Mom’s Motel

From the series "Songs from the Valley Towns," circa 1994
From the series “Songs from the Valley Towns,” circa 1994

Scanning some photographs I took in the mid 1990s, I located an interesting detail. There’s a B-17 parked near the edge of my photo. In twenty years, I never noticed that before. I might have, when I took it, but I’ve slept since then.

Mom's Motel (detail)

What always intrigued me more was the name of the hotel, adjacent to Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California. We’ve all stayed at mom’s motel, haven’t we? Growing up in the Valley, I spent a lot of time driving around, and quite to this day I feel that the highway is my home. It’s the landscape I know, and in most ways, my favorite book. There’s always something interesting to read.


Before I could drive, I used to ride my bicycle down to Milt’s Coffee shop, just across Highway 99 from Oildale, California to sit and read.  One of the books I distinctly remember reading there was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Milt’s seemed like the natural place to read it; the view was perfect.


Milt's Coffee ShopThis was always my landscape— weeds and freeways. It’s been a strange transition, to go from this to the mid-south, to the upper midwest, and finally to the east. I’m going to visit Maine next week, for the first time. It’s a long way from Oildale. I’ve never understood why others weren’t as fascinated as me by the man-altered landscape. I never found it ugly at all.

I feel as if I’ve really discovered a kindred spirit in J.B. Jackson. His obituary in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. I look forward to reading the next chapter out there on the highway.

Whenever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.

John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The Need to be Versed in Country Things,” Landscape , Vol. 1 No. 1. Spring 1951

I’ll never forget opening up Ed Ruscha’s books when I started college: Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Thirty-four Parking Lots, and especially Every Building on the Sunset Strip. BC actually had a copy, thanks to Harry Wilson.

These books taught me to pay attention to something besides pornography. Landscape porn, in particular, has overshadowed the way most people look at the world and I find it awfully sad. This was the primary lesson I learned as a young adult, staying at mom’s motel.

Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

Tempora mutantur

How fish out of water find their feet
How fish out of water find their feet: A 19th century line engraving by W Cooke demonstrating the gradual evolution of fish to human.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis! Times change and we change with them. Our feet do the same. Sometimes they are small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide. And so the shoemaker sometimes makes small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide shoes.

Of course, the form of our feet does not change from season to season. That often requires several centuries, at the very least a generation. A large foot cannot get smaller at the snap of the finger. Here the other clothing artists have it easier. Wide waistlines, narrow waistlines, broad shoulders, narrow shoulders, and so much else—changes can be easily made by means of a new cut, cotton padding, and other aids. But the shoemaker must adhere closely to the form which the foot has at the particular moment. If he wants to introduce the small shoe, he must wait patiently until the race of men with large feet has become extinct.

Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, August 7, 1898

I’ve long been frustrated by my large wide feet. It’s hard to find decent shoes, and when I do manage to find things in wider widths they are frequently in the form of really garish brightly colored tennis shoes. It’s irritating, to say the least. Adolf Loos’s thoughts on the matter were of great interest to me, particularly since he highlights the possibility, comic as it is, that social and technological changes may indeed inevitably change our appearance, not just because of fashion but also because of our work, and pastimes.

Recently the revival of Germanic culture has again made riding respectable. All those who thought and felt modern in the last century bought English riding shoes and boots, even if they did not own a horse. The riding boot was the symbol of the free man, who had won a final victory over the buckled shoe, the air of the court, and the glistening parquet floor. Feet still remained small, but the high heel, useless for the horseback rider, was left behind. The whole of the following century, our century, that is, was taken up with the pursuit of the smallest possible foot.

But in the course of this century the human foot began to undergo a change. Our social circumstance made it necessary for us to walk more quickly each year. Saving time meant saving money. Even the most elegant circles, people who had plenty of time, were caught up in it and accelerated their pace. The normal gait of a vigorous pedestrian of today matches that of the footman running in front of the carriages of the last century. It would be impossible for us to walk as slowly as people did in earlier times. We are too nervous for that.

When I moved from California to Arkansas I was utterly shocked with the change in walking pace. I found myself routinely walking straight into automatic doors, because in the south they actually opened more slowly than they did in California. I had no idea that there were such profound regional differences in gait. I’ve slowed down a lot, after years in the South and the Midwest, and I must say I’m much happier for it. Curiously though, now that I live in New York, I find that I walk far too slow for many folks around here. Oh well, I’m comfortable with it and don’t feel much need to keep up with the New Yorkers. I can pick up the pace, if it causes a traffic hazard, but I’ve found that if you slow down you see more, and enjoy life more.

I can see the impact of social custom, to be sure, but I find it a bit difficult to buy into the idea that walking paces are altered by technology. Nonetheless, Loos’s essay moves from the impact on the transition from walking, to horseback, to mountain climbing, to the latest social catalyst: the bicycle.


The bicyclist is the mountain climber of the plains. That is why he dresses like the climber. He does not need high boots and long pants. He wears pants that are wide around the knee, ending beneath it in cuffs on top which are folded-over stockings are worn. (They are folded over in both Scotland and the Alps so that they will not slip down the leg.) In this way the leg has enough free-play underneath the pants so that it is possible to go from a stretched-out leg position to a bent-knee position unimpeded. Incidentally, let me mention here that there are individuals in Vienna who do not at all understand the purpose of the cuffs and who pull their stockings up underneath their cuffs. They make the same comical impression as do the many false natives who render the mountains unsafe every summer in the Alps.

