Furniture for Sitting

Otto Wagner, Armchair, Thonet model #6516
Otto Wagner, Armchair, Thonet model #6516

The Otto Wagner room is beautiful not because, but in spite of the fact that it was designed by an architect. For this architect served as his own decorator. This room will not suit any other person because it will not correspond to his personality. It lacks perfection for any second party: thus we may no longer speak of beauty. To do so really seems a contradiction.

By beauty we understand the highest degree of perfection. For this reason it is completely out of the question for anything impractical to be beautiful. The fundamental requirement for any object that would lay claim to the designation of beautiful is that it not violate the borders of functionality. Of course the functional object by itself is not beautiful. There is more to it than that. A Cinquecento theoretician of art probably expressed it most precisely: “An object that is so perfect that one can neither add to it nor take away from it without harming it is beautiful. Only then does it possess the most perfect, the most complete harmony.”

The most beautiful man? He is the most perfect man, the man whose bodily structure and intellectual capacities offer the best assurance for healthy offspring and for the maintenance and sustenance of a family. The most beautiful woman? She is the perfect woman. It is her responsibility to kindle a man’s love for her, to nurse her children, and to give them a good upbringing. Thus she has the most beautiful eyes—practical, sharp (not short-sighted or timid), the most beautiful face, the most beautiful hair, the most beautiful nose—a nose that allows her to breathe well. She has the most beautiful mouth, the most beautiful teeth—teeth which can chew her food best. Nothing in nature is extraneous. The highest degree of functionality in harmony with all the other parts is what we call pure beauty.

Adolf Loos, Neu Freie Presse, June 19, 1898

I think this essay enters the realm of the cringeworthy sentences that Loos was concerned about. But it seriously lays the groundwork for the future of functionalism, and its embrace of machine perfection. Before disregarding this line of reasoning, note what Loos actually does with it.

Roman Osteria (1820) from Pori Art Museum, Finland by Aleksander Lauréus (1793-1823)
Roman Osteria (1820) from Pori Art Museum, Finland by Aleksander Lauréus (1793-1823)

We thus see that the beauty of a useful object only exists in relation to its purpose. There is no absolute beauty for the useful object. “See there, what a beautiful desk!” “The desk? Why, it’s ugly!” “It’s not a desk at all! It’s a billiard table!” Oh, a billiard table. Of course! It’s a beautiful billiard table.” “Look! What a lovely pair of sugar tongs!” “What, you think they are beautiful? I find them abominable!” “But it’s a coal scoop!” Well then, It’s a lovely coal scoop!” “What an exquisite bedroom Mr. X has! (Substitute here the name of the stupidest man you know.) “What? Mr X’s bedroom? And you find that exquisite?” Oh, I’ve made a mistake. It belongs to OberBaurat Otto Wagner, the greatest architect of his time.” “But then of course it is exquisite, in fact.” The most beautiful and picturesque osteria with the most authentic dirt is ugly to anyone except the Italian peasant. And these others are correct as far as they themselves are concerned.

So it goes for every single functional object. Are, for example, the chairs in the Wagner room beautiful? I do not think so because I cannot sit comfortably on them. Probably many others will discover the same thing. But it is perfectly possible that Otto Wagner can sit comfortably in these chairs. Thus in his bedroom, that is, in a room where he does not receive guests, the chairs are beautiful (provided of course that he finds them comfortable). They are shaped like Greek chairs. But over the course of centuries the technique of sitting, the technique of being at rest, has undergone significant changes. It has never stood still. Every nation and every era have done it differently. Positions that for us would be exceedingly taxing for repose (just think of the Orientals) may for others be very practicable. (ibid. 29)

An axiom that beauty is equivocal to perfection is turned into an argument for cultural, temporal, and functional relativism. Now that’s progressive. Even more striking is the argument that the tastes of the public need not enter the private sphere. This amplifies the task that he began in his first discussion of Otto Wagner domestic interiors: they are beautiful because they are perfect for him.

Greek style chair, influenced by discoverys at Pompeii, Winterthur Museum.
Greek style chair, influenced by discoveries at Pompeii, Winterthur Museum.

At present we demand from a chair not only that we may rest while sitting on it, but moreover that we may become rested quickly while sitting on it. “Time is money.” Resting thus had to become a specialized field. Resting after an intellectual endeavour demands a totally different position than resting after outdoor exercise. Resting after doing gymnastics is different than resting after riding a horse; resting after riding a bike differs from resting after rowing a boat. Yes, and what is more, the degree to which one has exerted oneself demands its own particular technique of relaxation.

One can expedite his relaxation by taking advantage of various opportunities to sit down, utilizing one after another, and by finding a number of different attitudes and positions for the body. Have you never felt the need, especially if you are very tired, to hang one leg over the arm of a chair? In and of itself the position is a very uncomfortable one, but sometimes it is a real boon.

In America they are able to take advantage of it anytime at all since no one there would ever consider a comfortable sitting position impolite. There one is permitted to put his feet up on a table if the table is not used for meals. But in this country we seem to find it an affront when our fellow men make themselves comfortable. There are still people who become quite nervous in the presence of someone who puts his feet up on the opposite seat in a train compartment or lies down at all.

The English and the Americans, who are free from such a petty way of thinking, have really perfected the art of relaxation. They have invented more kinds of chairs in the course of this century than the whole rest of the world, including all its various peoples, throughout its entire existence. . . . (ibid, 32)

What surprises me the most though, I must admit, in Adolf Loos is his steadfast championing of the craftsman as a unique contributor to the development of design:

Our carpenters would have thus arrived at the same results if they had simply been left alone and the architects had not mixed in. If the converging of the forms had continued at the same pace as was maintained from the Renaissance up to the time of the Congress of Vienna, then there would be almost no difference between the mentality of a London carpenter and that of his Viennese counterpart. But there is a world of difference between the mentality of the London carpenter and that of the Viennese architect. (ibid, 33)

Recall that Loos’s previous article celebrates Otto Wagner because he can enter into the mindset of the craftsman when designing; in the next few articles, Loos then turns to hypothesize that what has held back Austrian craftsmanship is in fact the existence of schools for craftsmanship.