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

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Postcard from the 1898 Vienna Jubilee Exposition

The series of newspaper articles by Adolf Loos I’ve been excerpting were written on the occasion of the 1898 Vienna Jubilee Exposition. International expositions (which this one isn’t really listed as, it’s more of a national expo) are a central organizing locus to major changes in domestic design. Bill Bryson, for example, uses the Crystal Palace exhibition (usually marked as the first international one) as his initial point of departure in his book Home.

Loos’s first selected piece begins with his reminiscence of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Thanks to Loos, I find myself looking a bit further back to the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien [1873 World Exposition Vienna] as instrumental in the development of the movement toward arts and crafts education in the nineteenth century.


Swedish folk costumes displayed at the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien

Its motto was Kultur und Erziehung [Culture and Education]. The movement across Europe was to tie the quality of industrial products to the morality and national identity of the individual countries. What I didn’t realize, which I found out via Loos, was that such concerns were institutionalized at that time. The attempt to codify Swedish Modern at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York wasn’t an isolated moment: it was the culmination of a long journey through crafts education—and crafts education proved central in many other countries as well.

The timeline on The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Arts is informative. In 1867, the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule [Vienna School of Arts and Crafts] was founded and a building was constructed for the museum. “Uniting the practical and theoretical” is a common theme, and central to this is the mission for education. The Österreichische Kunstgewerbeausstellung [Austrian Exhibition of Arts and Crafts] opens in 1871 with the completion of buildings for both the museum and the school. The international exposition follows closely in 1873.

Preceding the efforts to embrace craft in Sweden (1899), in 1884 the Austrians establish the Wiener Kunstgewerbeverein [Viennese Arts and Crafts Association]. The ties to industry are quite direct:

Numerous well-known companies and workshops (above all J. & L. Lobmeyr), personalities and professors at the School of Arts and Crafts join this organization. Its objective is to further expand all the powers of creativity and execution developed by the city’s arts and crafts industry since the 1860s. To this end, several temporary and publically accessible exhibitions are organized at the Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry. Objects on exhibit are available for purchase. With these novel and lavish exhibitions, the association manages to generate the domestic and international resonance necessary for the realization of its aims. (Austrian Museum)

This sets the stage, and establishes the precedents for Adolf Loos’s desire to reject of the efforts of the School of Arts and Crafts. Through successive leaders, various historical periods were nostalgically reenacted and rejected. Similar movements occurred in the US as well, with shoddy period furniture knock-offs changing from moment to moment with the fashions, before the final commercialization of Arts and Crafts as a movement, both social and commercial. As is typical, the US was far behind the rest of the world.

In fact, one of the major foreshadowings of arts and crafts is found in Jacob von Falke’s 1871 book Art in the House , which was translated and distributed in the US by 1879. Jacob von Falke was a deputy director of the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts, becoming full director from 1885-1895, and largely credited with initiating the period of historicism in design which both the Secession and Adolf Loos raged against. The school remained affiliated with the museum until 1909, until it was split off into a separate Ministry of Culture and Education.

I think that marks a more definite move to separate the cultural and the commercial in Austria, a move which did not occur in Sweden. In the US, there was never any cultural sponsorship to begin with; it was simply left to the few academics and private relief efforts, that is until the WPA (Federal Artists and Writers Project) in the 1930s. The most interesting thing about the Swedish model to me is the maintenance of a “homecraft” organization in concert with a separate industrial craft organization. The roles seem to be conflated in Austria.

In Germany, the Deutscher Werkbund [German Association of Craftsmen] wasn’t suggested until 1899 (roughly contemporaneous to Swedish efforts) and it represented another attempt to get art into industry. An early member of the Werkbund has been repeatedly cited here, Hermann Muthesius. It wasn’t formally organized until 1907, and lacked the emphasis on traditional craft found elsewhere. The Werkbund was the progenitor of the Bauhaus.

The story of all this is exceedingly complex, and these little narratives are an effort to scatter a few bread crumbs to contextualize the source materials I’m saving here.

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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

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The New Style and the Bronze Industry

Door handle to the bathroom in the Military Museum in Vienna.

Door handle to the bathroom in the Military Museum in Vienna.