For footwear, the bicyclist wears laced-up shoes like the mountaineer. Shoes with laces will dominate the next century just as riding boots dominated this century. The English have discovered the direct transition; they still wear both kinds today. But we have put out a hideous hybrid for the transitional period: the ankle boot. The most unpleasant thing about the appearance of the ankle boot became obvious when short pants came in. It was clear immediately: one could not wear ankle boots without the beneficent camouflage of long pants. . . .

Most of the Loos’s contemporaries (that I’ve located, at least) are far more concerned with women’s bicycle fashions rather than men’s. For men, exposed ankles mean the death of ankle boots, but for women, there’s another side effect: a new female body part to evaluate, as noted in a Chicago Sun article from May 30, 1897. It takes a city by city tour, offering illustrations and commentary on women’s ankles from various cities.

BostonAs you are all so well aware, Boston for her intellectuals, and no more than a cursory glance at this really attractive view, which the artist has appropriately labeled “A Pair of Spectacles,” will show to any one that there is far more of the psychical than the physical in what we now have before us. There is a delicate grace and refinement limned upon the canvas, so to speak, that is as transcendental in its esoteric concept of the metempsychosis of a plate of beans as there is in the sacred codfish that flutters its ichthyological tail  over the dome of the State House.

In the next column of the large format newsprint there is a similarly slender, and stylish write-up of Chicago. Directly above that, and as a foil for the obviously attractive Chicago ankles, is Albany, New York:

AlbanyTo one who in love of nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language, as a rule, but in this instance she doesn’t say a word but “hills, hills, hills,” and adds a cuss word now and then, not only for the labor involved, but for the unbeautiful results of the wheel in daily use. We can imagine from what we have seen here how Hendrik Hudson must have looked when he got out of his boat and walked up the bank to see what kind of country his posterity would have to live in. Had Gretchen Hudson been there then she would have simply said “Oh papa!” and made the old gentlemen go West until he struck the level.

8143102_rubio-mocks-stumpy-mctrumpfingers-and-it_632057b1_mObviously, this Chicago writer didn’t see larger feet and ankles as being attractive. I suspect having odd-sized  extremities has long been a source of humor. Small hands on men are as taboo as large feet on women.


One suspects that Loos’s attitude was satiric:

In fashionable circles feet are no longer as small as they used to be because of pedestrian activity. They are constantly increasing in size. The big feet of English men and women no longer summon up our mockery. We too climb mountains, have bicycles, and—horrible dictu—now have acquired English feet. But, let’s take comfort. The beauty of the small foot is slowly beginning to fade, especially for men. Recently, I received a letter from America with a description of Rigo; it ended by saying “A pair of revoltingly small feet! That sounds convincing. The new teaching begins in America: revoltingly small feet! Holy Clauren, if you had only lived to experience it! You, whose heroes could never have small enough feet to appear as paragons of noble manhood in the visions and dreams of a hundred thousand German girls! Tempora Mutantur. . .

1896 Stearns Bicycle ad
1896 Stearns Bicycle ad

Loos’s article caused a stir, apparently, and he responded to it in a follow-up article. It wasn’t the thought that the size of feet would be changing that bothered people, but because it was seen as professing the end of ankle boots and the ascendancy of lace-up shoes. Like the loden hat, the ankle boot was seen as the “national shoe” of Austria. The witty conclusion of that article merits saving:

Our minds may be set at rest. We Austrians will be able to step out smartly in our shoes in the upcoming century. And good shoes will be necessary in the next century because we are going to be on the march. The American Walt Whitman, the greatest Germanic poet since Goethe, has seen this century with prophetic eye. He sings:

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

No, we are not standing still, old Walt Whitman. The ancient Germanic blood still flows in our veins, and we are ready to march forward. We will do our best to help change the world of sitters and standers into a world of work and marching.

Neue Freie Presse, August 14, 1898

When I read this, I immediately thought of Frank Zappa’s piece “America Drinks and Goes Marching,” but there isn’t the time and space to discuss that today.

The Hat Makes the Man

Aufmarsch der oesterr. Heimwehren in Wiener Neustadt
Aufmarsch der oesterr. Heimwehren in Wiener Neustadt

men-franz-bittner-austria-loden-crush-hat_766969_175The Heimwehr [home guard] was an Austrian nationalist paramilitary group founded in the later part of the 1920s as an answer to the rise of socialism. There organizing uniform included a distinctively Austrian hat, the loden. I didn’t know what a loden looked like until I started researching hats in an effort to understand an essay by Adolf Loos.

How is fashion determined? Who determines fashion? These are clearly very difficult questions.

The Vienna Hatter’s Association reserved the right to solve these problems in a playful matter, at least in the area of headgear. It meets twice a year around an official green table and dictates to the whole world exactly what model of hat will be worn in the following season. To the whole world, mind you. It will not be a hat that belongs to the Viennese local costume; it will not be a hat that our firemen, cabbies, idlers, dandies and other Viennese local types will make use of. Oh no, the members of the Hatter’s Association does not worry their heads about these people. For hat fashion is intended strictly for the gentleman, and everyone knows that the clothing of the gentlemen has nothing to do with the sundry apparel of the masses—except, of course, in the area of athletics, which is, as we know, an earthier activity. And as gentlemen all over the world dress alike, the Vienna Hatter’s Association sets the style for the entire Western cultural world.

(“Men’s Hats,” Neue Freie Presse, July 24, 1898)

imagesSome things change, some things don’t. Hats often become an organizing element of cultural groups. There’s also frequently an element of nationalism. Of course the Viennese Hatter’s Association would meet around a green table, echoing the green felt loden hat. And Trump would pick the baseball cap— a surrogate for the national pastime. These days, it’s sports fans that dress alike, not gentlemen.

