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Is Utilitarian Décor and Utilitarian Design Really Utilitarian?

Today I want to talk a little about utilitarianism in terms of utilitarian design. I’ve become increasingly less happy with stuff, so I’ve simultaneously become increasingly more happy about the idea of creating a super-functional and pragmatic space. I’ve been going through my home and thinking carefully about whether or not the items in it serve a purpose. I have a long way left to go. Here’s a great example of a utilitarian space… I am aspiring.

utilitarian n. and adj.*

A. n.

One who holds, advocates, or supports the doctrine of utilitarianism; one who considers utility the standard of whatever is good for man; also, a person devoted to mere utility or material interests. 

 B. adj.

Of philosophy, principles, etc.: Consisting in or based upon utility; spec. that regards the greatest good or happiness of the greatest number as the chief consideration or rule of morality.

Of or pertaining to utility; relating to mere material interests.

In quasi-depreciative use: Having regard to mere utility rather than beauty, amenity, etc.

According to designer Adrienne Chinn, “The key elements of utilitarian style are function, edginess and unpretentiousness.”

Problems With Utilitarian Examples in Interior Design Media

Design Sponge used these images to illustrate examples of utilitarian design in one of their Trend Watch articles on rustic-utilitarian style. I’m confused about why Design Sponge thinks these are good examples of utilitarian design, and I think it plays into an ironic industry usurp of utilitarian philosophy for profit. I would say this is actually a stab at decorating a home to mimic a utilitarian vibe without embracing any of the underpinnings of utilitarian design. In other words, it’s not very authentic and we know I’ve been trying to source authenticity in design lately.

An example of what is supposed to be utilitarian design, but isn't.

Decorative throw pillows in a supposed utilitarian design

I think we can agree these are paired down and more minimalistic than a more staged look, but the spaces they chose don’t illustrate an effective use of resources, and seem to mimic a utilitarian philosophy rather then actually espouse one. The biggest offender to me is the one on top, which is basically a display of pretty items. You might fool me into thinking those spools of thread are actually used, if it weren’t for the gold ampersand and decorative items on the above shelf. I am convinced this is a purely decorative shelf space and those baskets don’t even have anything in them (I’m crying right now!). In the bottom image it’s the pillows that get me. I’ve tried to decorate a couch with pillows only to find out that a pillowed couch is the antithesis to function (more on that later). No one wants to compete for seating space with 20 overstuffed ticking stripe pillows.

The main issue in many “utilitarian” decorated spaces is that the décor isn’t functional, it’s only meant to appear functional. Ironic? You bet, and Charlotte Day said it first.

What is real utilitarian design?

Have you seen this home by Xavier Fouquet? It’s pure utilitarian design, and inhabitat is so busy speculating the architect took utilitarianism too far in his design, they completely missed that’s the point. This is a super functional and pragmatic space—privacy and amble natural light abound—designed to be built on a very tight budget. Though pretty may not be a goal, it doesn’t mean the end result is ugly. I would argue it’s the furthest thing from ugly. There’s something peacefully attractive about the palpable absence in this space.

Maison-D-by-Fouquet-Architecture-Urbanisme Real utilitarian design in architecture

Real utilitarian design in architecture, by Maison-D-by-Fouquet-Architecture-Urbanisme-7-1020x610

Real utilitarian design in architecture by Maison-D-by-Fouquet-Architecture-Urbanisme-6-1020x610

It might be a lot to wrap your head around at first, but just give your self a chance to shake off the HGTV glitter. By the way, plywood has exploded! Pinterest is covered in super utilitarian projects that choose plywood for its financial feasibility and durability. Plywood is a great example of the home décor industry picking up on an element of design and then marketing it to the masses. Where there’s consumer interest there are products, so you can now find yourself a $470 (CDN) plywood chair from OneFortyThree, or a really cool plywood playhouse by AhaLife for $825 (CDN), or get this, a shoe box for $70 (CDN), and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point. But, maybe I’m wrong?

A plywood chair, supposed utilitarian design

Puzzle-House-Modern-Playhouse-lifestyle supposed utilitarian design

So, there you have it. I don’t want my house to look like a utilitarian-styled home. Not at all! I want to keep utilitarianism in my mind when I am thinking about my home-life, because I want my house to be functional and practical, a lesson well-learned.

* The definitiond of ‘utilitarian’ are taken straight from the Oxford English Dictionary, which I consider to be one of the most reputable sources of the English lexicon, despite the tendancy of the OED to use sexist usage examples.

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  • Reply yankeeburrow

    to me, too much of “less” takes the homey out of home. I try to pare down my knick knacks, but I do enjoy surrounding myself with family photos and memories.

    May 3, 2016 at 5:08 pm
    • Reply Jenn Schleich

      You are right, especially the ultra-utilitarian home. I suppose there is something cold about the exterior, but if you look at the interior photo of the living room its full of life. I don’t think that utilitarian has to mean devoid of familiarity. Your family photos serve a function: memory.

      May 3, 2016 at 10:17 pm

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