated as to its purpose and redesigned to more effectively place the Christian as an adult confessor in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Eucharist was simplified to promote fellowship and community rather than trying to fill functions with which it was determined to have no direct affiliation.  The objects of daily life, including clothing, transportation, and household furnishings were evaluated and simplified to operate effectively but in their new simplicity to reiterate the simple faith of the people who designed, manufactured and used them.  Color and grace of form were not abandoned but rather simplified in their use so as to maximize their potential.  That Anabaptist handicraft and manufactures have become a brand name across North America is merely a reflection of these centuries of focus.  As such, and as the Interpretive Center indicated, these items not only reinforce our values to us in our daily lives, but also bear witness to the greater world at large to these same values.  Reflect on this next time you sit in your favorite armchair or walk around admiring the offerings at the MCC sales.  The workmanship of our people records a 500 year history of design, personal values, and principle.  As you acquire these items or design and build your own, recall that for these same centuries, these items were also one of Anabaptism’s principle witnesses as to our faith and the effectiveness of our unique theology and lifestyles.  

  • ten Boom, Corrie, Tramp for the Lord, Christian Literature Crusade, 2008, p. 224.

1 comment:

  1. In reading your essay, the American Shakers come to mind. While they and their culture are now extinct as a group, as an arts and crafts lover, I have found that their patterns, architecture and crafts continue to remind us of their values, their simplicity, their community, and their skill.

    I believe you are referencing Colossians 3, 23: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men.


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