Furniture for Sitting

Otto Wagner, Armchair, Thonet model #6516
Otto Wagner, Armchair, Thonet model #6516

The Otto Wagner room is beautiful not because, but in spite of the fact that it was designed by an architect. For this architect served as his own decorator. This room will not suit any other person because it will not correspond to his personality. It lacks perfection for any second party: thus we may no longer speak of beauty. To do so really seems a contradiction.

By beauty we understand the highest degree of perfection. For this reason it is completely out of the question for anything impractical to be beautiful. The fundamental requirement for any object that would lay claim to the designation of beautiful is that it not violate the borders of functionality. Of course the functional object by itself is not beautiful. There is more to it than that. A Cinquecento theoretician of art probably expressed it most precisely: “An object that is so perfect that one can neither add to it nor take away from it without harming it is beautiful. Only then does it possess the most perfect, the most complete harmony.”

The most beautiful man? He is the most perfect man, the man whose bodily structure and intellectual capacities offer the best assurance for healthy offspring and for the maintenance and sustenance of a family. The most beautiful woman? She is the perfect woman. It is her responsibility to kindle a man’s love for her, to nurse her children, and to give them a good upbringing. Thus she has the most beautiful eyes—practical, sharp (not short-sighted or timid), the most beautiful face, the most beautiful hair, the most beautiful nose—a nose that allows her to breathe well. She has the most beautiful mouth, the most beautiful teeth—teeth which can chew her food best. Nothing in nature is extraneous. The highest degree of functionality in harmony with all the other parts is what we call pure beauty.

Adolf Loos, Neu Freie Presse, June 19, 1898

I think this essay enters the realm of the cringeworthy sentences that Loos was concerned about. But it seriously lays the groundwork for the future of functionalism, and its embrace of machine perfection. Before disregarding this line of reasoning, note what Loos actually does with it.

Roman Osteria (1820) from Pori Art Museum, Finland by Aleksander Lauréus (1793-1823)
Roman Osteria (1820) from Pori Art Museum, Finland by Aleksander Lauréus (1793-1823)

We thus see that the beauty of a useful object only exists in relation to its purpose. There is no absolute beauty for the useful object. “See there, what a beautiful desk!” “The desk? Why, it’s ugly!” “It’s not a desk at all! It’s a billiard table!” Oh, a billiard table. Of course! It’s a beautiful billiard table.” “Look! What a lovely pair of sugar tongs!” “What, you think they are beautiful? I find them abominable!” “But it’s a coal scoop!” Well then, It’s a lovely coal scoop!” “What an exquisite bedroom Mr. X has! (Substitute here the name of the stupidest man you know.) “What? Mr X’s bedroom? And you find that exquisite?” Oh, I’ve made a mistake. It belongs to OberBaurat Otto Wagner, the greatest architect of his time.” “But then of course it is exquisite, in fact.” The most beautiful and picturesque osteria with the most authentic dirt is ugly to anyone except the Italian peasant. And these others are correct as far as they themselves are concerned.

So it goes for every single functional object. Are, for example, the chairs in the Wagner room beautiful? I do not think so because I cannot sit comfortably on them. Probably many others will discover the same thing. But it is perfectly possible that Otto Wagner can sit comfortably in these chairs. Thus in his bedroom, that is, in a room where he does not receive guests, the chairs are beautiful (provided of course that he finds them comfortable). They are shaped like Greek chairs. But over the course of centuries the technique of sitting, the technique of being at rest, has undergone significant changes. It has never stood still. Every nation and every era have done it differently. Positions that for us would be exceedingly taxing for repose (just think of the Orientals) may for others be very practicable. (ibid. 29)

An axiom that beauty is equivocal to perfection is turned into an argument for cultural, temporal, and functional relativism. Now that’s progressive. Even more striking is the argument that the tastes of the public need not enter the private sphere. This amplifies the task that he began in his first discussion of Otto Wagner domestic interiors: they are beautiful because they are perfect for him.

Greek style chair, influenced by discoverys at Pompeii, Winterthur Museum.
Greek style chair, influenced by discoveries at Pompeii, Winterthur Museum.

At present we demand from a chair not only that we may rest while sitting on it, but moreover that we may become rested quickly while sitting on it. “Time is money.” Resting thus had to become a specialized field. Resting after an intellectual endeavour demands a totally different position than resting after outdoor exercise. Resting after doing gymnastics is different than resting after riding a horse; resting after riding a bike differs from resting after rowing a boat. Yes, and what is more, the degree to which one has exerted oneself demands its own particular technique of relaxation.

One can expedite his relaxation by taking advantage of various opportunities to sit down, utilizing one after another, and by finding a number of different attitudes and positions for the body. Have you never felt the need, especially if you are very tired, to hang one leg over the arm of a chair? In and of itself the position is a very uncomfortable one, but sometimes it is a real boon.

In America they are able to take advantage of it anytime at all since no one there would ever consider a comfortable sitting position impolite. There one is permitted to put his feet up on a table if the table is not used for meals. But in this country we seem to find it an affront when our fellow men make themselves comfortable. There are still people who become quite nervous in the presence of someone who puts his feet up on the opposite seat in a train compartment or lies down at all.

The English and the Americans, who are free from such a petty way of thinking, have really perfected the art of relaxation. They have invented more kinds of chairs in the course of this century than the whole rest of the world, including all its various peoples, throughout its entire existence. . . . (ibid, 32)

What surprises me the most though, I must admit, in Adolf Loos is his steadfast championing of the craftsman as a unique contributor to the development of design:

Our carpenters would have thus arrived at the same results if they had simply been left alone and the architects had not mixed in. If the converging of the forms had continued at the same pace as was maintained from the Renaissance up to the time of the Congress of Vienna, then there would be almost no difference between the mentality of a London carpenter and that of his Viennese counterpart. But there is a world of difference between the mentality of the London carpenter and that of the Viennese architect. (ibid, 33)

Recall that Loos’s previous article celebrates Otto Wagner because he can enter into the mindset of the craftsman when designing; in the next few articles, Loos then turns to hypothesize that what has held back Austrian craftsmanship is in fact the existence of schools for craftsmanship.

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