The Hatter’s Association has only to publicize the form of hat which is accepted as modern all over the world, and especially in the very best circles, rather than passing off as modern a hat created by the whims of one of its members. As a consequence, exports would increase and imports would decrease. Finally, it would also be no misfortune if everyone, down to the man in the smallest provincial town, would wear just as elegant a hat as the Viennese aristocrat. (ibid, 52)

Curiously, if most people these days adopted wearing the signature baseball cap, the result would be a “leveling down” rather than an upgrade in social station. Of course, this is idle conjecture—as it was in 1898.

The times of dress code regulations are really over. But many of decisions of this Association gave a direct impact on our hat industry. The top hat will now be worn somewhat lower than last season. The Association, however, has decided that next season’s top hat should be heightened once again. And the result of this? The English hatters are already preparing now for an extraordinary volume of exports of silk hats to the Austrian market since modern top hats will not be able to be had from the Viennese hatmakers next winter. (ibid, 52)

In my hat research, I was more than a little shocked to find that Loos was right—indeed, English hatmakers had conquered the world in the late 19th century. The most popular hat in the American West was not the stetson, but rather the ubiquitous bowler.

The Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy
The Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy

If only the Viennese Hatmaker’s Association would have followed Adolf Loos’s advice:

The activity of the Association could also be aimed in another direction to good effect. The national hat of Austria, the loden hat, is beginning to make its tour of the world. It has already appeared in England. The Prince of Wales encountered it on a hunting trip in Austria, became enamored of it, and took the style home with him. Thus the loden hat, for men as well as women, has conquered English society. It is truly a critical moment, especially for the loden hat industry. The question is, of course, who is going to make loden hats for English society? The Austrians of course—as long as the Austrians produce those styles that English society desires. But an infinite amount of sensitivity is necessary for this, an exact knowledge of a society, a feeling for elegance and a good nose for what is to come. One cannot impose styles on these people by the brutal majority decision taken around the green table. (ibid, 52)

'The Avengers' - TV Programme - 1967Unfortunately, the loden hat never did quite conquer the world. Growing up, I didn’t really attach any sort of revolutionary or outlaw significance to the bowler. If anything, John Steed was a role model for elegant conservatism, but with the same sort of sensitivity regarding society that Loos was on about.

In the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a dapper young Hungarian revolutionary named József Tibor Fejes who captured an AK-47 posed with his rifle and bowler hat. It’s the rifle that catches most people’s attention rather than the hat.

The use of hats as nationalistic symbols is deeply troubling. In fact, the entire concept of a “national” style is fraught with peril. Adolf Loos nails it precisely, with his concern about nationalism and wall building:

It would, however, be desirable for our Hatter’s association to try to develop contact with other peoples of culture. The creation of a national Austrian style is an illusion; to cling obstinately to it would cause our industry incalculable damage. China is beginning to tear down its wall, and is well advised to do so. We must not tolerate the effort of people to erect a great Chinese wall around us out of a false and parochial sense of patriotism. (ibid, 53)

One thing is certain though, the bowler is a bit of a universal symbol for those who have made it. C.C. Baxter, in The Apartment, dons his bowler when he gets a promotion, because now he feels worthy of wearing it.



The_Plumbers_Trade_Journal-88It would be quite easy to imagine our century without carpenters; we would simply use iron furniture. We could just as well without the stonemason; the cement worker would take over his work. But there would be no nineteenth century without the plumber. He has left his mark and become indispensable to us.

We think that we have to give him a French name. We call him the installateur. This is wrong. For this man is the pillar of the Germanic idea of culture. The English were the keepers and protectors of this culture and therefore deserve to take precedence when we are looking for a name for this man. Besides, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin—plumbum means “lead”—and thus for the English as well as for us not a foreign word, but a borrowed word.

For a century and a half now we have been receiving our culture secondhand from the French. We have never rebelled against against the leadership of the French. Now that we realize that we have been duped by the French, now that we realize that the English have been leading the French around by the nose for a long time, we are setting up a front of German culture against the English. We do not mind being guided by the French; it was very pleasant. But the thought that the English are really the leaders—that makes us nervous. (Neue Freie Presse July 17, 1898 p.45)

There are two major themes in most of the writing of the gilded age that never cease to astonish me: a belief in the transformative power of technology (for both good and ill), and fervent concerns about nationalism. That is one of the reasons that I have re-checked Spoken into the Void by Adolf Loos about four times now. The architectural library keeps it on a short leash. But I press on, attempting to extract as much as I can without simply copying the essays. There’s a lot of cultural context that is complicated to unpack.

The current cultural obsession with foreign manners, e.g. Downton Abbey, is nothing new. Adolf Loos was on it:

. . .The Englishman is unacquainted with the fear of getting dirty. He goes into the stable, strokes his horse, mounts it, and takes off across the wide heath. The Englishman does everything himself; he hunts, he climbs mountains, and he saws up trees. He gets no pleasure out of being a spectator. . . .Charles VI would never have been allowed to climb to the top of mountains like a simple hunter! He would have had to be carried up in a sedan chair—if, that is, he had ever expressed what would have been a strange desire for the times. (45-46)


It’s hard, as a modern American, to realize that sorting things out into national identities was a way to make sense of the complex web of customs of diverse ethnic groups. Stereotyping is the gateway to classification.

It’s not necessarily prejudice, but rather a strategy of sorting by habitus, as Bourdieu would say—habits of consumption are culturally, economically, and temporally situated.

