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.

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 tinyhousedesign.com, 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.

No Sense of Crime


The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his paddles, in short everything he lays his hands on. He is not a criminal.The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.  There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the inmates show tattoos. The tattooed who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder.

The urge to ornament one’s face and everything else within reach is the start of plastic art. It is the baby talk of painting. All art is erotic.

The first work of art, the cross, was erotic. The first work of art, the first artistic act which the first artist, in the urge to rid himself of excess energy, smeared on the wall. A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her. The man who created it felt the same urge as Beethoven, we was in the same heaven in which Beethoven created the Ninth Symphony.

But the man of our day who, in response to an inner urge, smears the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or a degenerate. It goes without saying that this impulse most frequently assails people with such symptoms of degeneracy in the lavatory. A country’s culture can be assessed by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared. In the child this is a natural phenomenon: his first artistic expression is to scribble erotic symbols on the walls. But what is natural to a Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneracy in the modern adult. I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects. I believed that with this discovery I was bringing joy to the world; it has not thanked me. People were sad and hung their heads.

Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”

The French and the Germans obviously couldn’t be further apart on these issues. Van Gogh and Gauguin had a completely different perception of “primitives” than Hermann Muthesius and Adolf Loos; the same could be said of other European artists like Picasso and Braque.Joan Miro’s embraced of children’s drawings, and it’s also worthwhile to note that Paul Klee, a Swiss-German, didn’t have any difficulty as seeing children’s art as worthwhile and even “progressive.” Further, even Loos himself deployed ornament on utilitarian objects, despite this shrill protest.

Knieschwimmer chair
Knieschwimmer chair

Aesthetic puritanism never seems to work out, but nonetheless, Loos was its most impassioned advocate:

If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered over with ornaments. The man of the fifteenth century won’t understand me. But all modern people will. The advocate of ornament believes that my urge for simplicity is in the nature of a mortification. No, respected professor at the school of applied art I am not mortifying myself! The show dishes of past centuries which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks pheasants and lobsters look more tasty, have the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef.

A fan of roast meat and boiled vegetables, Loos had a big impact on kitchen design, although somewhat indirectly. Loos outlook was utopian in the extreme. He sought to conserve the labor expended in ornamenting things to use it more productively furthering humanity. He did concede that some did get pleasure in the creative labor invested in ornament, and claimed that he would wear ornamented products to please others, though he took no pleasure in it himself. But he stood by his claim that the urge to ornament was counterproductive and wasteful, a primitive affectation for the masses.

The Taylorist “Frankfurt Kitchen” designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was thought to be a liberatory design— freeing women to work in factories instead of the house. The simplified version of a kitchen, which dispensed with most food storage, sought to streamline the social habits and inheritance of the kitchen in the same way that Loos sought to strip away ornament.

Historical culinary practices were thought by the German modernists to be a “primitive” affectation with no place in modern life.

The most telling comment, as translated by Wikipedia, was this:

On her 100th birthday Schütte-Lihotzky commented “You’ll be surprised that, before I conceived the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirthaus [restaurant/pub]. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.

Schütte-Lihotzky worked closely with Loos in the 1920s, and the changes to the kitchen wrought by her designs and the emerging new philosophy of the kitchen have had a deep influence on domestic design. Schütte-Lihotzky conceived the kitchen as an integral part of the living area, though it could be partitioned off if need be. This is in stark contrast to the English manor house tradition of a completely separate wing for domestic activities. This change presents interesting problems, both socially and architecturally.

Loos offered his solution in a 1926 lecture entitled “The Modern Settlement” suggesting that unpleasant cooking smells were best avoided, not by separating the kitchen from the living areas, but rather by only cooking foods which had pleasant aromas—ham, eggs, and beef steak. His argument for a rationalized system of food production and management has echoed across the twentieth century, with many unwanted side effects. I’m trying to track down much more material on this.*

Curiously, there seems to be an obsession among German architects of the early twentieth century with fire. Hermann Muthesius goes into great detail on the subject:

But an open fire is still indispensable for several activities at the English stove. First among these is the toasting of bread that forms so important an element of the English breakfast; toast entirely replaces our continental breakfast bread and rolls. The English are also still very fond of roasting meat on an open fire, a method of preparation that undoubtedly has great advantages; for the juices remain in the meat and meat prepared in this way is tastier and more easily digested. It would not occur to the English to add any kind of sauce to roast meat; and indeed, it needs none. At most they use one of the piquant sauces that can be bought ready-made such as the famous Worcester sauce. Consequently an important aspect of the higher culinary art, the preparation of sauces, is practically non-existent in the English kitchen. If one adds to this fact that vegetables are also simply boiled in water with nothing added and that all the dishes consisting of several ingredients combined and cooked together which our German cooking is so rich, are entirely unknown, it becomes obvious that English cooking is extremely simple, almost primitive. (The English House, 97)

