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Decriminalizing Ornament

Posted: April 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Raquel Breternitz


            Around 1910 Adolf Loos wrote an essay, “Ornament and Crime,” which argued that a
society’s progress was directly tied to the amount to which it spurned ornament.[1] The essay helped kick off declaration that ornament is crime, a rallying cry and a mantra for the Modernists, who idolized progress over tradition.[2] Unfortunately, many of the ideas of the Modernist movement persist today, and in many cases they no longer apply to the plurastic world in which we live today.[3] Adherence to the idea of “ornament is crime” is fascistic, both from the high Modernists with the excitement of high idealism and from modern-day designers who simply follow its dictum without question, a practice that can result in weaker design.

Inherent in the claim “ornament is crime” is the idea that the claimer believes he knows what is the best approach to design, and places him in superiority to the individual. Fascism requires a collective identity that can be addressed en masse: when a designer attempts to order and control humanity as if one were the very same as the other, the results are often deeply problematic. The Modernist movement has been arraigned for this approach, and many critics cite the examples of Pressac and the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects as Modernist failures. Both projects were designed based on the  idea (from Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier) that the house is a “machine for living;” implicit in this idea is that humans are all the same enough to live in a universalized space, and that we would be okay with living in a machine. Unfortunately, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was razed after socioeconomic problems rendered it nigh unlivable. Interestingly, despite its disparagement, Pressac has not ended in the literal ruins that Pruitt-Igoe did; Ada Louise Huxtable described her pleasant reaction to visiting the complex in 1981 in the New York Times, including her appreciation of Corbusier’s evident mastery of architectural principles. She quotes Le Corbusier as saying “You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong,” describing the statement as “… the recognition of the validity of process over the sanctity of ideology.”  

By these examples we can see the importance for some give and take within the terms of anti-ornament design: Pressac succeeded not only because of Le Corbusier’s creation of a strong underlying structure but also because it was allowed to morph with the community which inhabited it. Huxtable says, “One can read the original features, and then read the way they have been used or assimilated.”[4] But his idea remained, and became part of the Modernist system of beliefs and design that has shaped design practice since, in many cases much more rigidly.

Feasibility aside, you cannot change the world to fit your aesthetic principles, and to attempt it would create disjunctive environments that undermine the entire purpose of the Modernist ideals. The Modernist assumption that their ideals apply (alongside their wish to enact them) universally is arrogant, irresponsible, and ultimately fruitless; people will interact with their objects and spaces on a personal basis, creating new forms of use that designers may never have considered: women put pencils in their hair to hold it together, children will have more fun with the box their Christmas present came in than the toy itself. Part of design is serendipitous discovery. Many good designs also involve shaping human action more subtly, by examining
how humanity works and utilizing that knowledge. An example of this is when the designers who redesigned the ticketing machines for the New York subway hired people to go through the new machines repeatedly so that commuters can watch and mimic, guaranteeing a smooth transition.[5] The human experience is irreducibly complex and no one approach will cover its entirety, nor solve all its problems.

            To make such a blanket statement for design as “ornament is crime” can also shut out important aspects of humanity: individualism, personal expression, and environment. It denies cultural identity, differing traditions, and specific contexts. To their credit, this was in fact the Modernists’ very intention; ornament—from the spires of a cathedral even down to the serifs in their typography—served as a symbol for the history from which they wanted to divorce themselves. Certainly there are those for whom the lack of ornament is a part of their personal expression—after all, it was the Modernists’ way to express their ideals—but their declaration does not and should not apply to everyone. There is also a need to consider that we do not live in a homogenous society, particularly in America. The declaration that “ornament is crime,” along with all the functionalist ideals that go along with it, assume a western worldview that seeks to eradicate cultural tradition. Ornamentation is a deeply important part of many cultures—think just of religious architecture. Loos’s criticism of the “erotic origin” of the cross and his derision of the “Papuan” (which to him symbolized a sub-human) serves an idea of “progress,” tied to the rejection of ornament, that deprioritizes other worldviews. The anti-culture rhetoric of the Modernist movement would raze all cultures, traditions, and individual communities into one, universalized and controlled practice of design.

            When the Modernists scorned ornamentation, it was an act of rebellion against the mores, traditions, and even cultures of the time (though, as aforementioned, still problematic). However, as further generations have continued to adhere to this practice, it has lost even its innovation. The spurning of ornament is no longer a statement or practice being used to break from what’s come before. Rather, it is now a continuation of the past, the exact reverse of what the Modernists were using it to do. No longer a considered choice, it is now just a default. Though the Modernist ideal was to eradicate style, the reality is that their method was no more absolute than any method before it. In fact, Modernism changed dramatically in meaning and priority even within its own lifespan; think of the vast difference between the Bauhaus and the American International Style post-WWII, when ideals shifted to capitalism. In that shift, it became another style, just like every movement before it.

The “modern” look became just that, a look, and as the reasons for spurning ornament left so did the consideration of why ornament was being spurned in design. This resulted in the creation of work that was simply intended to look “modern,” emerging as simply an aesthetic. Many times, these trendy objects can end up functioning less effectively because of the desire to make them fit the ornament-less look, for example, the Marshmallow chair from George Nelson, described by Meikle as incredibly uncomfortable. [6] This prioritization of trend rather than consideration undermines the original purpose of stripping ornament in design and resulting in a lot of trendy and similar-looking products and houses.

