Exposition

Adolf Loos and Elsie in Sylt island, 1921

Adolf Loos and Elsie in Sylt island, 1921

This book contains the essays I wrote up to and during the year 1900. They were written at a time when I had a thousand things to think about. For didactic reasons I had to express my true opinions in sentences that years later still cause me to shudder when I read them. Only at the insistence of my students have I in time come to agree to the publication of these essays.

Adolf Loos, “Foreward” Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, [Vienna August 1921]

 

When we stick close to our own turf, we never become aware of the treasures hidden at home. That which is first-rate is gradually taken for granted. But when we have have taken a look around us, outside of us, then a sudden change occurs in our estimation of our homespun products.

I left home some years ago to acquaint myself with architecture and industry on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. At the time I was still totally convinced of the superiority of German crafts and handiwork. With pride and enthusiasm, I went through the German and Austrian sections in Chicago. I glanced with a sympathetic smile at the budding American “arts and crafts movement.” But how that has all changed! My years of residence over there have had the effect that I still today blush with embarrassment when I think of the disgraceful representation of the German crafts in Chicago. These proud and splendid pieces of workmanship, these stylish display pieces—they were nothing more than a philistine sham.

There were, however, two crafts that saved our prestige. Our Austrian prestige, that is, not the German, for here as well the Germans have nothing good to show for themselves. These crafts were the production of the leather fancy goods and the gold- and silversmith trades. They did not operate in the same way. While the producers of the former items were inclined to perform honestly in every line of work, one encountered some of the latter trade’s products in the camp of the shams.

At the time I harbored a silent rage about these objects. There were wallets, cigar and cigarette cases, picture frames, writing implements, suitcases, bags, riding whips, canes, silver handles, water bottles, everything—all of it—smooth and polished, no ornament, no decoration. The silver was at the very most, fluted or hammered. I was ashamed of these pieces. This was not the work of the arts and crafts! This was fashion! Fashion! What an appalling word! The greatest insult to the true and proper craftsman, which I still was at the time.

Of course, the Viennese bought such things gladly. They were called “tasteful,” the efforts of the School of Applied Arts notwithstanding. In vain were the most beautiful objects of earlier periods displayed and their production encouraged. In the end, the gold- and silversmiths did what they were told. They even had their sketches made by the most famous men. But the objects thus produced just would not sell. The Viennese were incorrigible. (Of course, it was different in Germany. There the wallets were overloaded with the loveliest Rococo ornamentation and found a great market.  “Stylish” was the ticket.) The Viennese individual was persuaded only with great difficulty to submit his home furnishings to the new regime. But in matters of useful objects or of his own body he followed his own taste exclusively, and here he considered all ornament to be vulgar.

At any rate, I was still of a different mind at the time. But I do not hesitate to make it clear now that at the time even the silliest fop could have surpassed me in matters of taste. The strong wind of America and England has since stripped me of all prejudices against the products of my own time. Totally unprincipled men have attempted to spoil this time for us. We were always supposed to look back; we were always supposed to take another age as our model. But all of this has now retreated from me like a bad dream. Yes, our time is beautiful, so beautiful that I could not see living in any other. Our age is beautiful to look at, so beautiful that, had I the choice of picking out the garment of any other time at all, I would reach for my own with joyful hands. It’s a pleasure to be alive.

In the midst of the general characterlessness of the arts and crafts we must recognize the great service of the two branches of the Austrian arts and crafts already mentioned. They had enough backbone not to conform to the general denial of the time. But respect must also be paid to the Viennese people, who, in spite of all the reforms in the arts and crafts, supported these two industries by their desire to buy. Today we must say confidently that it was only through the productions of leather fancy-goods and through the gold and silver industries that the Austrian arts and crafts received recognition in the world market.

Indeed, the manufacturers in these industries did not wait until the state, by introducing the English models, ended the universal commercial stagnation—a step that now has proved necessary in the furniture industry—but rather, having already gathered strength from the English ideas fifty years earlier, they were renewed and solidly established. For the furniture industry is English from A to Z. Yet, despite this fact no decline has become noticeable, as had been prophesied by pessimists in the furniture business. “England means the death of the arts and crafts.” They say the death of arts and crafts, but they mean the acanthus ornament—about which it was probably true. But our time places more importance on correct form, solid materials, precise execution. This is what is meant by arts and crafts!

(“The Leather Goods and Gold- and Silversmith Trades” Neue Freie Presse, May 15, 1898 p.7,10)

The architectural library is demanding that I give this one back, and there are many notes and expositions on craft in this slim little volume that I want to record.

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