In such times the plumbers had nothing to do and lost their name. Of course there were water supply systems, water for fountains, water for looking at. But baths, showers, and water closets were not provided. Water for washing was very sparingly rationed. In German villages that preserve the Roman culture, you can still today find washbasins that we Anglicized city dwellers wouldn’t know how to begin to use. It was not always like this. Germany was famous for its water use in the Middle Ages. The great public baths (of which the so-called bader, the barber, is the sole vestige of today) were always crowded, and everyone took at least one bath a day.

Jakob Fugger and Sibylle Artzt (Hans Burgkmair the Elder - 1498)
Jakob Fugger and Sibylle Artzt (Hans Burgkmair the Elder – 1498)

Although they are generally no baths to be found in the later royal palaces, in the house of the German burgher the bathroom was the most splendid and sumptuous room. Who has not heard of the famous bathrooms of the Fugger house in Augsburg, that crowning jewel of the German Renaissance! When the German view of the world was standard, it wasn’t only Germans who indulged in sport, amusement, and hunting. (46)

This is the first time I’ve met the Fuggers. It’s was a big surprise that they, beyond being bathers, were also the developers of the first public housing projects in the Renaissance, the Fuggerei.

View into the Herrengasse of the Fuggerei.
View into the Herrengasse of the Fuggerei.

By 1523, Jakob Fugger built 52 houses for laborers, charging them only one symbolic guilder per year (about 88 cents) and three prayers a day. It still, apparently provides exactly the same sort of deal, though the rent has gone up to $1.20 per year. But, back to the Fuggerhäus bathroom. After much deep digging, I located an engraving from the 1880s:

Fuggerhäus Badezimmer

As I previously explored,  English royalty beginning with Eleanor of Castile had baths in their residences. Though Germans royalty apparently lacked this innovation, German burghers did not—and of course, they were grand. The mass of the German people however, were missing out according to Loos:

We have remained backward. Some time ago I asked an American lady what seemed to her to be the most noticeable difference between Austria and America. Her answer: the plumbing! The sanitary installations, heating, lighting, and water supply systems. Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect, America is to Austria as Austria is to China. It will be objected that we too already have such accommodations. Certainly, but not everywhere. Even in China there is English plumbing, for the wealthy and for foreigners. But the majority of people haven’t heard of it. (46)

There is much evidence that most of the reformation in design apparent as we turned from the nineteenth to the twentieth century revolves around improving the conditions for everyone. The Swedish propaganda from the 1939 World’s fair continues that trend. What to do about the great unwashed? Of course, for Loos, we must look to America:

A home without a room for bathing? Impossible in America. The thought that at the end of the nineteenth century there is still a nation with a population of millions whose inhabitants cannot bathe daily seems atrocious to an American. Thus even in the poorest sections of New York it is impossible to find dormitory accommodations for ten cents which are cleaner and more pleasant than our village inns. This is why there is only a single waiting room for all classes in America, since even in the largest crowd the slightest odor is not noticeable. (46)

Note that the English bath device is named for an American location.

. . .The state does have a certain interest in increasing the desire for cleanliness in its people. For only that people which approaches the English in water use can keep step with them economically; only that people which surpasses the English in water use is destined to wrest from them the sovereignty of the world. (49)

The Germans just called it a wave bath—advertisement from Neue Freie Presse, August 29. 1898

But the plumber is the pioneer of cleanliness. He is the state’s chief craftsman, the quartermaster of culture, that is, of today’s prevailing culture. Every English washbasin with a spigot and drain is a marvel of progress. Every stove with its fittings for frying and roasting meat over an open flame is a new victory of the German spirit. Such a revolution is also apparent on Viennese menus. The consumption of roast beef, grilled steaks, and cutlets increases constantly, while that of weiner schnitzel and roast chicken (those Italian dishes), as well as of stewed, boiled, and steamed French specialties constantly decreases.

When I first started exploring Loos, I noted that the Germans, Hermann Muthesius specifically, of the late nineteenth century were strangely obsessed with roast meats. Now it seems that this drive is also partly technological. Being able to cook meat indoors altered menus. Despite the improvement in palates, the plumber was falling prey to the bad taste so common among the masses: these new indoor fittings were being decorated in ways that offended Loos’s functional sensibilities:

Even those good folk who still see things from the Indian point of view (as everyone knows, the Indian decorated everything he could lay his hands on) are well provided for. There are Rococo flush valves, Rococo taps, even Rococo washstands. It is truly lucky that a few firms also undertake to provide for the non-Indians. Thus, at M. Steiner’s we see excellent American style overhead showers, a new invention, all smooth and thus very elegant. H. Esders produces fixtures that are efficient and correct in both form and color. It is worth mentioning from a purely technical point of view that the continued use of the crank valve in plumbing can no longer be justified. It is old hat, an old hat that ought to be thrown away. . . .(49)

Ever the master of the clever transition, the next article Loos published was on hats. But I’ve got a few more thought-beads that I need to string together before I get to that.

Home bathing (1900s), by Kusakabe Kimbei
Home bathing (1900s), by Kusakabe Kimbei

An increase in the use of water is one of our most critical tasks. May our Viennese plumbers fulfill their task and bring us closer to that most important goal, the attainment of a cultural level equal to the rest of the civilized Western world. For otherwise, something very unpleasant, very shameful could happen to us. Otherwise, if both nations continue to progress at their present rate, the Japanese could attain Germanic culture before the Austrians do. (49)


As a sidebar, I was very much taken by this English campaign shower. You need to keep it clean while you’re out conquering the world.80482-1

Domestic Sanitary Regulation, John Leech 1851. In this scene, the shower is installed in the kitchen. The children are wearing the conical caps to protect their hair as they wait their turn wearing blankets, jackets or robes.
Domestic Sanitary Regulation, John Leech (Punch, 1851). In this scene, the shower is installed in the kitchen. The children are wearing the conical caps to protect their hair as they wait their turn wearing blankets, jackets or robes.