But does the crafts industry itself not know what it’s best products are? Oh no. It knows as little about its own production as the poet, the painter, in fact any artist at all can know about his own art. Such an artist will always value most highly those products of his muse which have cost him the most effort and vexation. Those creations, however, which he produced almost naturally, without effort, to which he was predisposed and which bear most strongly the stamp of his own individuality, his own character—these he dismisses as not particularly important. Only the unanimous agreement of the public is able to convey to him the correct opinion of his products.

. . .We in fact have something most people lack: our celebrated Viennese good taste, of which some could even be jealous. It is only those unreasonable schools of ours which are to be blamed. They have inhibited the natural development of our arts and crafts.

But the answer to that persistent question goes like this: everything that an earlier period has already produced, insofar as it is still useful today, can be imitated. But the new phenomena of our culture (railway cars, telephones, typewriters, and so forth) must be resolved without any conscious echoes of a formal style that has already been superseded. Modifications of old objects in order to assimilate them to modern uses are not permitted. And so the rule is this: either imitate or create something that is totally new. Of course, I do not necessarily mean by this that that which is new is always the opposite of what came before.

As far as I know, this challenge has never before been expressed so exactly and so precisely, even though similar statements have been made abroad and in professional circles, and even recently in the Austrian Museum. But people have actually been working according to this principle for years now. And this is perfectly comprehensible. A copy of an old master is also a work of art. Who can forget Lenbach’s magnificent imitations of old Italian Masters in the Schack Gallery in Munich? But what is totally unworthy of being called a true work of art is the conscious effort to express new ideas in the style of an old master. It is destined to fail. This is not to say that a modern artist, through an extensive study of a particular school, through a predilection or a reverence for particular period or master, cannot make that style so much his own that his work strongly bears the spiritual imprint of his master. I only have to think of the old-master feeling in Lenbach, or the Quattrocento pictures by the English. But the true artist cannot paint now a la Botticelli, now a la Titian, now a la Raphael Mengs.

What would one think of a writer who today wrote a play in the style of Aeschylus, tomorrow composed a poem in the style of Gerhart Hauptman, and the day after tomorrow, a farce in the style of Hans Sachs? And worse, what writer would have the pitiful courage to reveal his own impotence by confessing his sources? And now let us consider a state school for poets where young artists would be emasculated by being constrained to follow this doctrine of counterfeit, where this kind of literary servitude would be raised to a principle. The whole world would pity the victims of such a method. Yet such a school exists, not for poets, but for the arts and crafts.

. . .

The School of Applied Arts sets the fashion for useful objects. In Vienna it is no easy task to get a hold of a good coal scuttle or fireplace fender! And how difficult it is to find good hardware for doors and windows! I once wrote somewhere that in the last two decades we have gotten Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo blisters on our hands because of our door handles. There is, however, one proper door handle in Vienna to which I have access; I make a pilgrimage to it whenever I am in the neighborhood. It is located in the new building on Kohlmarkt and was designed by Professor König. But do not go there, my dear reader! They would suspect that I was teasing them if you did. That is how unobtrusive this handle is. (15-17)

Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, May 28, 1998



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Adolf Loos and Elsie in Sylt island, 1921

Adolf Loos and Elsie in Sylt island, 1921

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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International Fashion


Cartoon by Theodore Thomas Heine contrasting German and English Fashions. Caption for the image at left: “Herr and Frau Schmidt look like this when they travel to London”; for the image at right: “And like this when they return after a week there as Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” From Simplicissimus: Illustrierte Wochenschrift, Munich, 1902.

An American philosopher says somewhere, “A young man is rich if he has a good head on his shoulders and a good suit in his closet.” This is sound philosophy. It demonstrates an understanding of people. What good are brains if they do not express themselves with good clothes? For both the English and the Americans demand of an individual that he be well dressed.

But the Germans do them one better. They also want to be beautifully dressed. When the English wear wide pants, the Germans point out to them immediately (I don’t know whether this is thanks to old Vischer or to the golden section) that these are unaesthetic and that only narrow pants may be considered to have any claim to beauty. They bluster, they grumble, and they curse, but nevertheless they have their trousers widened from year to year.

Adolf Loos, “Men’s Fashion” Neue Freie Presse, May 22, 1898

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Swedish Design


Dolls in national costumes, exact copies of originals in the collection of the Nordic Museum and Skansen, from Swedish Arts and Crafts (1939)

Other than Ikea, I really wasn’t familiar with the unique qualities of Swedish design when I steered a course that way researching domestic design. The biggest discovery of the last few years, (read: “news to me”) is that other countries not only sponsored design, but actively promoted it to improve their countries and national identities.

