Ornament is not Crime
It is innately human to feel the need to ornament one’s surroundings and decorate oneself in order to manifest personal expression. However, it has been argued that such an act by modern man is a “childish symptom of degeneration” . This claim by the Modernist architect, Adolf Loos, fuels his assertion that the “progress of human civilizations can be measured by the degree to which it has spurned ornament.”1 Contrarily, I would argue that a civilization’s progress reflects the degree to which it has embraced and developed ornament, with respect to individual expression and the resulting beauty of cultural diversity.
The age of industry introduced a new aspect to design for consideration that dominated the scope of Modernist theory: efficiency. As an architect of the era, Adolf Loos carried this notion from industrial product design to his architectural approach. Stripping designs of ‘criminal’ décor reflected his famous theoretical essay, “Ornament and Crime”. The essay highlights ornament as a degenerate conviction, which wastes time, human labor, material, and money. Loos’s thesis explains, “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use” and advocates a universal unornamented style for the Modernist period because “we have outgrown ornament.”2 These notions stem from a narrow worldview, which would seemingly project all craftsmen to be a mechanical resource of production, working in factories on assembly lines, rather than human individuals and artists who create for the sake of personal expression. Loos asserts that ornament “commits a crime itself by damaging national economy and therefore its cultural development.” Sacrificing intricacies for the sake of low manufacturing costs is a methodology seemingly based on greed and apathy for the consumer. Granted, Loos does not necessarily advocate corporatist practices, however his apparent value for minimal labor, high revenue, and a universal aesthetic are on the threshold of leaning towards Fascist basics. Fascism seeks a “singular collective identity superior to individualism” based on the economy and corporatist values. Such a system facilitates a degeneration of cultural artifacts in a civilization that, in the future, would be seen as a regressive society, successful only in its ability to make money. History includes ornament as a reflection of cultural idiosyncrasies– something that must exist for the sake of truth in human individualism.
Amidst the section in Loos’s essay in which he iterates his vision of a world universally unornamented, he claims, “soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like…the capital of heaven.” This ideal is somewhat shared by modernist designer, Mies Van de Rohe who coined the popular notion that “less is more” in design. The vision they shared of bland architecture would have appeared to embody a horrifyingly drab existence. Arguing against such visions was a designer named Robert Venturi who asserted that less isn’t more at all, rather, “forced simplicity results in oversimplification…[and] blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.” The idea that ‘less is more’ is not evident in the intriguingly detailed surroundings of the natural world. The intricacies of life are what make life beautiful; similarly, to deprive architecture of intricacy is to deprive it of an evocative sense of life. This reflects Venturi’s favored “messy vitality over obvious unity” . Such unified, unornamented architecture would spurn our need for variety and interest in what we see everyday. Our interaction with our surroundings would be cold and detached and would fail to inspire a vital sense of identity. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown similarly felt that décor in architecture would facilitate the integration of buildings into the “urban realm” and give them “meaning in the eyes of the public.” This notion feeds the endorsement of buildings as “representation”, not just ‘function’.
Removing ornament in religious architecture would disregard thousands of years of tradition. The ornament in/on religious facilities, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, is a sacred element of the function because it is in the beautiful and complex ornament from which the intended holy experience of a sanctuary is drawn. Erasing these details would render any such cathedral as Notre Dame “transparent and dull” (which is antithetical to its function). Religious sanctuaries are not the only buildings in which ornament informs the function. The Seagram building, designed by Mies van de Rohe, incorporated additional i-beams on the building’s exterior to bring attention to the verticality of the building; because they are structurally functionless, they are considered an ornamental addition. Architect, Louis Sullivan said that the function of a building is also to be tall; with this notion in mind, the linear exterior panels are functional in their ability to reinforce the visual height of the building. Ironically, Mies van de Rohe was a modernist architect that shared Loos’s notion of anti-ornament. Here, an anti-ornament idealist proves himself wrong by dabbling in the urge to decorate. In an ideal anti-ornament world like the one Loos outlines, Mies van de Rohe would be blamed for interfering with the degree to which ornament is spurned and thus blamed for interfering with the overall progress of civilization. The Modernists who view ornament as functionless and non-essential make this claim on the basis of only “visible forces” in architecture “(structural, functional, and physical)” and disregard the “invisible forces” that comprise architectural materiality “(cultural, political, and temporal)”. Countering Loos’s claims that ornament “is no longer the expression of our culture” , Farshid Moussavi claims that the progression of architecture is facilitated by new concepts that marry both visible and invisible forces and “manifests itself through new aesthetic compositions and affects.” Ornament becomes an agent for transmitting specific affects as a result of organizing architectural material in a way that unifies function and context.
The modernist industrial designer, Dieter Rams, wrote a more contemporary essay on anti-ornament called “Omit the Unimportant” in which he discussed the necessary rejection of ornament in order to emphasize the function through form in industrial design. Rams authoritative perspective on design, similar to Adolf Loos’s, negates personal expression and seeks universal contempt for anti-ornament. To eliminate ornament in industrial design would be making endless assumptions regarding what everyone likes and that everyone would universally like having the same things. Rams contends that by making product designs neutral and undecorated, the individual consumer would be able to project their own sense of personal expression on to the object. However, to mentally morph a physical object from a bleak form into something that is self-expressive like Rams suggests, is a convenient post rational excuse for deleting personal expression from design. Self-expression is undermined if the individual is the only one who can recognize it; expression is about communicating something to others. Adolf Loos asserts that “ornamented objects appear truly unaesthetic if they have been executed in the best material, with the highest degree of meticulous detail, and if they have required a long production time.” Similarly, Rams rejects the ornamented aesthetic, and claims, “complicated, unnecessary forms are nothing more than designers’ escapades that function as self-expression instead of expressing the product’s functions.” Designing to express function becomes an aesthetic preference that the diverse individuals of the world should be free to select as their mode of personal expression rather than a universally applied aesthetic that negates individualism. Other arguments against omitting the unimportant include William Morris’s notion that “decoration gives someone using something pleasure” and decoration and a sense of novelty excite users when using an artifact. Nevertheless, Rams calls this an “exploitation of people’s weaknesses for visual and haptic signals” . To claim a harmless human outlet of pleasure to be a weakness is pretentious and paradoxical. If the human admiration for visually and haptic sensations is truly weak, then, in terms of a logical fallacy, humans existence is weak; we feed our hungry senses of sight and touch instinctually and incessantly. As well as providing pleasure while in use, ornament enhances the owner’s projected sense of value and worth on the artifact. People tend to maintain things that they deem special, which theoretically counters wasteful obsolescence.
The ideology of omitting ornament from design and to regard decoration as crime is an elitism that undermines personal expression and ignores contextual identity. To value such oppressive dogmatism and a resulting homogenous culture is to regard the cessation of cultural progress, which is otherwise dependent on personal expression and diversity to evolve. The focus of design on utilitarian and functional emphasis in form becomes a style that individuals should be free to choose as their manifestation of self-expression, rather than a set methodology that should be employed by all designers.
Gorman, Carma R., ed. The Industrial Design Reader. New York, NY: Allworth
Loos, Adolf, Ornament and Crime.
Venturi, Rober, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
Rams, Dieter, Omit the Unimportant.
Moussavi, Farshid. The Function of Ornament. N.p.: Actar, 2006.
dictionary.com. Accessed April 17, 2010. http://dictionary.reference.com/.