The Luxury Vehicle

H. T. Alken – 1831 caricature

Adolf Loos’s article “The Luxury Vehicle” from Neue Freie Presse, July 3, 1898 begins with an excursus on the joys of driving: “Of course, just driving itself is enough to delight the English. In their hearts and souls, they still have the poetry of the country road” (Spoken into the Void, p. 39)Of course, he’s speaking of a horse drawn carriage, but all the same has interesting thoughts on technology, craft, and of course, ornament.

As is typical, he uses the English and the Americans to point out deficiencies in the Austrian character:

In the last century we believed that the plains were beautiful and the mountains abhorrent. Has it hurt us that we have left behind this childish fear of the mountains and taken over from the English the love for the high ranges? But the English meant not just to have a platonic relationship with the mountains. They did not remain down in the valley staring up at the soaring pinnacles, but climbed up them, in spite of the headshaking of the Germans, who were astounded at the “crazy” English. And today? Have we not all become English?

If we have convinced ourselves of the poetry of the mountains, we will probably soon enjoy the beauty of the country road as well. Our carriage industry is ready. It has been on par with the English for quite a time now. There is no need for our manufacturers to  do themselves even the slightest violence. What they find beautiful is considered beautiful by the English coachbuilder as well, so it is difficult to to discover any significant differences between the English and the Viennese coaches. The Englishmen and the man from Vienna have only one ambition: to build elegant coaches. And both come up with the same results.

He who is a true German arts and crafts worker will take issue strongly with these results. “One again sees here,” the man will figure, “that the English have no taste. And the Viennese do not have any either.” He will think melancholy thoughts about elegant coaches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their glistening splendor, their rich decoration, and their shiny gilding. Yes, if only some manufacturer would call on him. But no, even the most tasteless junk pleases these people and their customers. This is how the old-timer thinks. But the young craftsman, with his head full of ornaments on paper (he calls the paper his “studio”), would most dearly like to give the coach a “modern” decor and set ornament loose on the unfortunate vehicle.

But the coachbuilder says to both of them, “Just what is the matter with you? The coach is fine as it is.” “But it has no ornament.” Both show him their designs, the coachbuilder laughs and replies, “I really like my own coach better.” Well, tell us why!” “Because it has no ornament.” (ibid, 40)

Loos turns quickly to make the same argument found in “Ornament and Crime” that ornament is a sign of primitivism, and further: “To seek beauty only in form and not in ornament is the goal toward which all humanity is striving,” footnoted as being “the first battle cry against ornament” (1931).  Though Loos is quick to criticise the historicism emerging from the Austrian Museum and arts and crafts associations, he does seek to promote the importance of establishing schools dedicated to utilitarian pursuits:

. . .For in all the professional schools the crafts are reduced to the level of the Indians. But in fact one branch of the coach industry had great need, and still has, of a professional school. The architect could not have spoiled anything here, because they would have no use for him. I am speaking of the heavy vehicle industry.

Crown Carriage Works, 1903
Crown Carriage Works, 1903

The heavy vehicle industry in other countries has reached a level to which our own has not even approached. Unfortunately our contractors were not required to be concerned about improvements. All improvements and modifications were dictated by one desire only: to reduce the number of workers necessary to load and unload. But in Austria the cost of human labor is still so low that there is no cause for concern about such things. If a stone of four cubic meters has to be picked up, there are at least twenty men involved in the task. The same maneuver is carried out in unloading it. The cost is “not worth mentioning.”

But it is different in America. There the driver pulls up, makes a slight movement with his hand that does not tax him in the least and which lasts at most for three minutes, and then drives away. And the stone? It is already in the cart. It is unloaded in exactly the same way. The whole secret of the procedure lies in the ingenious construction of the cart. It is transported not in the cart, but underneath it, suspended approximately thirty centimeters above the ground. The driver pulls up over the stone that is to be loaded, raises it a bit to slip chains under it, and then turns a crank, which lifts the stone. And thus for everything, or coal and for plate glass used in large display windows, a special cart is built. Here a school might help us break with the old, worn-out methods. We need such a school the way one needs a morsel of bread—therefore we shall probably have to wait a pretty long time for it. (42)

Loos goes on in the remainder of the article reviewing luxury coach designs, describing the necessity for modifications due to the introduction of the leaf (“C”) spring. Technology—rather than any historical sense of ornament— should guide coach design. He closes with a dig against the Americans, and a bit of a racial slur:

The Nesseldorfer Society has represented itself especially well with its charabanc hunting coach of light wood and pigskin. A charming effect. J. Weigel exhibits an American buggy that is done so well that one would be hard put to find as perfect a one even in its own native land. But in general I would like to caution against the most recent “advances” of the American carriage-building industry. Technically, they are certainly unrivaled. But there are often mistakes in the form. For example, they are now beginning over there to adorn their carriages with unfortunate acanthus leaves. That’s the Indian in them. (43)

Interestingly, the only reference to acanthus leaves  in American cars (obviously a different matter from carriages, but Loos is writing on the cusp of the changeover) that turned up immediately was on the Franklin Brougham:


The body is built with slanting V-front, which removes all obstruction from straight-ahead vision and reduces wind resistance in fast driving.

