The “Greatest Hits” of Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime”

Pioneering Austro-Hungarian modernist architect, Adolf Loos, published his influential essay Ornament and Crime in 1908, basically railing against all objects possessing ornamentation. Here’s a pdf of it you can read – thanks to George Washington University.

I found this essay to be a fascinating read on a couple levels – design-wise and digesting this over 100 year old essay from a contemporary perspective. Loos most definitely considers himself to be a “modern” man and the people in his society favoring ornamentation he considers to be NOT. I have to admit, as culturally insensitive as this essay is, (definitely reflecting the eurocentric, colonialist worldview at the time), in his championing of modernism, he was ahead of his time in his vision of design. Modernism & neo-modernism presence is still alive and kickin’ in the current culture.

Loos views he elimination of ornament is a sign of progress and is the “style” of  the modern man. Superfluous ornamentation is considered to be a waste of money, time and labor spent on creating on object, when a plain one would do. He felt that simpler design, with less ornamentation (or no ornamentation) would be able to withstand time better than ornamented objects, which fell out of style quickly.

He starts the essay out by comparing the actions of an indigenous Papuan person to a Viennese person of his time: a Papuan can tattoo himself and tattoo “…everything he can lay hands on”,  “The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate”. He then compares the Papuan’s urge to tattoo to a child’s urge to naturally scribble on the wall. While this is permissible for the Papuan and child, this is not acceptable for the modern man. “Modern Man” in Loos’ view meaning himself, and others who adhere to the unadorned modernist tastes and perspective. Anyone subscribing to ornamentation is less enlightened, primitive and perhaps child-like. (Ironically, Loos’ perspective of the modern man is sort of horrifyingly “unmodern” and offensive in our current culture).

Here are some “Best Ofs” from his essay:

“I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.Continue reading

Arts + Crafts live on ….through wallpaper

Although we live in a society that loves bare, simple, midcentury modern dwellings and furnishings, the Arts and Crafts spirit of William Morris lives on –  through contemporary wallpaper. We need the wallpaper as a warm contrast to our stark, minimalist, modernist furniture from Herman Miller…I mean Ikea.

Judit Gueth is a designer from Toronto, specializing in creating designs for wallpaper and rugs. Her style is very reminiscent of the arts and crafts era due to her use of simple, graceful “natural” designs, but also has a contemporary feel to it. Check out her website at http://www.juditgueth.com

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The Origins of Thinking about Ornamentation

Initially, I was intrigued by the concept of “ornament” and “ornamentation” in graphic design while reading Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller’s Graphic Style – From Victorian to New CenturyWhile reading about the Arts and Crafts movement in England (the mid 1800s-early 1900s) and the Bauhaus school in Germany (1919-1933), it was interesting to note that they both held similar ideals and were reform movements, but with different visual outcomes. Both schools (perhaps initially for Bauhaus) strived to remove the boundaries between craftsmanship and art. The Arts and Crafts movement in England was a reaction against the negative, poorly made goods produced in the industrialization era. This movement set to bring attention to creating beautiful, handcrafted functional works, often decorated with organic flourishes. Stylistically, it is less ornate and fussy compared to the typical Victorian aesthetic of the time, but much more embellished in appearance compared to Bauhaus. On the other hand, Bauhaus was initially modeled after William Morris’ art and craft workshops, fusing together fine arts and crafts. While initially not having a uniform style, Bauhaus’ output leaned more in a stark, unadorned and geometric direction, which laid a major foundation for the modern movement. The initial intent of both movements may have been similar, but the visual outcomes seem completely contrary.

A few examples of works from the Arts and Crafts movement in England:

The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, printed by William Morris (1890s)


Strawberry Thief Textile design by William Morris, 1883

Poster for Bauhaus Exhibition by Joost Schmidt, 1923

Herbert Bayer’s Universal alphabet, 1925