Get out the vote

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

AP, Associated Press

(AP) _ Rock ‘n’ roll singer Frank Zappa has pledged to register fans at his concert here tonight to vote, and the League of Women Voters couldn’t be happier.

The alliance prompted one elderly league member to joke that he would turn down the volume on his hearing aid during the concert, said Pittsburgh League President Marsha Bingler.

”I consider that an upbeat comment,” said Ms. Bingler. ”The gentleman who said that is about 70 years old. He does have trouble with his hearing.

”I’ve had no one in the league say anything other than that this is a worthwhile effort,” she said. ”The league encourages the widest participation in the electoral process.”

Zappa said 400 people registered at his recent concert in Boston, and about 380 registered at a stop in Hartford, Conn.

”The only way to change what is going on is to vote,” he said. ”Unless young people get involved, their decisions will be made by people older than them who don’t know or don’t care.”

In 1972, when the age requirement for voting was dropped to 18 years old, Frank Zappa began printing “don’t forget to register to vote” on his LP sleeves. I wasn’t aware that his huge voter drive, which began around 1985, was in partnership with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been thinking about voting in these perilous times, and about Frank Zappa, amongst other things.

Listening to the Looking Backward podcast with Chris Schwarz a few days back, he brought up an issue that I hadn’t heard him reference in any of his books or articles—the right of a workman to own his tools. During the time of the guilds, only “authorized” people could possess and use certain tools. To be truly free, access to tools is important. Frank Zappa famously quipped, “communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” but at the same time, he also railed against the abuses of capitalism and fetishizing property. There really isn’t an either/or decision to be made about this issue. There is, however, a big decision to be made about participation.

I find it completely beyond my understanding that somehow, starting in the late nineteenth century, many anarchists insisted that it was wrong to participate in the voting process. Schwarz is among the contemporary anarchists that abides by this today. Watching another Ken Burns documentary, this time on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the last few days reminded me of some parts of history that I had somehow let go of. The struggle for a woman’s right to vote began first as a property struggle.

I still remember fondly teaching, in first year composition at the University of Arkansas, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. It’s an astoundingly powerful document, penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the First Women’s Rights Convention held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19th and 20th, 1848. It’s written with a kind of force that should resonate to audiences then and now, and an outstanding gateway to teaching persuasion to writers. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence penned by Jefferson, it provides impeccable Lockean logic for the struggle which began there. The incredible thing is that only one of the signers of this declaration was alive at the time that women finally achieved the right to vote in 1920, as the crowning moment for a movement that began there in Seneca Falls.

The movement didn’t stop there. In 1919, before the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, the women of that struggle banded together to figure out how to continue the fight after achieving the right to vote. The new organization formed was the League of Women Voters.

In a democracy, voting isn’t the beginning or the end of the struggle for human rights. It’s simply a pivot point, and an important one at that. What’s the first step to freedom? The right to not be classified as property, e.g., the Emancipation Proclamation. Not far beyond this though, is the right to own property. This was a right that women in New York didn’t have until just before the convention. The New York Married Women’s Property Act was passed April 7, 1848:

Sec. 1. The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.

Sec. 2 The real and personal property, and the rents issues and profits thereof of any female now married shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband; but shall be her sole and separate property as if she were a single female except so far as the same may be liable for the debts of her husband heretofore contracted.

Sec. 3. It shall be lawful for any married female to receive, by gift, grant devise or bequest, from any person other than her husband and hold to her sole and separate use, as if she were a single female, real and personal property, and the rents, issues and profits thereof, and the same shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts.

Sec. 4. All contracts made between persons in contemplation of marriage shall remain in full force after such marriage takes place.

Step one was a hard fought battle—this law made it possible for women to own businesses, like newspapers, to attempt to get the full benefits of civil society. Step two, the vote, took another 72 years. Step three, equal opportunity, stalled in 1982. The history of this battle is full of reversals of fortune, and advances followed by movements backward— losses of rights. It can, and does happen. The only thing that changes that is the ballot.