The declaration that “ornament is crime” also ignores that ornament can be used functionally, something which had actually been happening during the Modernist movement, albeit unacknowledged. Even Mies van der Rohe, giant of the functionalist architectural movement, added otherwise useless I-beams to his Seagram building (ironically an icon of the American version of Modernism, the International Style) in order to emphasize its verticality. This echoes earlier Chicago school architect Louis Sullivan’s declaration that part of the function of a skyscraper is to appear tall, and his usage of luxurious ornament on the first floor of department-store buildings in order to lure in their target market, upper middle class ladies. There is no need to be ashamed of using ornamentation functionally, and in fact it is a valuable consideration in good design. The aesthetics of a product can function as an element; for example, in order to establish branding identity and/or emotional reaction. Shutting out ornament ignores context and involves less consideration of the material, sometimes putting itself in disjunction with the environment in which it exists. Joost Oosterwijk and Wouter van den Brand say, “It’s through ornament that material transmits its effects.”[7]Taking away ornament removes a layer of complexity of function which includes the more intangible elements that can elevate a design. Designers who reject ornament outright today are creating less considered work and depriving themselves of layers of nuance and meaning that the consideration of ornament in design could afford them.

 It is important to keep declarations such as Loos’s firmly within their historical context. He sent a shockwave through the design community of his time, and induced a movement that changed the design practice significantly. However, after that change, it is ill advised to continue to adhere to the changing agent because the conditions of the world have changed from it; by its very action of changing, it rendered itself obsolete. If we today continue with the “ornament is crime” tradition, we will be denying the reality of our own time, and depriving our generation of our own style and expression within our own unique context.

In 1966, postmodern writer Robert Venturi countered the Modernist companion-mantra to “ornament is crime”, “less is more,” (nearly meaningless from rote repetition) with the declaration “less is a bore.” He argued for using “complexity and contradiction in architecture” (as he named his essay) and hoisted a banner for the post-modern movement and their welcome introduction of whimsy, polemics, historical pastiche, and pop culture into their work.[8] Some of the best communities arise out of an organic interaction with design, as seen in Ada Huxtable’s interaction with Pressac. As she quotes Boudon, “The Quartiers Modernes Fruges were not an ‘architectural failure.’ The modifications carried out by the occupants constitute a positive and not a negative consequence of Le Corbusier’s original conception. Pessac not only allowed the occupants sufficient latitude to satisfy their needs, by doing so it also helped them to realize what those needs were.” Ada’s defense of Le Corbusier falls neatly in hand with Venturi’s defense of ornament as a natural expression of human complexity: “Few architects are capable of making [Le Corbusier’s] observation that “life is right”, because it speaks not to some fixed ideal, but to the complexity and incompleteness of architecture, to how life and art accommodate to each other. And that is what Pessac is really about.”

There is also room to question the supremacy of function in consideration of design: there is a history of polemic design objects whose value is based in the argument they make and the questions they inspire, including such standout examples as the Carlton bookshelf, the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer,Dunne & Raby’s “nervous robots,” and many other designs that toe the line between statement, art, and design. There is occasionally still value in a non-functional object. The discussion of what priorities and problems are being addressed in design today is as valuable to designers as the creation of perfectly functioning objects. We are in a unique position today to both argue and allow the myriad differing priorities and considerations of design that concurrently exist.[9] In the 21st century, at a time when we have access to (and indeed are bombarded with) more information than any generation before, where the blending of cultures, histories, styles, ideas, etc. is in its zenith of occurrence and speed, the adherence to “ornament is crime” feels horrifically outdated, and it’s long since time to shed the skin the Modernists grew and emerge with our own decisions for what we want to consider in our design. We are in a place of choice, where a designer can choose to work wholly functionally, or wholly polemically—and both approaches have a valuable contribution to the dialogue and practice of design.















Works Cited


Crouch, Christopher. Modernism in Art, Design, & Architecture. New York: St. Martin’s Press,



Frampton, Kenneth. "Place, Form, and Cultural Identity." Arcade: Architecture and Design in the

     Northwest, 2001. Accessed April 18, 2011.


Gorman, Carma, ed. The Industrial Design reader. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.


Hustwit, Gary. Objectified. 1999. DVD. London, England: Swiss Dots, 2009.


Huxtable, Ada Louise. "Architecture View; Le Corbusier’s Housing Project –

     Flexible Enough to Endure." New York Times, March 15, 1981. Accessed April 18, 2011.


Jencks, Charles. "The Post-Modern Information World and the Rise of the Cognitariat." In The

    Industrial Design Reader, edited by Carma Gorman, 223-227. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.


Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime. In The Industrial Design Reader, edited by Carla Gorman, 74-81.

     New York: Allworth Press, 2003.


Meikle, Jeffrey. Design in the USA. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Oosterwijk, Joost, and Wouter van den Brand. Architecture, Ornament, and Crime? E-book.


Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In

    The Industrial Design Reader, edited by Carma Gorman, 184-185. New York: Allworth Press,


Carma Gorman, ed., The Industrial Design reader (New York: Allworth

Press, 2003), 74.

Christopher Crouch, Modernism in Art, Design, & Architecture (New York:

St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 10.

Charles Jencks, "The Post-Modern Information World and the Rise of the

Cognitariat," in The Industrial Design
Reader, ed. Carma Gorman (New York:

Allworth Press, 2003), 223-227.

Ada Louise Huxtable, "Architecture View; LE CORBUSIER’S HOUSING

York Times, March 15, 1981, accessed

April 18, 2011

Gary Hustwit, Objectified, DVD (1999; London, England: Swiss Dots,


Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA (New York: Oxford University Press,


Joost Oosterwijk and Wouter van den Brand, Architecture,
Ornament, and

Crime?, E-book.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,
in The

Industrial Design Reader, ed. Carma Gorman (New
York: Allworth Press, 2003),


Charles Jencks, "The Post-Modern Information World and the Rise of the

Cognitariat," in The Industrial Design
Reader, ed. Carma Gorman (New York:

Allworth Press, 2003), page 223-227.