So, the conclusion is—open fires, no sauces, no fancy breads, plus boiled vegetables equates with “primitive.” For culture, the English are (according to Muthesius) dependent almost entirely on the French. However, this doesn’t mean that their aren’t good things to say about this “primitive” English life:

But all English dishes are made from the best raw materials. Nowhere will you find a leg of mutton to equal that in England and their beef and vegetables are also excellent. Good materials make up for the lack of style; indeed, once one has become used to the artless English cooking, one has the feeling that embellishments would not find favor there; and once has made its acquaintance, the sophisticated French cuisine seems spineless, almost insipid. (ibid.)

It’s easy to see from this that the lack of embellishment in English cooking is the most positive thing about it, an aesthetic trend grasped by the Germans with a revolutionary zeal. Stripped down kitchen facilities, and stripped down food, become the hallmark of the twentieth century. Rationalized kitchens go hand in hand with rationalized food.

*After writing this, I discovered this passage in Adolf Loos’ 1910 essay titled “Architecture”:

If we were to come across a mound in the woods, six feet long by three feet wide, with soil piled up in a pyramid, a somber mood would come over us and a voice inside would say, “There is someone buried here.” That is Architecture.

Life, death and habitation

RIP, Renato Bialetti
RIP, Renato Bialetti


438-COVER-OF-RAMESES-II-SARCOPHAGUSEven in death, there’s a social impulse that insists that we must inhabit something. While a moka pot is an unusual choice for an urn, it’s somehow fitting. The choice of a utilitarian object to me is far less precious than say, a jewel encrusted sarcophagus.

Each choice, in its own way, is precious though. To dwell in the shape of your significance on earth, be it a un unusual urn or decorated monument or tomb, is motivated by a desire to make it known that to be in a place was your choice. It didn’t just happen by accident. Either you wanted it, or someone else found the need to adore and celebrate you. 

That’s one of the things I found most compelling about Vincent Van Gogh’s dream of home. He didn’t want it to be precious, but he wanted it to be recognizable as his.

Van Gogh’s proclamation of “nothing precious” is the most curious demand though, for an artist who was hoping to decorate nearly every surface. What Van Gogh was striving for, in his own words, was character. Invariably, we always look to appearance to find clues.

The Mummy of Ramses II.
The Mummy of Ramses II.

“King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” Works, loosely defined, surely must include all those things we do to form and deform the space around us. Van Gogh wanted to shape not only the space of the canvas, but also the space he and those who knew him would inhabit. Decoration plays a part in this.

As far as I know he didn’t follow through on it, but Van Gogh’s naked ladies adorning the bed would have been an unusual choice for the late 19th century. From what I’ve been reading, the movement was to de-sexualize the sleep chamber in most countries. Bedrooms, instead, were generally striving to look and be clean places. Though the Arts and Crafts parlors were dark and heavy woods, I was a bit surprised that even they wanted to paint the bedroom white. Habitations always tend to follow conventions and deviation is usually the proclamation of an “artistic” taste. The foundation of these conventions is not just a matter of decoration, but also of spatial placement.

Feng Shui, the Chinese science of spatial arrangement deployed for both buildings and interiors, has deep roots in the graveyard. The Zangshu, or Book of Burial is perhaps its oldest surviving text:

VIII. The Cardinal Aspects

A. The Four Aspects

1. Bury with the Cerulean Dragon to the left, the White Tiger to the right, the Vermilion Bird in front, and the Dark Turtle in back.

2. The Dark Turtle hangs its head; the Vermilion Bird hovers in dance; the Cerulean Dragon coils sinuously; the White Tiger crouches down.

3. If contours and features do not conform to this, according to the art of fengshui, there will be destruction and death.