The thing that struck me the most in the Ken Burns documentary is the voices of those early women voters who proudly proclaimed that they had voted a straight republican ticket. Since that time, the parties have of course exchanged positions. My father and mother generally voted a straight democratic ticket, and my father remembered fondly that he managed to vote for F.D.R. once; he didn’t remain in office long, but at least my father felt like he had made a difference.

I got that same feeling when I managed to vote for Al Franken in my last vote before leaving Minnesota. Then I knew what my father really meant. That particular election was a hotly contested fight with an incumbent, which went through an arduous recount. It mattered, and Al has hung onto that seat and spoken out for issues that really matter to me. It hurts, physically hurts me, when people like Schwarz claim that this sort of civic participation doesn’t matter because they prefer to “opt out” of the system. There is no “outside” the system.

I note with terror that Donald Trump briefly formed the “Lions Guard” to protect people at his rallies, a direct analog to the brown shirts. I had suspected that this was coming. My wife just pointed out to me that the comparison, as far as efficacy goes, must be handed to Hitler because at least he had a coherent agenda. And the first move of any dictator is to suspend elections; first that goes, and soon your right to property disappears. The pathway to human rights can lead both ways. How can anyone opt out?


Home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, NY. Park Service Photo

Yesterday, my wife and I stood in front of this house. It’s a small house, really. Apparently it was larger when she lived there, with an equal wing with front porch on the opposite side. Just down the street is the Seneca River, just past the falls. We both marveled that besides being such a profound writer, she also raised seven children in this house, and at least one of her daughters continued the fight into the twentieth century.

Voting is central to freedom, not something that you can simply ignore while you dream of a better world. I was amazed to read her daughter, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch’s book Mobilizing Woman-Power from 1918. Obviously, it central concern is World War I. The pragmatism of the women’s movement, 70 years on, is well considered:

Let us admit the full weight of the paradox that a people in the name of peace turns to force of arms. The tragedy for us lay in there being no choice of ways, since pacific groups had failed to create machinery to adjust vital international differences, and since the Allies each in turn, we the last, had been struck by a foe determined to settle disagreements by force.

Never did a nation make a crusade more just than this of ours. We were patient, too long patient, perhaps, with challenges. We seek no conquest. We fight to protect the freedom of our citizens. On America’s standard is written democracy, on that of Germany autocracy. Without reservation women can give their all to attain our end.

There may be a cleavage between the German people and the ruling class. It may be that our foe is merely the military caste, though I am inclined to believe that we have the entire German nation on our hands. The supremacy of might may be a doctrine merely instilled in the minds of the people by its rulers. Perhaps the weed is not indigenous, but it flourishes, nevertheless. Rabbits did not belong in Australia, nor pondweed in England, but there they are, and dominating the situation. Arrogance of the strong towards the weak, of the better placed towards the less well placed, is part of the government teaching in Germany. The peasant woman harries the dog that strains at the market cart, her husband harries her as she helps the cow drag the plough, the petty officer harries the peasant when he is a raw recruit, and the young lieutenant harries the petty officer, and so it goes up to the highest,–a well-planned system on the part of the superior to bring the inferior to a high point of material efficiency. The propelling spirit is devotion to the Fatherland: each believes himself a cog in the machine chosen of God to achieve His purposes on earth. The world hears of the Kaiser’s “Ich und Gott,” of his mailed fist beating down his enemies, but those who have lived in Germany know that exactly the same spirit reigns in every class. The strong in chastizing his inferior has the conviction that since might makes right he is the direct representative of Deity on the particular occasion.

The overbearing spirit of the Prussian military caste has drilled a race to worship might; men are overbearing towards women, women towards children, and the laws reflect the cruelties of the strong towards the weak.

