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.”

The ornamented snake

I dreamed this past night that a strange young man urged me to enter a house where he would show me that he could charm snakes. He went ahead. Naturally, I followed him.

In there, I actually saw him standing in the center of the room, and in front of him, raised almost as tall as he, a thick gigantic cobra moved its head, following the beats of unheard music.

In the dimness of lights and smoke behind them I could faintly discern a group of spectators. Apparently they were convinced that the snake charmer had the dangerous snake completely under control.

I did not. Arriving late and totally alone, I suddenly found myself standing quite close to the actors. I felt unpleasantly insecure and would have liked to be outside again.

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought: “The snake has noticed you particularly.” I feared it might be coming close…and then…and then I felt it close to me. It had slithered to my feet….It rose along my body…it chilled me and filled me with terror. I knew that one sting meant immediate death, namely if I showed the slightest fear.

“Introduction” Carl Larsson: The Autobiography of Sweden’s Most Beloved Artist, 1

This seems a strange way to commence the story of your life. After all, this isn’t Jim Morrison we’re talking about here, but a man known primarily for painting placid domestic scenes. No wonder many have described this book as “dour.”

Rather than a snake, it seems to me that the story of domestic design at the turn of the twentieth century is more like a hydra with many heads. The northern outpost of Arts and Crafts differs sharply from the English or Mediterranean variants. But snakes? What gives?


In the center of the “snail room” exhibited by Italian furniture designer Carlo Bugatti (father of the carmaker) there reside three “cobra” chairs. There is an  example of one in Chicago; I’ll have to look for it the next time I pass through.


This piece is completely covered in parchment, a technique which hid all joints. Decorations are made of hammered copper, pencil and paint, and it is covered with parchment and leather.

The snail room was meant for games and conversation. The chair was shaped like a cobra, inscribed with floral and geometric motifs reminiscent of Islamic art. The chair’s open design served a practical purpose, allowing men’s coattails and women’s trains to hang down behind the seat.

It’s not really Arts and Crafts, but rather Art Nouveau, emphasizing ornament over the more self-consciously “honest” styles of the north.

Though they are sometimes lumped together, there seem to be some very important distinctions between the complex emergent styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I opened my eyes, and now the head of the snake was close to me, facing me. How magnificent it was! The colors, glittering in the most wondrous shades, were blinding me. The most elegant ornaments were forming in front of my eyes. They curled downward to more rigidly geometrical planes, and on the lower parts of its body, where the colors turned more vulgar, the patterns became coarser and more abhorrent.

But the evil little head with the shield around the neck, which is so peculiar to the cobra, offered overwhelming richness of lines and color.

I had to look at it with an admiration close to rapture. The small eyes of the snake were glittering maliciously. They peered almost laughingly into mine. The head was rocking from time to time, sometimes shooting forward and then pulling back, and then I felt its repugnant spongy body pressing itself closer and closer to mine!

I knew that my life was not worth much by now. However, I seemed to myself triumphantly proud, felt that now I would be able to show those present what kind of man I really was.

Or was I?

Oh no, it was so thoroughly terrible, the tension was horrifying! If only the loathsome garishness would disappear! But if all turned out well, what a hero I would turn out to be! (ibid. 1-2)

It is extremely unlikely, I think, that Carl Larsson and Carlo Bugatti were familiar with each other. Nonetheless, it seems almost as if Larsson’s downright weird introduction to his autobiography might be productively be read as a critique of Art Nouveau. There’s a curious love/hate relationship with ornament across all these different threads of design.

Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, writing in Houses and Gardens (1906) discusses two popular modes of decoration: heraldry and organic motifs. Heraldry, with its deep ties to the English manor house traditions, was old; natural motifs (decorating around some sort of common organic shape, like lotus flowers) were emerging (thanks to the pre-Raphaelites) as a plausible choice to those setting up a home.

Carl Larsson embraced Gustavian design (a situated Swedish variant of rococo), which is perhaps close to an embrace of the sort of traditional heraldic motifs gestured at by Baillie Scott. At the same time, there was a rustic naturalism to his designs. What the English and Swedish outlooks both share is a desire to ornament in such a way that connects with their national identities.

But the cobra did not release me. Now it approached my face, I felt its tongue as if it were fluttering against my lips, but I smiled and remained courageous.

Ah, but I was petrified, and so was my wide smile. Now, now, it stole its narrow, thin, thin, tongue between my lips. I felt it against my tongue. Now I could take it no longer.

I…woke up.

Fortunately it was only a dream, a nightmare.

I immediately realized it was an allegory of my life, as good as any.

You must try to decipher it yourself after reading the memories I have determined to write down.

My steadily smiling face. My hidden horror of life. I certainly was not a snake charmer. It was the snake—life—that charmed me. (ibid. 2)

Not many artists open their autobiography by spinning a tale about french-kissing a snake. I would be curious why Carl Larsson chose this dream, or why Carlo Bugatti chose the cobra as his totem, or the snail. But some things are certain.

The snail room was exhibited at Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna  in Turin in 1902.  It’s primary dictate:  “Only original products that show a decisive tendency toward aesthetic renewal of form will be admitted. Neither mere imitations of past styles nor industrial products not inspired by an artistic sense will be accepted.”

Both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts stress connections, through ornament, to the lands that birthed them. Larsson had his folk styles and Gustavian ornament, Baillie Scott had heraldry and pagan naturalism, while Bugatti was more connected with Moorish traditions. All are situated in ways both intellectual and geographic.

Carlo Bugatti Throne