4. Therefore the crouching tiger is said to hold the corpse in its mouth.

5. The coiled dragon is said to be jealous of life.

6. The Dark Turtle that does not droop will reject the corpse.

7. The Vermilion Bird that does not dance will soar off.

The Chinese developed the compass, not for navigation, but rather to figure out how to situate themselves and their dead in the world.  The curiosity about optimal orientation by cardinal direction is persistent. In The English House from 1904, Hermann Muthesius discusses the optimal arrangements for bedrooms at length:

A south-easterly aspect is again considered best for the bedroom. The bedroom is a room in which we spend about one third of our lives in continuous periods of between seven and nine hours. Consequently its position must be a particularly healthy one, which means, most importantly, that it must be sunny by day. Yet the afternoon sun in the summer would make the room too warm. Since people like to salute the morning sun as they rise, an easterly aspect would seem to be indicated. But that room may get continuous sun for several hours after the occupant has left it, it is better that it should face south east rather than due east.  (91-92)

Not quite as poetic and nuanced as the Chinese positioning literature, but consummately well reasoned as is fitting the western approach. Also predictable is the certainty of the discussions of position:

Yet there can be no doubt that the only proper position for the bed is with the head against a side wall and the plan of the room must without fail provide for this. This having been established, English opinion further requires that the left side of the bed be near the window. The reason for this is that the conjugal bedroom in England is always used as a dressing-room by the woman and the furniture that she needs for her toilette such a wash-stand, dressing-table and wardrobe stand next to a window. As we shall see, the dressing-table indeed, stands right in the window. The woman therefore takes the side of the bed nearest to her part of the room and since by ancient custom the woman sleeps on a man’s left, the bed must stand with its left-hand half on the window side. The position of all the bedroom furniture and of the doors and windows is now firmly established. The door into the man’s dressing room is in the wall nearest to the right-hand side of the bed. (92)

East or West, we expend a great deal of energy attempting to divine the best positions for ourselves, both in life and death. I hadn’t really expected a book ostensibly about architecture to discuss furniture arrangement in such detail, but it makes sense. Our habitations are essentially matters of habit.

The Impressionist Home

A web piece from Smithsonian Magazine, “Step Into Van Gogh’s Brilliant Bedroom” lead me down an interesting cul-de-sac this morning. I’ve been wondering about rooms as jigs that shape behavior for a while, and I’m really interested in the Art Institute of Chicago’s airbnb project that allows you to stay in a replica of this famous interior. Would a person start to think like Van Gogh if they slept there?

It reminded me of a song by David Byrne, “Social Studies”, which I used a long time ago to teach extended possibilities for rhetorical analysis. It was never the hit with students that I hoped it would be.


The basic premise is that in order to understand people, you might become them if you consume what they consume. It’s not that outlandish, really. Marketing companies depend on getting us to buy products that allow us to be like the model or spokes-celebrity who shills for them. My longstanding interest in shopping malls stems from the belief that understanding what people choose to buy and how they buy it is important to the understanding society as a whole.

However, lately I’ve taken a deeper turn. I think that lived environments are important not because of what we buy to put in them, but because of the historical reasons why we need/choose these objects to begin with.

Sometime soon, I want to start writing about Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and DesignI really like the organization of the book as well as the content—it moves from room to room to discuss not only the decoration and furnishing of the rooms, but the social rituals that furnished reasons for the rooms and their contents. It’s focus on the British strain of Arts and Crafts has really filled a gap in my education in that regard.

In reading about Carl and Karin Larsson recently, I cited a passage from an essay by Gillian Naylor that cites Herman Muthesius proclamation that the real innovation of the English was the creation of “the artistic house.” Wendy Hitchmough begins by invoking Muthesius as well, but from a different angle:

Hermann Muthesius concluded that the English derived their confidence and easy assurance from a tyrannical system of rules and customs which dictated what people must wear and how they must behave, and this determined the furnishing and arrangement of their surroundings. It was never necessary to worry about formalities—about where to put the display cabinet, for example, or which room would be auspicious for a proposal of marriage—because the matters were ruled by strict social conventions. “The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time. . .Not only  is the domestic routine in the individual and as punctual as clockwork throughout the year but all households of similar economic standing are as like one another as peas in a pod.” (8, 10)

The only way to break free from this regimentation, Hitchmough argues, was “the artistic home.” In the last few decades of the 19th century, it seems that the artistic home was an often repeated trope. It’s there in Van Gogh’s letters as well. His thoughts about home are amazingly profound. From Letter 674:

How I’d like to set myself up so that I could have a home of my own! I never stop telling myself that if at the start we’d spent even 500 francs on furnishing, we would already have recouped all of it, and I would have furniture and I would be free of lodging-house keepers by now. I’m not pressing the point, but what we’re doing now isn’t wise. There will always be artists passing through here, wishing to escape the harshness of the north. And I feel myself that I’ll always be among that number. True that it would probably be better to go a bit further down, where you’d be more sheltered. True that it won’t be entirely easy to find, but all the more reason; if we set ourselves up here, the costs of moving shouldn’t be enormous. From here to Bordighera, for example, or somewhere near Nice. Once we’d settled, we’d stay there for the rest of our lives. Waiting until you’re very rich is a sorry system, and that’s what I don’t like about the De Goncourts, although it’s the truth — they end up paying a hundred thousand francs for their home and their peace of mind. Now we’d have it for less than a thousand, in that we’d have a studio in the south where we could put someone up.