Whether the comparison is with the conditions leading to the first, or the second world war, we have no need for another tyrant who places the strong over the weak. The head macho-man himself, Teddy Roosevelt puts it succinctly in his introduction:

No man who is not blind can fail to see that we have entered a new day in the great epic march of the ages. For good or for evil the old days have passed; and it rests with us, the men and women now alive, to decide whether in the new days the world is to be a better or a worse place to live in, for our descendants.

In this new world women are to stand on an equal footing with men, in ways and to an extent never hitherto dreamed of. In this country they are on the eve of securing, and in much of the country have already secured, their full political rights. It is imperative that they should understand, exactly as it is imperative that men should understand, that such rights are of worse than no avail, unless the will for the performance of duty goes hand in hand with the acquirement of the privilege.

I was taught that voting was a basic “performance of duty.” Without that sense of duty, we stand to lose whatever privileges we have gained so far. Being a member of civil society means that you fulfil your duty, even if you may have “a tendency to mistrust organizations.” Without organization, the law would still sanction (as it does in many parts of the globe) women being bought and sold or being treated as the property of a husband.

Posted in History, Rhetoric, Words | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

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.

Posted in Books, History | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

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.


Posted in Books, History | Tagged , | Comments closed

The Apartment

It’s been hard to collect my thoughts about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Lately, I’ve been drawn to movies that seem like real life. People are complicated, and though it’s fun from time to time to watch sci-fi or action adventures, real life isn’t usually about “adventures.” It’s about dealing with mundane, but important, things. I was listening to Looking Sideways yesterday, and I really couldn’t get into Pascal Anson’s project, Ordinary Made Extraordinary. The ordinary is fine just the way it is, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a certain sense of comfort in driving a car that looks like every other car, rather than a contact paper “masterpiece.” It may be a clever joke to cover one in contact paper, but having grown up in a bit of a “ghetto” where people often customized their cars with stickers that peel and fade, in an effort to give them personality, this art project seems forced and faux—faux rebellion, rather than introspective evaluation of our day to day habits and routines. It’s those routines, and deviations from them, that make The Apartment such a magical film.

Some of the most meaningful commentary on the magic I’ve found is from writer and comedian  Hallie Cantor. She begins by discussing the writing of Christmas episodes for TV, and the quality found in the film:

It’s hard to put into abstract descriptive terms this very specific way in which The Apartment, the last day of classes, and Christmas episodes make me feel happy. It’s something to do with the sense of being stuck in a group with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose, but feeling a part of something anyway. Something to do with a good, cheerful kind of sadness, the sense of romance and coziness and hopefulness this movie lends to mundane crappy nights spent eating frozen pizza and watching TV alone. A satisfaction that even if your heart has been broken and you’re walking home in the dark from the library and it’s a ridiculously early hour for it to be dark out, it’s all going to be okay because good things will happen and for now you can just enjoy being romantically sad in the snow and twinkly lights.

I hadn’t really thought that much about the “film within the film” where Jack Lemmon sits alone in the apartment, eating chicken and attempting to watch TV while being constantly interrupted by commercials. It’s details like that which hold the brilliance of Billy Wilder’s satire. Yes, it’s sad—but it’s also okay. The same could be said for those tired moments at the desk at the office, brought on not by overwork but because he had surrendered his apartment to his superiors at work—it’s sad, yes— but it’s also okay if he gets what he wants out of the arrangement: a promotion.

The moment when it becomes “not okay” is when Jack Lemmon becomes a mensch. And he becomes a mensch when Fran Kubelik is no longer an elevator operator in her uniform, but a real person. The setting matters, and not simply the office set that I described previously, but the “home” space, the apartment at the center of the film. Hallie Cantor puts it precisely:

There’s a location in the film that’s even more impersonal than the office with its rows of desks and crowds streaming into elevators: the apartment itself. It may look homier than the office, but no one is special to anyone there. Lovers are interchangeable (“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you there was Miss, um, oh, What’s-Her-Name on the twenty-fifth floor”). You have an affair with someone and then you send them a fruitcake every Christmas.