Interior appointments consist of Perfection window regulators, grab handles and double pull levers on doors, hat and luggage rack, coat hooks, dome and corner reading lights in tinted glass, step lights, robe cords, silk shades and draped curtains, ladies’ companion, men’s smoking set with cigar lighter, flower holder, mahogany tray with ash receivers. The rear hamper accommodates suit cases.

Upholstering material is neutral green, low-napped Edredon, applied in English straight plaits. Interior metal parts have dull platinum finish, with acanthus leaf etching. (1918)

The amusing thing to me is both that Franklin was headquartered in Syracuse, NY. Years ago, just out of high school, I photographed a Franklin repair shop in downtown Bakersfield, CA. Who knew I’d end up here. Those Syracuse barbarians with their acanthus leaves on carriages!

But even more intriguing to me was the description  of the lifting truck in the prior passage. It sent me scrambling to try to locate any sort of vehicle of this description available in late 19th century America, in vain. Along the way I found out that Autocar, the oldest functioning manufacturer of trucks in North America built its first truck near Philadelphia in 1899, just a year after this article. It makes sense that Loos would know about transportation in America, given his visits with his brother there in the 1890s.

BrockwayContinuing to dig, I found that just to the south of me in Homer and Cortland, New York, Brockway trucks grew out of a carriage works that had been functioning down there since 1851.This was incredibly familiar. I had driven past, and photographed, the “future site of the Brockway truck museum” several times in the past few years. It’s in Homer, just down the street from one of my favorite places from this area, the “unroom.”



In 1873 Brockway rented a small shop in Homer’s Mechanics’ Hall, a communal structure located at the corner of Cayuga and Main streets where individuals pursued their hobbies and vocations. William learned the nuts and bolts of vehicle construction, which culminated in his 1874 purchase of the Sticker, Hobert & Jones carriage works whose 2-story wooden manufactory at 121 South Main St. was  located across the street from the village foundry.

Brockway’s initial interest in acquiring the recently defunct carriage works was to acquire its woodworking equipment but several months later he began the manufacture of platform spring wagons, constructing a reported 50 spring wagons and 50 buggies during 1875, its first full year of operation. (Coincidentally John Sticker later served as Brockway’s southern sale representative until his death in 1911). Although none of Brockway’s subsequent warerooms, manufactories or factory buildings remain standing, his original 121 South Main Street manufactory still stands – albeit in a rather unflattering condition (the building with the UNROOM sign). [source]

You never know, when you start researching odd topics, where you’ll end up driving to in the end. Like the English, I find driving to be delightful.

Flashing cow
Belmont Travel Center, Belmont WI, 2010

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.


Château Gaillard's inner bailey
Château Gaillard’s inner bailey

Studying domestic architecture has lead me some strange places. Adolf Loos’s essays reminded me that I didn’t know squat about Austria, and the process of figuring that out I keep ending up back in England. The architectural zone that Loos was writing about is marked by the historicism promoted by Jacob von Falke. The location— Ringstraße, the ring road— gave birth to Ringstraßenstil or ring road style.

The Ringstraße follows the path of an old fortification, a wall erected in the 13th century to protect Vienna financed by the ransoming of Richard the Lionhearted, who coincidentally was a lover of walls himself. He claimed that he could protect his own Château Gaillard (the saucy castle), perched over the Seine, if its walls were made of butter.

Historically, on many levels, houses have been centers of power. Wielding a lot of power, the Norman kings like Richard, did a lot of business in the keep, most often a square structure behind walls like Château Gaillard. Apparently, due to architectural constraints (primarily the difficulty in constructing strong roofs) these places were often quite small.

Austrian towns like Vienna liked surrounding themselves with walls. Many are still apparent other cities nearby, like this nice double wall in neighboring Bratislava, Slovakia:


Austrian walled towns began appearing in the 11th century, and the one in Vienna was a feature of the town until the 19th century, when it was torn down the surrounding buildings were kept on the newly constructed  Ringstraße, a historical district. It was a showpiece for the city; Sigmund Freud used to go for strolls there.

Architecture, as Loos reminded me, is often rhetorical. The renovations of many of the European capitals in the mid 19th century was fortification of a different sort. Baron Haussmann’s renovations of Paris for Napoleon III were part modernization, and part crowd control. Long straight streets make it easier to move troops, and harder for revolutionaries to erect barricades: the Ringstraße discourages revolution, a clear and present danger when you have a ruling minority, as you had in Vienna, the main capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

What was really refreshing to me, examining Swedish architecture, was the lack of emphasis on fortification. Though the farm buildings were distributed around a central latrine area, it didn’t seem to be for protection; it was a practical, rather than persuasive, arrangement.

How were dwelling interiors initially divided? What was inside the big Norman keep? I found some information in The History of Everyday Things in England (1922) by Marjorie and C.W.B. Quennell that I haven’t found in more modern resources:


The plan of the keep is very much the same on all floors. The lower, or ground, floor below the entrance served as a storehouse for the large quantities of food which must have been required during a siege.

At the first floor, or entrance level, was the guard room; above this, on the second floor, was the great hall, with its galleries all around; and above that, one more floor, probably used as a dormitory. The well of the castle was in the keep so that the garrison might be sure of water in case of siege.

The staircase was in one of the angles, and lead up to a square tower opening on to the battlements, with similar towers on the other three angles of the castle. Here the guard did sentry-go 75 feet above the level of the top of the mount, so that they could see a long way over the trees and prevent surprise by the enemy.(15-16)

The small rooms (A) are generally conjectured to be the bedchambers of the principal members of the family. Googling around a bit more, I’ve identified this particular Norman keep as Hedingham Castle in Essex; what makes it of interest is the centrality of the Great Hall:

castle_hedingham_keep_greathallThe illustration, nicked from the web because I couldn’t create a better scan myself, shows a non-arched roof and a large social space without furnishings. It’s generally acknowledged that medieval furniture was all portable, tables and stools and such. This is the origin of the sort of “King’s room” that Adolf Loos was discussing in his essay on “Interiors in the Rotunda,” which became increasingly crafted to impress across the ages. The small ancillary rooms, visible in the floor plan, weren’t really useful for all that much I suspect—a bed with a tiny window/porthole to the outside.