Not so for the U.S., sadly, where apparently our contribution is cheapening everything by cost-cutting commercial capitalism. While this happened everywhere, it was worse in the US because our government did absolutely nothing to stop it, excepting perhaps the WPA in the 1930s. But the WPA was more of a jobs program, rather than a program of “moral improvement” as the efforts elsewhere promoted themselves.

In England, they had many efforts to improve design in the twentieth century, which I encountered in my readings of David Pye and Herbert Read. In Japan, the mingei movement has elements of this, though its focus was on traditional craft rather than industrial design.

In Sweden, the effort is all the more purist and moralistic due to the socialist government structure adopted there since the 1930s. And the most interesting feature of Sweden is that it embraced both tradition and machine/industrial design. To continue from a source I located last weekSwedish Arts and Crafts: Swedish Modern —A Movement Towards Sanity In Design, I feel compelled to take a few more notes.

Clearly, they were aware of the same degradation that England was concerned with in terms of industrial products and design:

The Swedish home did not escape the debasement in taste which everywhere accompanied the advent of industrialism. The arts vegetated and handicrafts slumped with the disbanding of the guilds. The urban population rapidly grew with the great influx from the rural areas. In the dismal, crowded homes of the early industrial workers there was no opportunity for carrying on the old home craft traditions, which for centuries kept alive the feeling for form and material on the farm. Instead of being producers in a self-sufficient economy, the newly created industrial labor rapidly became the largest consumer class for ready-made factory goods. The new consumer industries were able to produce cheaply, it is true, but the output was of a low standard, due to the lack of manufacturing traditions, the debasement of material, its poor finish and form. But it was not only the recently established working class that fell victim to the first raw phase of industrialism, the taste of all groups of society quickly degenerated. (8)

Note that the crisis is not necessarily the products, but the fact that people will buy them. It’s a matter of taste. The English felt the same way, and in fact the book follows directly from this to cite William Morris. The movement to resurrect traditional craft is seen as an important element in rescuing the public taste from degradation, through the home-craft institutions. It’s a social movement, front and center—but not just of a prelapsarian nationalism, but of the desire to build a new machine society. Now, over a hundred years later, it might be considered to be a worthy “manufacturing tradition.”

Some of the reading I’ve been doing suggest that Swedish design can be productively explored along two axes: Carl Malmsten on one end, and Bruno Mathsson at the other. Carl Malmsten represents the “traditional” axis.


Carl Malmsten, Living Room interior (1939)

This interior is devastatingly familiar to me. It’s a lot like the way that my eldest brother’s first wife, Dana decorated their apartment in LA. Dana was Danish, oddly enough. Now, looking at it, all I can see is Shaker style—the clean lines, the austerity. The table really wouldn’t be out of place at Hancock Shaker village. But another interior from Malmsten, also from the New York World’s Fair in 1939, is a bit different:


This looks a lot more like modern Ikea, in terms of the wall units, but the settle in front is almost prairie style or arts and crafts. On the edge, indistinct and nearly out of the frame in the front right corner, is a more unusual cupboard type cabinet that is inlaid, which is displayed in a detail from the same catalog, Swedish Arts and Crafts:

Malmsten-3 It’s difficult to tell from the poor halftone, but, these are pastoral scenes with an almost Rocco flair. I suspect this is an homage to Gustavian design.

Malmsten, obviously influenced James Krenov’s aesthetics much more than his more famous counterpart, Bruno Mathsson.



Mathsson, though he was a carpenter’s son, embraced more industrial designs.

I was struck by his chairs with built in swing aside easels, as I’ve been trying to figure out how to manage my lap top in the evenings. There are modern variants of this, of course.

Mathsson was most famous for his chairs, and there’s much to be said on that front at a later time.

For now, what I’m really most interested in are the examples of Swedish kitchens displayed in 1939.

