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.

“Every age had its style, is our age alone to be refused a style? By style, people meant ornament…We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way through to freedom from ornament.”

“I don’t accept the objection that ornament heightens a cultivated person’s joy in life, don’t accept the objection contained in the words: ‘But if the ornament is beautiful!’ Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in the life of any cultivated person.”

“If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered all over with ornaments.The man of the fifteenth century won’t understand me. But all modern people will.”

For Loos, he continually mentions his preferences for “smoothness” in his objects that are designed, rather than extra ornamental detail applied to it.

“…not only is ornament produced by criminals but also a crime is committed through the fact that ornament inflicts serious injury on people’s health, on the national budget and hence on cultural evolution.”

“Ornamented plates are very expensive, whereas the white crockery from which the modern man likes to eat is cheap. The one accumulates savings, the other debts. It is the same with whole nations. Woe when a people remains behind in cultural evolution! The British are growing wealthier and we poorer…”  This quote points towards the industrialization occurring in the UK, which William Morris was lamenting the poor quality of mechanized goods of his time. Loos’ praises technology in creating less labor for workers in the production of simpler goods. He saw artisans and craftsmen laboring creating ornate details such as lace, as time consuming and unnecessary.

“Since ornament is no longer organically linked with our culture, it is also no longer the expression of our culture.”

Later he says he tolerates some “unmodern” people making ornamented objects because the time they spend working on it are their moments of joy or “their holy hours”. “I can tolerate the ornaments of the Kaffir, the Persian, the Slovak peasant woman, my shoemaker’s ornaments, for they all have no other way of attaining the high points of their existence.”

He also mentions in the essay that shoddily made, overly ornamented gaudy furniture made in Vienna, which falls out of style in ten years is what keeps the Austrian economy afloat (because they have to continually make new furniture).

“No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level.”  (This is fairly untrue in our contemporary time)


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