But this does not mean that the complexes of structures weren’t differentiated. Take for example, this breakdown (including furniture) of a medieval manor, Chingford,  granted by the Chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1265, to their Treasurer Robert Le Moyne:

He received also a sufficient and handsome hall well ceiled with oak. On the western side is a worthy bed, on the ground, a stone chimney, a wardrobe and a certain other small chamber; at the eastern end is a pantry and a buttery. Between the hall and the chapel is a sideroom. There is a decent chapel covered with tiles, a portable altar, and a small cross. In the hall are four tables on trestles. There are likewise a good kitchen covered with tiles, with a furnace and ovens, one large, the other small, for cakes, two tables, and alongside the kitchen a small house for baking. Also a new granary covered with oak shingles, and a building in which the dairy is contained, though it is divided. Likewise a chamber suited for clergymen and a necessary chamber. Also a hen-house. These are within the inner gate.

Likewise outside of that gate are an old house for the servants, a good table, long and divided, and to the east of the principal building, beyond the smaller stable, a solar for the use of the servants. Also a building in which is contained a bed, also two barns, one for wheat and one for oats. These buildings are enclosed with a moat, a wall, and a hedge. Also beyond the middle gate is a good barn, and a stable of cows, and another for oxen, these old and ruinous. Also beyond the outer gate is a pigstye.

It isn’t incredibly clear exactly how many buildings there were. Places are broken down by function, not by building. For example, the kitchen and bakery were generally separate buildings, no doubt due to the smells and complexities of cooking on open fires, but also because large spaces simply couldn’t be effectively covered by roofing.

A reconstruction of Edward I's chamber at the Tower of London
A reconstruction of Edward I’s chamber at the Tower of London

By the time we get to Edward I (1272 to 1307) interiors begin to change significantly. Here, we finally begin to see the sort of “private space” for a king that Adolf Loos alludes to. What is striking to me in his essay “Interiors in the Rotunda” is the distinction between public/ceremonial spaces, which are by design “rhetorical” in the sense that they must persuade the inhabitants of the social and political power of their owners. The private chamber, for Loos, is a different space entirely. While it can be poetic, it must above all be personal.

The Queen’s bath, Leeds Castle

Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, brought many innovations into the dwelling spaces of Kings. I really must read Sara Cockerill’s recent book, from the sounds of this excerpt:

So why does Eleanor of Castile deserve to be rescued from the scrapheap of history? One very good reason is because she was far from unobtrusive; she was a remarkable woman for any era. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality whose interest in the arts, politics and religion were highly influential in her day – and whose temper had even bishops quaking in their shoes. Highly intelligent and studious, she was incomparably better educated, and almost certainly brighter, than her husband. She was a scholar and an avid bookworm, running her own scriptorium (almost unique in European royal courts) and promoting the production of illustrated manuscripts, as well as works of romance and history. Equally unusually she could herself write and she considered it a sufficiently important accomplishment that her own children were made to acquire the skill.

She also introduced numerous domestic refinements to English court life: forks, for example, first make their appearance in England in her household and carpets became sought after in noble circles in imitation of her interior design style. She was a pioneer of domestic luxury: she introduced the first purpose-built tiled bathroom and England’s first ‘fairy tale’ castle – both at her own castle of Leeds, in Kent. She revolutionised garden design in England, introducing innovations – including fountains and water features – familiar to her from Castile.

The fork was an important innovation, as was the interior bathroom. Jabon de Castilla, or castile soap, was an important export from Castile in the Middle Ages, so it makes sense that Eleanor would be attached to bathing. Roofs got better and the interiors of buildings were differentiated into different spaces, as Muthesius recounts, and the specialization apparent in manor complexes transferred into the interior in ways a bit unique to England, although with obvious international components.

What strikes me in all this is the transformative power of rhetorics of display. I think that Loos is right to insist that personal spaces must be individual, and the rules are simply different for public, rhetorical spaces. They can’t be directly compared at all, though we’ve been conflating them for years. As walls come down, though the physical barriers are transformed, psychic barriers between public and private are permeable.

If you look at the public display of interiors, say on Pinterest, what you see are tidy stylish public spaces meant to create desire, to persuade—not spaces meant to be lived in. Living is messy, and usually not in need of fortifications.

Interiors in the Rotunda

The Rotunde, center of the exhibition, 1873
The Rotunda, center of the exhibition, 1873

The engineer for the Vienna Rotunda was J. Scott Russell, who utilized 4,000 tons of iron. Including its topmost crown which was 60 feet tall, its height reached to 284 feet. The diameter of the dome itself was 440 feet, with a circumference of 1,080 feet and peak of 284 feet. Its structure consisted of 32 pairs of columns of iron each 80 feet tall. It is estimated that these columns, which had been reinforced with iron plating, each individually bore the weight of 109 tons. These iron columns provided the only physical support for the dome. The supporting columns were connected by an iron circular girder riveted together on the site. In a display of modern technology, this ring was then raised by hydraulic lift, with the columns placed under it as it was elevated. Radial girders 200 feet long were bolted to the girder at its top and bottom. These measurements place the Vienna Rotunda as the largest of its kind. By comparison, it was 3.17 times larger than the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral in London, 2.26 than that of St. Peter’s in Rome, and 2.22 larger than the Crystal Palace in London.