In this design from G.A. Berg, the kitchen has been folded into the living room. Yes, that’s a sink back there divided from the sofa by cabinetry. Perhaps the most unusual feature though, is the dining table that slides between the two halves of the room. Yes, you can slide it into the kitchen for more prep area, and then back into the “living” area for serving. The dining table is on wheels. The mechanics of it are a bit clearer by enlarging the image above, though the general plan is apparent in another view, taken from the kitchen side:

Swedish-Kitchen-2What is clear is that they wanted to innovate, not simply in appearance, but in manners of work:

Abroad, the Swedish efforts to create applied art attuned to modern man and his needs have been termed a style, Swedish Modern.  However, by style is most often implied a distinct mode of presentation, something stationary and final. The present Swedish development in the field of industrial arts, on the other hand, is chiefly distinguished by its dynamic character. It is not a style, but rather a movement which we would like to define with the following statements:

Swedish Modern means high quality merchandise for every-day use, available for all by the utilization of modern technical resources.

Swedish Modern means natural form and honest treatment of material.

Swedish Modern means esthetically sound goods, resulting from close cooperation of artist and manufacturer. (13)

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Happy Day on Happy Mountain

ext-nu-comp1aI had to steal this image from Urban Rancher’s blog. It’s a drawing of a cabin that became a reality, one of thousands of “tiny houses” that have been all the rage for the last decade or two. I note that this man’s plans include having a separate tool shed nearby (already built in 2010). In the future, he also wanted to add a kitchen/bathroom building with plumbing, etc. I was reminded of one of Chris Schwarz’s famous dictums (about workbenches, I think): “Invent nothing.”

It seems as if most of the the cabin porn floating around on the internet is placed there as if it were a modern invention. Researching Swedish design lately, I was struck by the downright organic progression that is commonplace in many “national” architectures—the transition from farm to manor house.

shed-kit-from-aboveOn, I note that some enterprising contemporary designer has come up with a “shed cluster concept”:

To make this little group of sheds habitable you’d probably want to build each shed to serve a purpose like a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, family room, office, studio, etc. Some of your sheds could even serve a combination of functions.

I noted a similar design around a central patio for a mountain vacation cabin, implemented off the drawing board in Microshelters when I had that book out from the library a few weeks ago. Enterprising readers might note that we have a concept just like this already— it’s called the residential home.  The drawback noted by this designer is that the central area would make it difficult to traverse from shed to shed in inclement weather, making this design more suitable for temperate climates. A common roof for the whole structure might be more practical, but you’d have to worry about snow loads and whatnot—returning, of course, to the typical residential home.

Curiously, I had noted that English manor homes were often designed around an open courtyards, or they had courtyards adjacent to the kitchen for easier management of supplies and raw materials. The temperate climate idea made some sense, that is until I started looking into Swedish farm houses. The plans in the brochure I linked a few days ago had some intriguing configurations, buildings around a square (as drawn above) and also U and L shapes. I finally broke down and started typing the Swedish language words surrounding those drawings into a search engine with very productive results.


This is an example of a Sydsvensk gårdstyp; you might note the similarity with the “shed cluster” above. The Swedish Wikipedia page (via google translator) lists a source from 1922 for its content, noting that “The farms are characterized by a fully enclosed courtyard, normally [the] house is half-timber. Unlike the northern Swedish farms have the sydvenska traditional manure pile located inside the courtyard.” There are several listings for regional variants, somewhat corresponding the the types in the BuildLLc brochure.


The Nordsvensk gårdstyp looks essentially similar, but, as the above entry noted the manure pile is inside the courtyard. There’s more information, though:

In Dalarna, where the real inheritance principle applied, were also farm buildings in the square were missing, or siblings through inheritance broken up parts of the yard and started the construction of adjoining farm plots, which are partly assembled.

In the early 1800s begin to modern secluded rows of barns appear on the pastor farms, but it will take until the end of the 1800s before modern building techniques begin to break up the traditional courtyard pattern. Today there are almost completely preserved farm plots of heritage centers and cultural history museums, where they often reconstructed.

I noted in my reading, that the compound concept is often groups of families or friends bonding together with their tiny homes, like the Llano River Compound, aka, the Llano Exit Strategy or this vacation home outside Ontario. It’s a regular 12th century innovation. Dalarna, by the way, is also where the Larssons scavenged all their farmhouse furniture.

The oldest variant of the farmhouse compound concept in Sweden is the Centralsvensk gårdstyp. The clustered compound, from my readings on English manor houses, began as a defensive fortification strategy. The Centralsvensk gårdstyp lacks conspicuously lacks these features.

Harkeberga The caption for this photo is translated as:

Härkeberga chaplain farm from the 1700s is an example of a central Swedish gårdstyp. In the middle of the picture is stable that divides the courtyard of the manor house and farmyard.