The fantasy of this movie, and of thousands of romantic comedies that are less romantic and less funny, is that you will be special to someone. You will be singular and adorable and the only one out of 31,259 people that somebody wants to love.

Everyone in this film is being traded or sold in one way or another, frequently to mutual advantage. The settings, and the people, are brought to life by the use of tiny details. Fran Kubelik is an elevator operator because she failed the typing test—she couldn’t spell. I immediately empathised with this myself. I’ve always had a love of literature, but my mechanical writing skills came to me late in life, in my late 30s as a matter of fact. I was hopelessly inept. This detail, and other little details make the film memorable.

A non-standard feature of the apartment kitchen was the tennis racket. Just as contact paper would make a crappy surface for a car, a tennis racket isn’t a very good colander:

The Apartment Jack Lemmon

The apartment kitchen is interesting on a couple of levels. Like a typical apartment or Frankfurt kitchen, it doesn’t really hold two people. It’s a solitary space, echoing a solitary lifestyle. Fran can really only stick her head in, while Mr. Baxter is working. And he works with abandon, with joy, in putting together their meal. The choice of the tennis racket is idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t come across as a “forced” rebellion in the same sense as strangely decorated commonplace objects—it’s a pragmatic choice to reuse a piece of sports equipment. The plot doesn’t suggest that Mr. Baxter has many opportunities for tennis, so why not put the racket to use?

Returning to Ms. Kubelik, it’s worth noting that she isn’t simply a drone at the mercy of those with power over her, it’s not so much a case of succumbing to the power of Mr. Sheldrake (as is the case, with C.C. Baxter) but believing in the fantasy that he will leave his wife. Billy Wilder accentuates this with the curious detail of a paper crown:

This is the scene when Fran decides to keep her date with Mr. Baxter, when she decides to give up on her fantasy. She removes the crown. As she leaves the restaurant, she is spotted by Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, reinforcing the idea that the danger of public spaces is surveillance. This disclosure, confirmation of their intimacy, is significant. From this moment on, the illusions are shattered.   Shirley MacLaine recalls that this was the most difficult scene for her to get right, to meet Billy Wilder’s expectations.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”


That’s the terse Austrian temper that I’ve grown used to in Adolf Loos. The critique offered isn’t candy-coated, it’s served up like a sharp shot of battery acid. MacLaine, as she tells the story, withstood the pressure:

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

That scene grounds the later disclosure, at the Christmas party, that Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary is aware of what has gone on; she puts Fran in her place by the litany of others who had also succumbed to his fantasy. The mechanism driving the plot is systematically furthered, but with healthy touches of humanity—and the ultimate in human frailty, the suicide attempt.

Elsewhere in the interview, MacLaine remarks on the scientific precision that Wilder brought to the pacing of these scenes, while at the same time it’s clear that he kept his approach to the film “loose” in the sense of incorporating ideas from the actors, and details from their real lives. The gin game, for example:

“I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

The power of observation Billy Wilder brought to bear on human frailty is astounding, and the proof is in the details— even the smallest of details, like hats.

Posted in Media | Tagged , | Comments closed

Work places

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Constructions of the workplace vary, but one thing that is critical is the “moral” component that people often take for granted. The open floor plan, dominant during the twentieth and even twenty-first century lends itself well to surveillance. By itself, this isn’t new, but the sheer scale of it is becoming more and more mind-boggling. William S. Burroughs once quipped that the US was a “nation of finks” and I suspect he was essentially correct.

But there is more to it than that. Let’s not forget “shame” as a motivator. A recent story on the BBC repeats a Bloomberg report that Amazon is going to extremes of shaming to reduce shrinkage. The gist of it is that they are posting videos of employees caught stealing on large screen tvs, with faces blurred, as a warning for potential criminals.

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.

“There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this perhaps does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

“It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip.

