Interiors: A Prelude

Adolf Loos, 1922 Trude Fleischmann
Adolf Loos, 1922, photograph by Trude Fleischmann

The carpenters have displayed their products to the right and to the left of the silver courtyard. Stalls were constructed and model rooms were built for them. This is how it has been done for years at every exhibition. Thus the carpenters say to their clients: This is how you should live!

The poor client! He is not permitted to arrange his own living space by himself. That would be a pretty mess. He would not know where to begin. The “stylish” home, what a great conquest of our century, demands extraordinary knowledge and know-how.

It was not always like this. Up until the beginning of this century people did not have these concerns. One purchased furniture from the carpenter, wallpaper from the paperhanger, lamp fittings from the bronze founder, and so on. And if they did not all fit together? This could happen. But one did not let himself get carried away by such problems. In those days one decorated his home the way one outfits himself today. We buy our shoes from the shoemaker, coat pants and waistcoat from the tailor, collars and cuffs from the shirtmaker, hats from the hatter, and walking sticks from the turner. None of them knows any of the others, and yet everything matches quite nicely. How can this be? It happens because all of them work in the style of 1898. The craftsmen in the home-furnishing industry also used to work this way in earlier times, everyone in one style, the one which currently prevailed— the modern style.

But then, all of a sudden, the modern style developed a bad reputation. It would be too complex to explain why in these pages. Suffice it to say that men became dissatisfied with their times. To be modern, to think and feel in the modern way, was considered superficial. The profound individual sought to immerse himself in another era; he found happiness for himself as an ancient Greek or as medieval metaphysician or as a Renaissance man.

This fraudulence was of course too much for the honest craftsman. He was unable to participate in it. He understood too well how people ought to store their clothes in a wardrobe and how his fellow men wanted to take a rest. But now he was expected to make all kinds of chests and chairs for his customers— Greek, Roman, Gothic, Moorish, Italian, German, Baroque, classical—according to their respective spiritual creeds. Moreover, one room was to be decorated in one style, the next in another. As I said, the craftsman just could not keep up with it.

Then he was placed under tutelage. And he still finds himself in that position today. At first the scholarly archaeologist set himself up as the craftsman’s tutor. But that did not last for long. Then came the upholsterer; no one could have held much against him since he had very little to do the preceding centuries and thus could not very well be restrained from imitating old models. He seized the advantage and flooded the market with innumerable new forms. He made furniture so overstuffed that the cabinetmaker’s woodwork could no longer be seen. These pieces were hailed with great shouts of joy. The public had now had enough of archaeology; people were finally pleased to get furniture that belonged to their own era, that appeared to be modern. The upholsterer, that worthy man, at an earlier time had industriously stitched away with his needle and stuffed his mattresses. Now he let his hair grow long, donned a velvet jacket, tied around his neck a tie that fluttered as he walked, and became an artist. He removed the word “cushion-maker” from the firm’s sign and substituted “decorator” for it. It had a better ring.

Hans Makart (1840-1884) Grosses Blumenst?k [Large Flower Piece] Oil on canvas, c.1884 80 5/8 x 46 3/8 inches (205 x 118 cm) ?tereichische Galerie Belvedere, Wien
Hans Makart (1840-1884)
Grosses Blumenstyk [Large Flower Piece]
Oil on canvas, c.1884

And so the over-domination by the upholsterers began; it was a reign of terror that we can all still feel in our bones. Velvet and silk, silk and velvet. Makart Bouquets, dust, suffocating air and lack of light, portieres, carpets, and “arrangements” —thank god we are all done with that now!

But then the cabinetmakers received a new tutor. This was the architect. He was well versed in the specialized literature and thus was easily able to carry our all commissions involving his expertise in every sort of style. Would you like to have a Baroque bedroom? He will produce a Baroque bedroom for you. A Chinese spitoon? He will make one for you. He can do everything, everything, and in every style. He can design any useful object, from any period or people. The key to the secret of his uncanny productive ability lies in a piece of tracing paper for the library of the School of Applied Arts—if, that is, he has not indebted himself to the local bookseller for the sake of his own larger private library. In the late afternoons he sits glued to the seat of his drawing board and traces a Baroque bedroom or a Chinese spitoon.

. . .

Lüsterweibchen, c. 1510–15 by Tilman Riemenschneider
Lüsterweibchen, c. 1510–15 by Tilman Riemenschneider

In the assembly room of the Crafts Association, the Viennese arts and crafts workers were voicing their complaints. It was all Hofrat von Scala’s fault: “You see, Herr Architect,” said one craftsman to me after the meeting, “we are having a pretty bad time of it. The good times that we had are gone. Twenty years ago I could sell a lüsterweibchen for  hundred gulden. And do you know how much I could get for the same lüsterweibchen today?” He named a figure that was really quite low. I felt sorry for the man. He seemed possessed by the notion that he would have to make lüsterweibchen all his life. If only someone could convince him otherwise. For people do not want lüsterweibchen anymore. They want what is new, new, new. And that is truly lucky for our crafts industry. The taste of the public is in constant flux. Modern products will fetch the highest prices, unmodern products the lowest. So, craftsmen of Vienna, you have a choice! But those of you who regard the modern movement with fear simply because your storerooms are full of unmodern furniture do not have the right to oppose this movement. Least of all do you have the right to demand from the Austrian Museum, which must protect the interests of all craftsmen, that a position be taken that would facilitate the sale of your furniture stocks. A servant of the state may not get involved in such affairs.

Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, June 5, 1898