Loos, Adolf. “Ornament und Verbrechen,” Fremden-Blatt, 22 Jan. 1910, 21.
English translation contained in:
Loos, Adolf. and Opel, Adolf. Ornament and crime: selected essays / Adolf Loos ; selected and with an introduction by Adolf Opel ; translated by Michael Mitchell, Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1998.
Long, Christopher. “The Origins and Context of Adolf Loos's ‘Ornament and Crime.’” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 68, no. 2, 2009, pp. 200–223.
“Ornament and Crime” is famous for linking aesthetic waste to physical waste and calling it all a sin. As I understand it, the main argument goes something like this: the production of ornamental utilitarian objects leads to the exploitation of workers through the demands of quick turnover as tastes change. For example, a heavily ornamented desk will fall out of fashion more quickly than one with plain surfaces and clean lines. Workers making ornamental desks will be asked to produce more elaborate desks in less time. This is a crime - the specific crime referred to in the title - if we assume pay remains the same or diminishes against the backdrop of industrial production. (Note the title of the essay is “Ornament and Crime,” not “Ornament Is Crime.”) Other scandalous assertions in this essay, particularly to a 21-century reader: biological imperative linked to the decorative arts, Modernism as a cultural end-point, and the idea that art and craft should be distinct and separate for cultural good.
“The Origins and Context . . . . “ provides a description of the historical aspects of and debates surrounding Loos’ essay. Long places Loos’ essay directly within the debates of the German language architectural press of the early 1900s. We learn that Loos’ ideas were a reaction to the florid Art Nouveau movement, and that the original audience for the essay was already familiar with other similar diatribes for or against ornament. Importantly, we are led to understand “Ornament and Crime” as satire. Also, we are often reminded that Loos was discussing objects - not architecture.
The premise of “Ornament and Crime” operates on many assumptions about product design and the decorative arts that I find questionable, biological imperative notwithstanding. The most glaring being the assumption that an unadorned object is necessarily easier and cheaper to produce than an ornamental one. Also, the article ignores the functional aspects and etymology of ornament. Lastly, the article appears to present several false oppositions that are, ultimately, most likely aesthetic preferences for the author. (Sound familiar?) For example, Loos presents a world in which non-ornament opposes ornament, and the only expression of that particular “non-ornament” is Modernism. Of course. But aren’t we living in a world in which Modernism failed, at least partially? And haven’t Postmodernists and other thinkers shown us that such simple binary structures like the one Loos proposes never really get at the whole truth?
How does this relate to scenography?