Farnsworth House: A UX Reflection
55 miles outside Chicago on the bank of the Fox River stands an iconic modernist house once constructed for and named after its owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The building was a work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a well-known architect and former director of Bauhaus, who famously said “Less is more” and “God is in the details”.
The house, without surprise, is unmistakably a manifesto of its creator’s words: Simple and elegant, with meticulous details everywhere. Yet during and after its construction, it raised controversy and criticism for both its design and its client-architect relationship. To learn more about its story and to take away lessons that we can learn from it as designers and UX practitioners, I visited the house in Plano, Illinois.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The house is a masterpiece in many ways. On the outside, it’s almost the definition of International Style: rectilinear forms, made of glass, steel, and concrete, completely unadorned to serve its main function: a shelter for weekend retreats. Yet despite the actual weight of the steel and concrete, it manages to create a weightless feeling by lifting the patio and the house above the ground using columns, which also serves the function as flood protection (more on that later).
On the inside, the two other building materials are easily identified: marble as the floor, and wood as “walls” and doors. The house utilizes what’s known as an “open floor plan,” meaning there are almost no actual walls that separate different rooms; the functionality of a specific space is completely determined by what the owner decides to do with it and what furniture is placed there.
None of the “wall” touches the roof, stressing the open space. Behind the door is one of the two restrooms.
What really make this house a masterpiece are the details. From the outside, the only thing that connects to the building other than the columns is a tube under the floor: water, sewage, and electricity all go in and out of the house through it. The chimney is designed so low that it’s hidden behind the roof when viewed from the ground. Inside the house, power outlets are integrated into and spread across the floor, with caps to protect them from dust and water. In the kitchen, which is the only designated area other than the restrooms, all appliances are integrated into the cabinets with a universal white appearance (not too uncommon nowadays, but remember this was built in the 1950s); the countertop is stamped from a single piece of stainless steel, which has a built-in sink and four holes for the burners, creating a seamless working surface that’s easy to clean, with no gaps for pieces of food to fall into.
However, the house is not perfect in terms of practicality. One example is the curtains. The architect originally insisted there was no need for the curtains, due to the fact that the house was located in a rural area facing the river. The client, on the other hand, insisted that despite the rural environment, she couldn’t live in an all-glass house with nothing to protect her privacy. The architect eventually agreed to install the curtains. Another example is storage space. According to the architect, there was not much need for storage space as this was only a weekend house; the only storage available was in the kitchen—cupboards above and cabinets below. When the client asked where she would put her clothes, the architect said she could use one of the cupboards—along with her food, tableware and kitchen utensils. In the end, the client wasn’t able to convince the architect, so she hired someone else to build a wardrobe for the house after it was finished.
Living room. The “closets” on the left are actually wood boards and cannot be opened.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the design of the house is how it handles the weather. In summer, there can be very heavy rainfall in the area, resulting in flooding. When designing the house, the architect took this into consideration and compensated by elevating the floor five feet above the ground, which was just above the 100-year flood level. However, the power of nature was underestimated. In 1954, 1996, and 2008, the flood level was high enough that water went into the building, damaging the floor, furniture, and even the glass wall. Each time it cost the homeowner a lot of time and money to restore the house and to replace the furniture that was unrepairable.
So what can we learn from the house? Although it was a project of architecture, in many ways, I found it similar to a project of digital products, such as a website or mobile app, and we can get many inspirations when comparing the two. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Lesson 1: Less is more, as long as you don’t ignore the user’s needs.
As the client, when Dr. Farnsworth approached the architect to design the house, she deliberately asked it to be a modern, minimalist one. In that regard, the house was very successful. It fulfilled the client’s request; moreover, it became an icon of modernist architecture and minimalism. But in Dr. Farnsworth’s case, the client happened to be the user as well. As the user, she was concerned about practicality—or, usability—of the house, asking it to also be a functional one. In this regard, the house was less successful. It failed to address some of the user’s needs, forcing her to either accept the architect’s way, or put a patch on the design to make it a functional house.
Today, a client would walk into the door asking to design a modern, minimalist—or perhaps, “flat”—website or mobile app. But regardless of how eager the client is to push the design in that direction, it’s important to check that against what the user actually needs. In this particular case, the client is the user. More often, the client is not the user and doesn’t understand the user well enough—(probably why they came to us in the first place). Our job as UX Designers is to speak on behalf of the user and create things that will work for them, not against them. If you find the client’s request getting in the way, remind them that we’re not building a house for them to look at, but one for the user to live in.
Lesson 2: “God is in the details”, so spare no effort in creating something truly great.
An important reason the Farnsworth House received much acclaim was because it was an embodiment of the architect’s vision and philosophy. In its simplistic form and building materials, he demonstrated his understanding of modern architecture and the International Style; in its open floor plan, he expressed his idea of giving the individual freedom while surrounding her with the beauty of nature. His attention to detail is also what made the house a true masterpiece. The single utility tube and low chimney provided function without clutter; the all-white kitchen appliances emphasized consistency; the one-piece countertop served both aesthetics and usability.
All of these can be applied to our work when designing a digital product. As designers, we should avoid injecting our personal preference and bias into the work. But at the same time, we should always remember why we do what we do. We’re ultimately responsible for the things we put into the world, so we need to make sure that whatever we’re designing aligns with our philosophy and vision. We are the gatekeepers. So keep that bar high; go that extra mile; do that “one more thing” that might put a smile on the user’s face. Make something that you’re truly proud of, that you’re willing to put your signature on.
Lesson 3: Design with the future in mind.
On the one hand, many design features of the house have inspired later architects and thus influenced architecture as a whole; in a way, they made it timeless. On the other hand, the flooding problem was becoming worse and worse with the climate change in the past two decades, proving that the original design was inadequate in preparedness for the future.
Looking at digital technologies, the change in the past two decades was much more dramatic than that of the climate; the pace at which it’s advancing will only go faster. While advancement in technology sometimes results in inevitable redesign and reconstruct of existing products, as designers we should still strive for long-lasting and sustainable designs. No amount of forward-thinking is enough, especially for the web and mobile, as they’re still evolving incredibly fast. What works today may not work tomorrow. Therefore, instead of trying to design something that will stand the test of time for digital, we should focus more on designing products that are expandable, scalable and easily maintainable so it can adapt to newer technologies when they become available. Digital products should resemble living organisms rather than fixed statues.
To preserve the house from future floods, a project has been initiated to seek a permanent solution to the problem. Current candidates include elevation, relocation, and a hydraulic system, each having its own advantages and disadvantages. Whichever path they decide to take, I hope the route is of help to the house so that we can all visit and admire this incredible house in the days and years to come.