So, rather than circling the wagons for protection there is a linear relation between the “manor” house and the farmyard, often with latrines and manure piles in the middle. Manor house, in the Swedish wikipedia entries, is defined as the house on a farm that is neither barn, stable, nor equipment storage. That’s a bit different from the English tradition; different social customs dictate similar structures, but different pathways from here to there.

To summarize, the Swedish farm house usually features some sort of outdoor “shared space” between buildings of differentiated functions—at the center, often, there was a pile of manure (both human and animal, latrines were usually located there as well). Excepting, of course, in the south where the manure is kept outside. Manure management is important.


Farm Inside Triberga , Hulter City parish , Oland in 1906. The farm burned down around 1925.

The impulse to “divide and conquer” by separating out functional elements is constant in human dwellings. Before the factory “assembly line” there was the farmhouse and manor house structures. Hermann Muthesius really explicates it nicely:

The most distinctive feature of any English house, even from the outside, is its domestic quarters. The continental observer may find that the residential quarters are not so very different from what he is used to, but the domestic quarters come as a total surprise. He knows the kitchen only from its insignificant status in the continental house and is now confronted by a full-grown domestic organism that amazes him not merely on account of its size but also its comprehensiveness. Whereas on the continent the kitchen is the room in which every aspect of household management takes place, the room in which not only the cooking is done but in which servants spend their time and take their meals and in which all the cleaning is done, in the domestic quarters of the English house the management of the household is broken down into a dozen different operations, for each of which a room is provided. (The English House (1908), p.95)

Obviously, for Swedish farms, manure management seems to have been the center of evolution; in the English manor house, it’s an army of human servants each fulfilling a different task requiring separate accommodations: the institution of service.

Leaving aside the complexity of the English manor house kitchen for the moment, let’s take a look at the way that Muthesius describes the evolution:

Part of the reason for this phenomenon lies in the historical development of the English house, which has largely developed out of the country farmhouse. In the Middle Ages the kitchen was always a separate building, usually centrally planned and standing on its own, whereas store-rooms were directly adjacent to the end of the hall where the entrance was. It was not until the great social changes of the fifteenth century that the kitchen was moved into the house, where it joined the other domestic quarters to form the domestic wing as it appears from there onwards. When Inigo Jones brought the Palladian house to England and abolished all practical considerations at a stroke, the domestic quarters were moved into the basement, where they had to get along as best they could. Or else they were torn apart and set down arbitrarily in outbuildings attached to the main house by colonnades. This period saw a complete break in the development of the domestic offices. So that with the arrival of Romanticism, when the English house burst the bonds of Palladianism, they extended and spread themselves with greater freedom. They surfaced once more from the cellars and were from now on grouped to form a self-contained set of rooms on ground-level. Indeed, as though by way of compensation or long years of neglect, the generation that was now at the helm treated them with redoubled affection, and the main contribution of the nineteenth century to the development of the English house may  almost be said to lie in its ingenious development of the domestic offices. (ibid., 95)

One can see echoes of Muthesius’s contention that the English were more regimented than continentals, in the way he describes the matter of “domestic offices.” In discussions of domestic architecture, virtually all writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for that matter places the kitchen at the center of household architecture and management.

The Swedes, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, also had strong thoughts about kitchens. That’s where I’ll try to pick this up next time. The countervailing trend against to the urge to expand homes is one which simplifies and collapses things together.

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Moka Dwellings

Aldo Rossi, 1984

Aldo Rossi, 1984

I was a bit surprised to find the confluence between Bialetti and Aldo Rossi. It seems that the whole world wants to dwell in moka pots. As far as I know though, Bialetti wasn’t a powerhouse of architectural theory like Rossi.


Aldo Rossi

Perhaps it’s just in the rules that if you’re an Italian designer, at some point in your career you’ve got to tackle a moka pot.

In Italy, it began as Stile Liberty, before it fused with the modernist/futurist machine obsession to become art deco.

The distinction with Stile Liberty (art nouveau) is that it’s a total art—an art that includes household utilitarian objects.



Moka express, 1933

The first Bialetti moka pot from 1933 was clearly an art deco design, designed by Alphonso Bialetti—the moka express.

It’s pretty close to that famous version that Renato Bialetti put his moustache on in 1958.

