27 July 2019
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, translated by Michael Mitchell, Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press.
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 a famously incendiary essay that describes material ornamentation as sinful, backwards and wasteful. 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 eventually 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 that pay remains the same against the backdrop of industrial production. Please note that the title of the essay is “Ornament and Crime,” not “Ornament Is Crime.”
Other scandalous and polemical topics in this essay: biological imperative linked to the decorative arts, Modernism taken out of context and view as a cultural end-point, and the idea that art and craft should be separated from each other 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.
How does this relate to scenography?
This article is of particular importance to the history of material culture, particularly as it relates to modernism. It is relevant to both properties design and costume design, disciplines relevant to the material ornamentation of objects and their history.