“The Rotunda of the 1873 Vienna International Exhibition”

The demands I put forth in the preceding article amount to heresy. Neither the archaeologist nor the interior decorator nor the architect nor the painter nor the sculptor should design our homes. Well, who should do it then? The answer is very simple: everyone should be their own decorator.

Then of course, we would not be able to live in “stylish” homes. But this “style,” style in quotation marks, is not really necessary. What is this style anyway? It is hard to define. In my opinion the best answer to the question of what is stylish was given by that stout housewife who said, “When there is a lion’s head on the night table, and when the same lion’s head is present on the sofa, the chest, the beds, the chairs, the washstand, in short, on all objects in the room,  then one calls this room stylish.” Cross your heart, my dear craftsmen, can you honestly say that you did not contribute to the teaching of the people to have such a nonsensical opinion? It was not always a lion’s head. But a column, a knob, or a balustrade was always forced upon all the furniture; at times it was a longer one, at times a shorter one, at times a thicker, at times a thinner one.


This kind of room tyrannized its poor inhabitants. Alas, pity the unfortunate owner who ventured to purchase something additional for it! For this furniture can tolerate absolutely nothing else in its vicinity. If one received something as a gift, there is no place to put it. And if one moved to a new place that did not have exactly the same dimensions as the old one, then one had to give up forever the idea of having a “stylish” home. Then the Old German ornamental divan would have to be put in the blue Rococo salon and the Baroque chest in the Empire sitting room. What a horror!

Compared with this, the ignorant peasant, the poor worker, and the old maid were well off. They did not have problems like these. Their homes were not stylishly decorated. One piece came from here, another from there. Everything was mixed together.  But how can this be explained? The painters, whom one credited with some amount of taste, neglected our magnificent homes and painted instead the interiors of ignorant peasants, the poor workers, and the old maids. But how could anyone find these interiors beautiful? For we have been taught that “stylish” homes are beautiful.

. . .Naturally rooms that are not used for living are not relevant to this discussion. I will let the plumber take care of the powder room and the bathroom; the appropriate specialist will see to the kitchen. And finally, for those rooms used for the reception of guests, for celebrations, and for extraordinary occasions, I will call in the architect, the painter, the sculptor, the interior decorator. Every individual will find someone who fulfills his specific needs. For there is always a special bond between the producer and the consumer of goods, but it surely cannot be extended to rooms that are for living.

It has always been this way. Even the king lived in a room that developed with and through him. But he received guests in rooms that were created by the court architects. And when good subjects were led through the golden rooms, this sigh escaped from many a breast: “Oh he has it good! If only I could live as well as he does!” For the worthy subjects are unable to imagine their king other than with a crimson ermine coat, with a scepter in his hand and crown on his head, strolling in his park. No wonder that the good subject, as soon as he came into money, immediately went about securing for himself too these presumably royal living quarters. I am actually astonished that I haven’t seen anyone running around dressed in crimson!

Slowly but surely, however, it was discovered with dismay that in fact even the king lives quite simply. The retreat was abrupt. Simplicity was the last word, even in ballrooms. In other countries, the march of fashion once again beginning to advance, while we were preparing to retreat. There is no escape from it no matter how much—alas, very, very much! —our craftsmen would like. Taste and the desire for variety go hand in hand. Today we wear narrow style pants, tomorrow wide ones, the day after tomorrow it’s back to the narrow style again. Every tailor knows this. Yes, you will say, we could spare ourselves the next wave of wide pants. Oh no! We need them so that we will be glad to get back to narrow ones again. We need a period of simple ballrooms to prepare ourselves for the return of the elaborate ballroom. If our craftsmen want to get over the period of simplicity more quickly, there is only one way: to accept it.

At present, we are entering upon this period. One can tell that this is the case from the fact that the most admired room in the Rotunda is also the simplest one. It is a bedroom with bath, specifically intended for the designer himself. It is my belief that this may be the reason that the public is so strongly attracted to this room: they queue up to see it. The room pulses with the magic of the individual and the personal. No one could ever live in it, no one could occupy it, be totally and completely alive in it, other than the owner himself Otto Wagner.

Apartments by Otto Wagner
Apartments by Otto Wagner

…The bath is a jewel. The wall cladding, the floor covering, the ottoman cover, and the pillows are all made out of the same downy material as our bathrobes. It has been kept to a subdued violet pattern; the white, the purple, and the silver of the nickel-plated furniture, toiletry articles, and bathtub provide the dominant color scheme. The bathing unit is actually made of plate-glass mounted with nickel. Even the cut-crystal faceted glasses on the washstand have been made according to Wagner’s designs, as have the attractive fixtures of course.

I am an opponent of the trend that considers it especially desirable that a building has been designed along with everything in it—d0wn to the coal scoop—by the hand of the architect. I am of the opinion that the building can have a rather monotonous appearance as a result. All individuality is lost in the process. But I draw the line at the genius of Otto Wagner. For Otto Wagner has one quality that I have found in only a small number of English and American architects: he is able to slip out of his architect’s skin and into the skin of any craftsman he chooses. When he makes a water glass, he thinks like a glass-blower or a glass-cutter. When he makes a brass bed, he thinks, he feels, like a worker in brass. All of the rest—his very great architectural knowledge and skill—has been left in the old skin. He takes only one thing with him wherever he goes: his artistry.

Adolf Loos, “Interiors in the Rotunda,” Neue Freie Presse, June 12, 1898

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