What I wasn’t aware of until tonight, though, is that the Bialetti company also had ties to Borlotto Bugatti, who made brass and stainless steel cutlery.

I’m not sure of the relationship with Carlo Bugatti, the furniture designer who fathered Ettore Bugatti of expensive car fame.

t0319vergara-bugatti-home_feat3_2Of course, there had to be a Bugatti Moka pot as well.

One of my favorite anecdotes on the Bugatti car web site is:

“A customer complained that his car did not start properly in winter.

Bugatti replied that if he could afford a Bugatti, he could surely also afford a heated garage.”

Too racy for me. I didn’t locate a price on that one.


MokaAldo Rossi has two moka pot designs that I located. The first, La Conica, in mirror polished stainless steel doesn’t come cheap at $275.

It’s a looker though, I must say. I love the lines.

The second,  done in aluminum like the original Bialetti, called La Cupola looks a bit too much like a thermos for my liking. I wouldn’t like to live there.

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Motion Tabled.

Adolf Loos Tea Table

“The elephant trunk table” designed by Adolf Loos

It’s easy to get pissed at Adolf Loos, especially when he passionately argues that tattooed people are either savages or criminals. The difficulty in researching him, for me, is trying to figure out some context for his polemic declarations. In the introduction to the 1982 collection  Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, Aldo Rossi suggests that Loos’s writings are best taken in the spirit that they were offered. Sadly, virtually every book I found, and every PDF littered about the web, has the context stripped away along with all the dates and attributions. Even recently published collections offer no documentation about where the articles first appeared.

The power to irritate is closely related to the ability to amuse oneself, and the reader who is not overly confused by the academic pedantry will amuse himself a great deal with the writings collected here. Certain pieces, written in the “journalistic” manner, have provoked me to laughter and remind me of another artist who love to confront problems with a sense of humor, namely James Joyce. There is no doubt that these contemporaries of Freud were well aware that “every joke is a murder,” and may be placed among those artists whom Manfredo Tafuri defines as “villainous.” But Loos, apart from being “villainous” in a higher sense, is often “impudent” in the usual sense of the word. While preaching the uselessness of furnishing provided by architects at the same time of the do-it-yourself method—and from this we should logically deduce that one style is as good as another—he considers Secession [art nouveau] furniture actually to be criminal: “The day will come,” he writes, “when the furnishings of a prison cell by the court decorator Schulz or by Professor Van de Velde will be considered an aggravation of the penalty.” This is a statement which, deprived of its sarcasm, could be said to contain a moralism much like that of Gropius. (viii-ix)

Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896

Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896

It appears to me that the designer whose ornaments are so heinous that the ought to be jailed, has produced a tea table that is far less ornamental than the designer who railed so sharply against ornament. In fact, the designs of Professor Van de Velde, a leading Belgian art nouveau designer, are far more restrained than the norm. Loos’s critique is obviously not only sarcastic, but also tongue-in-cheek. That’s the problem of reading things divorced from their context.

I find it downright irritating that there isn’t much out there that isn’t in German on Adolf Loos. Apparently, he was a big fan of America and visited the Columbian Exhibition in 1893, so like Muthesius’s obsession with the English, he provides an interesting view from the outside. The passage from Rossi continues:

In speaking of his mythic America, the significance of which we shall see more clearly below, Loos seems to be delighted with a meal whose main dish is oatmeal; elsewhere he notes the fine eating habits of his much maligned countrymen, “for the Austrians know a lot about good cooking.” This unexplained assertion is equivalent to another on German cuisine: “The German people eat what they are served; they are always satisfied, pay the bill and leave.” (ix)

I am always struck by the way that gastronomy interweaves with architecture; both, one must assume, are matters of taste. In Loos, it seems, sarcasm is a way of life.

Throughout Loos’s writings one can find many quotations of this sort, some even more amusing and sarcastic than the above, and above all supported by a rigorous sense of logic, a persistent sense of involvement, and an anger akin to disillusionment. This feeling of disillusionment is much broader than any sort of disappointment with society or personal matters; it is centered on an abstract idea, a battle in which the enemy is a priori elusive, ungraspable, and not unlike the enemy of the mystic—sin. (ix)

Rossi’s assertion here brings out an aspect I’ve really not considered before. That the punk spirit (e.g. John Lydon’s “anger is an energy”) has some shared consciousness with the puritan aesthetic. It attempts to rid the world of the sins of bad taste.