“I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

I find it interesting that in the U.K., where public surveillance operates more openly and is more accepted than perhaps anywhere in the globe, workplace shaming is a bridge too far. In America, the reporting doesn’t quite take the same moral tone:

Former managers in Amazon’s loss-prevention department say the use of theft stories was widespread during their tenure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many of the workers say the screens aren’t a top concern compared with wages or workload. “Only people that would have something to say about it is people that’s doing wrong,” says Maurice Jones, a warehouse worker who left Amazon in February. “It’s just letting people know that you’re being watched.”

Yet the tales of theft and punishment are hard for workers to ignore—like a car crash, Jones says. “It could be one lane that’s blocked, but all the traffic slows down because everyone wants to look at it,” he says. “Like, ‘Who was stupid this time?’ ”

For some of the workers, the practice carries a whiff of prison. “That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” says James McCracken, who, like Jones, used to work at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, Calif. “I think that’s offensive.”

. . .

Antitheft tactics have advanced with technology, Murphy says. In the 1980s retailers tried embedding subliminal messages in the music played in their stores to deter customers from stealing. Today, break-room warning posters and anonymous hotlines are commonplace. “The types of methods used by warehouses and fulfillment centers are only limited by your imagination,” Murphy says, “and whatever the law allows.”

Ground zero, perhaps, for this is the creation of large-scale high rise workplaces in the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment establishes its setting there. It’s issue isn’t workplace theft, but immorality of a different sort.

In order to achieve the sort of scale he was looking for, Wilder constructed a set that shrank the further back it went to exaggerate the receding horizon. The script details how the elevators and shifts were timed, to allow all 31,259 people to enter and leave the building without encountering bottlenecks in the elevators. Technology, while not featured in the story, provides a backdrop which situates things. The behavior of the worker drones is fiercely regulated in ten minute intervals, while the upper echelon receives the ultimate reward: the private office with more flexible scheduling.

In exchange for a promotion, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives access to his apartment to conduct sexual affairs, often with the female staff of the corporation. Everyone, ultimately, is trying to negotiate their way free from surveillance and achieve privacy. Baxter respects that, and never asks for details regarding who or what is introduced into his home, now an extension of the workplace.

larkin-soap-companyThe scale of workplaces, even in the mid twentieth century, was massive. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary from 1998 on Frank Lloyd Wright, not long after watching The Apartment, I was struck by similarity in the office spaces betwen Wilder’s imagined space, and Wright’s Larkin office building:

inside-larking-adminThe primary difference between Wright’s office and a New York high rise is the lack of a low ceiling, which transforms this office into a different sort of moral space—a church. In an interesting Orwellian twist, Wright’s office also features slogans to motivate the workers:

Workplaces were, and are, moral spaces. The morality is dictated, both by design and by the desires of management. The cathedral atmosphere is disquieting, especially when you try to figure out just what god they honor.

Posted in History, Media | Tagged , , | Comments closed

In a way, but not in every way

Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville

Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville

Martha Levinson, the American relative, doesn’t get much mention in the final episode of Downton Abbey. There’s a telegram: “I am sorry that I could not be with you. Although we pray for those at peril on the sea, I am too old to be one of them.” Lord Grantham replies: “In a way, I’m sorry she’s not here.” Her daughter, Lady Grantham quips: “In a way, but not in every way.” Of course, the intrusion of the brash loud-mouthed American isn’t always welcome, but isn’t made to feel unwelcome thanks to the nuances of wit. The center of Downton Abbey is English manners, not American ones.

Just as a mental exercise, I began to wonder: how old would Adolf Loos be in comparison to the characters on Downton Abbey? Turns out, utilizing the detective work of the Downton fans out there, that he would have been just a bit younger that Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. Robert was born in 1866, Adolf Loos in 1870. The newspaper articles I’ve been reading were written by a man in his late 20s, an Austrian who had lived in America for about three years, from 1893-1896. Curious about his life history, I finally looked into his biography.

