The utilitarian aesthetic is distinct and recognizable, but sometimes overlooked as an aesthetic decision. Since it emphasizes a focus on functionality over achieving specific aesthetic properties. Nonetheless, the usage of utilitarian philosophy in design produces distinct designs which can be evaluated aesthetically.
The philosophy of Utilitarianism was first concretely defined in the early 19th century by Jeremy Bentham, followed shortly thereafter by John Stuart Mill. These principles were further popularized in Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics in 1874. Although the philosophical concept of Utilitarianism took off in the 19th century, the creation of utilitarian designs was not common until further into the 20th century.
Utilitarianism was built upon the idea that moral behavior will not be harmful to others but instead increase happiness. Early Utilitarian predecessors include British Moralists, Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Gay, and Hume. Some of these predecessors were religiously motivated, drawing their justification from a divine need to do good. The key distinction between these predecessors and Utilitarian philosophy was the concept of judging the happiness, or “utility”, of a decision on a much greater scale, considering the whole of a community rather than a subset of individuals. From this philosophy the basis for utilitarian design was derived to be a design that offered as much “utility” to as many people as possible.
Some of the first large scale examples of the utilitarian aesthetic were in economic response to the damages of the world wars. One such example is The German Bauhaus School by pioneer modern architect Walter Gropius in 1919, which emphasized the importance of mass production. Designs were expected to be efficient, cost effective and functional. Later, in 1941, in order to help refurnish homes of citizens who’s houses had been bombed, the British Government created the British Utility Furniture scheme. The designers in charge of this scheme, influenced by the Bauhaus and similar movements emphasizing “function over form”, set out to create functional furniture which would be both durable and low cost to manufacture. This particular attempt was met with notable resistance from the British public, as the local style of the time emphasized ornate and novel decorations in furniture, and as soon as limits on the wood market were removed, the scheme died out.
The concept of reducing complexity and removing sheerly decorative details, intended for the purpose of manufacturability and increased functionality, would later be a core pillar of minimalism, although for different purposes. In fact, the style minimalism is commonly associated with was greatly influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus School.
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