In this case the enemy is stupidity and the lack of understanding and a sense of the end of things. Speaking of Karl Kraus, Loos summed up his friend’s thought and anxiety, saying, “He fears the end of the world.” The end of the world here is also the end of a world without meaning, where the search for authentic quality involves a man without specific qualities, where the great architecture of immutable meanings carries with it a sort of paralysis of creativity and the non-recognition of any progress of reason. Truth, architecture, art, the ancients—all this is behind Adolf Loos who, like all men of this kind, was well aware that he was traveling down a road without hope. (ix)

No future? John Lydon would be proud. The name Karl Kraus rang a bell, and I eventually remembered that I read an essay by Walter Benjamin on Karl Kraus years ago, and revisiting it today I remembered that Benjamin was also deeply moved by Adolf Loos, who features prominently in critical parts of that essay. The Benjamin essay on Kraus is worth revisiting another day. Returning to Rossi on Loos, what does it mean when one is “traveling down a road without hope”?

This attitude also calls into question the meaning of trade, of day-to-day labor, and consequently, of how one earns a living. On the one hand are the static architecture of monuments, the great architecture of the ancients, and the rather complicated possibility of “becoming” an architect; on the other hand are the minor activities whose efficacy he denies, such as the ordering of a house, it’s furnishing, its interior design. Loos does not hide this contradiction—on the contrary, he posits it as a part of his working terminology, and in one of his responses to a reader of Das Andere he actually affirms that he will continue to furnish stores, cafes, and private homes, even though such an activity is not by any means architectural—especially in an era when “every carpet designer defines himself as an architect.” (ix)

This places the matter of domestic design and fine art front and center; Benjamin’s Karl Kraus essay connects this line of questioning to art and technology instead, although there’s a telling fragment from around the same time period (1931-2) which includes a citation from a book given to Walter Benjamin by Franz Gluck:

On ships, mine shafts, and crucifixes in bottles, as well as panopticons.

“While reading Goethe’s rebuke to philistines and many other art lovers who like to touch copper engravings and reliefs, the idea came to him that anything that can be touched cannot be a work of art, and anything that is a work of art should be place out of reach.” Franz Gluck on Adolf Loos in Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten [Adolf Loos: The Architect’s Works] by Heinrich Kulka (Vienna, 1931) p. 9.

Does this mean that these object in bottles are works of art because they have been placed out of reach?

(Collected Works of Walter Benjamin v. 2, p. 554)

Leaving aside the mind-blowing conceptualization of surveillance as art, this unpublished fragment really highlights the complexity of these questions, and shows strong connections with Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” The separation between day-to-day labor and artistic labor—the importance of and inaccessibility of the artist’s touch—is featured in Benjamin and Loos’s writing on the topic.

What separates the carpet designer from the designer of architecture, of monuments, from the carpet designer? Rossi offers this thesis for Loos’s acceptance of the paradox:

And why does he do all this? Because his trade gives him something to live on, and because he can do it well: “Just like in America where I earned my living for a while by washing dishes. But one could support oneself just as easily by doing something else too.” The contradiction between art and trade is so played down that the argument touches on an aspect that the idealist point of view has always neglected, that of the artist’s means of subsistence. As always, Loos condemns the moralism of action that is directly opposed to the economic romanticism of the Modern Movement. Each person will live in his own house, according to his own personality, but in all probability someone will ask for advice about this or that problem, or more simply will have better things to do than furnish his own house; then the architect, trying to do his job well, will advise him. That is all. In this light, Loos’s sarcasm directed against the Secession is easier to understand; what Loos is really attacking in his contemporaries is not so much their style or their taste (even though he finds it abominable)—what he cannot tolerate is the “redemptive” value that they assign to their own actions. One trade is as good as another; and even a trade like washing dishes can be done well provided one breaks as few as possible.

This certainly is the one aspect which “modern architecture,” so committed to mythifying its relations with industry and reformist politics, has been unable to admit and unwilling to discuss. (ibid., ix, x)

It seems clearer now why arts and crafts, art nouveau, and even the modernists with their imperatives would bear the brunt of such savage critique. Read in this way, all the high minded moralizing about the value of labor seems strained coming as it does, filtered down from bourgeois artists and designers sitting on their high moral thrones. For Loos’s most scathing thoughts on the topic, read “The Poor Little Rich Man.”

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