But if we have to make a fortune first……… we’ll be totally neurotic by the time we reach that sort of tranquillity, and that’s worse than our present state, in which we can still stand all sorts of noises. But let’s be wise enough to know that we’re getting dull-witted all the same.

It’s better to lodge others than not to be lodged ourselves here, especially lodging with an innkeeper, which even when you pay doesn’t provide you with a lodging where you feel at home.

The reference to the De Goncourts is a matter of some discussion among Van Gogh scholars, apparently, as to how much or little Van Gogh had read of their work. In describing Van Gogh’s strategies and rhetoric as a letter writer, the suggestion has been made that Vincent might have viewed Edmond and Jules De Goncourt as a sort of crusading role model for the Van Gogh brothers, and they had written about “the artistic house.”

Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt
Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt

References tothe De Goncourt brothers occur in several of Van Gogh’s letters. I found the Wikipedia entry on  them interesting. French naturalism has had a lot of impact on many visual artists. The 1911 Britannica describes their specific flavor in this way:

“To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments.”

This aligns closely with Richard Sennett’s assertion that character, for the Victorians, is something that can be “read” from the external appearance of things.  It’s a shift to the visual coupled with an embrace of the emotional and contingent:

“The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.”

This returns full circle to the “situated” versus “planned” worldview in the AI articles I was exploring yesterday in remarkable ways. Recall that Muthesius spoke of an English “planned” lifestyle that Hitchmough counterpoised with an Arts and Crafts “artistic house” alternative. Life, for an artist, is contingent and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Van Gogh had big plans:

It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.

So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.

Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.

I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.

So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.

I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations. (Letter 677)

The plan, ultimately, was to exhibit both studies for the decoration of the house, and then the house itself. Van Gogh’s emphasis on physical decoration is supported by a definite amount of reading on the subject:

I read in the literary supplement of Saturday’s Figaro (15 Sept.) the description of an Impressionist house. This house was built, as would be the bottoms of bottles, of bricks of rounded glass — purple glass. With the sun glancing off it, the yellow glints flashing from it, it produced an extraordinary effect.

To support these walls of glass bricks in the shape of purple eggs, they had devised a support in black and gilded iron, representing strange shoots of vines and other climbing plants. This purple house was right in the middle of a garden, all of whose paths were made of a very yellow sand. The beds of ornamental flowers were naturally most extraordinary in their coloration. This house, if I remember well, must be in Auteuil. Without changing anything at the house, either now or later, I’d nevertheless like to make it, through the decoration, an artist’s house. That will come. I shake your hand firmly. (Letter 681)

Scholarly notes trace this reference to “an Impressionist house” back to the De Goncourts, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s correct or not; the article Van Gogh refers to actually describes “a modernist house,” so suffice it to say that the house is beginning to develop into an extension of beliefs, attitudes, and predilections of the designers and inhabitants. Van Gogh, like many others at the time, was concerned with putting together a well considered lived space.

At present I’ve also bought a dressing-table with all the necessaries, and my own little bedroom is furnished.

Gauguin’s or another lodger’s — we’ll still need a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I’ll need a large stove and a cupboard.

None of that’s at all urgent, and as a result I can already see the goal, to have the means of having a roof over my head for a good long time.

You wouldn’t believe how much that calms me; I have such a passion to make — an artist’s house — but a practical one and not the usual studio full of curios.

I’m also thinking of planting two oleanders outside the door, in tubs.

Anyway, on this studio we’re probably spending several hundred francs less than Russell, for example, who spends thousands.  And actually, even if I had the choice between the two, for my part I’d prefer the few-hundred-francs method, as long as each piece of furniture was four-square and substantial. But still, the room in which I’ll put up those who pass through here will be like a boudoir, and when it’s finished you’ll see that it’s not a haphazard creation, but a job done that way deliberately. (Letter 685)

The sense of hope in these letters is almost palpable. Like any good frugal house-husband, Van Gogh is striving to shape his surroundings by careful selection and decoration, to make everyone know he meant to do that. This is nearly contemporary with Carl and Karin Larsson and most of the British Arts and Crafts designers.

There was something in the air internationally regarding intelligent domestic design and everyone wanted in on it.


I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.

Carl and Karin LarssonI located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.

Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.

Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.

Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:

Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.

Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)

Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.

Scan 1
Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.

Larsson Workshop

More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.

One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:

nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)

The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.

Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:

This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)

The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin  that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.

Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)

To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and  “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:

Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)

Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.