Wikipedia references these bits from a book review by Thomas Muirhead, reviewing Adolf Loos: Works & Projects by Ralf Bock:

Bock provides harrowing details of Loos’ tortured existence. Born in 1870, his stonemason father died when he was only nine. A rebellious, disorientated boy, he failed in various attempts to get through architecture school. Contracting syphilis in the brothels of Vienna, by 21 he was sterile, and in 1893 his mother disowned him.

He went to America and for three years did odd jobs in New York, somehow finding himself in that process which, alas, Bock fails to explain. By his return to Vienna in 1896, he was “an autodidact who had neither completed a degree nor possessed any other apprenticeship training”, yet who had somehow become a man of taste and intellectual refinement.

He immediately entered a brilliant Viennese intelligentsia that included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, quickly establishing himself as the favourite architect of Vienna’s cultured bourgeoisie.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1918, his stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed, and by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Then in 1928, he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal, and at his death in 1933, at the age of 63, he was penniless.

The paedophilia scandal is particularly disturbing, apparently the girls were 8-10 years old, and during the trial Loos was suffering from dementia. So, as the line goes, I’m interested in Adolf Loos, but not in every way.

Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine

Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine on the set of The Apartment

tumblr_nmko4kJufk1tlho7xo1_500Lately, I’ve rekindled my interest in Billy Wilder. Learning more about Austria, oddly enough, has provoked it. Revisiting The Apartment (1960) after so many years, I find the depth of the satire amazing. I didn’t realize until now that he was Austrian. Following the “what age would they be, relatively?” game Billy Wilder would be about four years younger than Lady Rose Aldridge, who returned from New York for the finale of Downton Abbey.

Joan_Bennett_1938Wilder offers a gentle critique of America, embracing it but with reservations, similar to Adolf Loos. His appraisal of our customs is far more nuanced than I’d really given him credit for. Watching the extras for The Apartment revealed that the concept of the film came from an odd question of morals. Joan Bennett, wife of producer William Wanger, was involved in a scandal, which On Sunset Boulevard summarizes in this fashion:

In 1951, producer Walter Wanger discovered that his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair with the agent Jennings Lang. Their encounters were brief and frequent. When Lang and Bennett weren’t meeting clandestinely at vacation spots like New Orleans and the West Indies, they were back in L.A. enjoying weekday quickies at a Beverly Hills apartment otherwise occupied by one of Lang’s underlings at the agency. When Wanger found proof of the affair, he did what any crazed cuckold would do: he shot Lang in the balls.

It wasn’t the murder that caught Billy Wilder’s attention, but the question: “what sort of guy allows other people to use his apartment for immoral purposes?” Casting Jack Lemmon as a sort of “everyman” in the corporate machine, pressed into compromising his morals down the slippery slope, was genius. Ramping up from the runaway success of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment isn’t simply a comedy or drama— it falls somewhere in between: it’s complicated, much like life.

The beauty of an outsider, particularly from an outsider from another country, asking the difficult questions about what makes us “civilized” is an abiding interest for me just now. Lemmon’s character, Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter, is likeable, but morally flawed, as is the female lead, Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine.

There is much to be said about The Apartment, as satire of mid-century American capitalist morality, but I fear this is stretching out too long.

Perhaps it’s best to leave this with the words of Martha Levinson, as conceived by Julian Fellowes and played by Shirley MacLaine, from season 4 episode 9 of Downton Abbey, addressed to Violet,  the dowager countess played by Maggie Smith:

You see, I have no wish to be a Great Lady.

No, a decision that must be reinforced whenever you look in the glass.

Violet, I don’t mind looking in the mirror, because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and your world? It’s slipping further and further away. Goodnight.


Posted in History, Media | Tagged , , | Comments closed


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.

Posted in Books, Craft, History | Tagged | Comments closed

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

Posted in Books, Craft, History, Sights | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

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.

Posted in Books, Craft, History | Tagged , | Comments closed


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.

Posted in Books, History | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed