A Question of Ornament: Owen Jones & Adolf Loos

© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved

Proposition 5: Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. —Owen Jones, one of 34 design propositions in The Grammar of Ornament

Ornament is a crime. —Adolf Loos.

Owen Jones, Plate XLV (detail), Persian Ornament, from The Grammar of Ornament

In the opening paragraph of his The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, Owen Jones (1809-1874) makes the following claim: “From universal testimony of travellers it would appear, that there is scarcely a people, in however early a stage of civiliz ation, with whom the desire for ornament is not a strong instinct.”

In the early 20th century, architect Adolf Loos was to prove him wrong.

Trained as an architect, Jones was a key figure in the history of British design, who in addition to interiors, designed fabrics and wallpapers. In the early 1830s, on a Grand Tour of Europe,  he made a detailed survey of the ornament in the Alhambra, which he published in 1842.   He was a key participant in the Great Exhibition of 1851—this spurred him on to develop a series of style “courts;” rooms displaying different designs and furnishings, as part revamping of the Crystal Palace. Conceived as a companion piece to this project,  The Grammar of Ornament was lavishly illustrated and detailed in its analysis.  This was his manifesto—Jones abhored the mis-use of ornament through constant, but uneducated, repetition and advocated that society “get rid of the acquired and artificial…and develop natural instincts.” The book quickly became the definitive design sourcebook and with it, Jones became a highly-influential “style guru” to generations of successive architects and designers. William Morris/Arts & Crafts Movement, as well as of architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were among his acolytes.

Adolf Loos, Looshaus, Michaelplatz 3, Vienna.

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) is remembered today most for the role he played in fin de siècle Vienna as a vigorous denouncer of ornament. He launched his controversial views in 1897 through a series of published essays, which addressed the excesses of traditional Viennese design, particularly as exercised by the Jugendstil (Austrian Art Nouveau) movement.  These theories culminated in 1908 with the publication of a short essay entitled “Ornament and Crime.” To Loos, the lack of ornament on architecture was a sign of spiritual strength, an aesthetic beauty that only those who lived on a higher level of culture would appreciate. As he expounded in the essay:  “The urge to ornament oneself and everything within reach is the ancestor of pictorial art. It is the baby talk of painting. . . the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”

Although I could not find a reference in Loos’ writings to the Owen Jones work, he must have been familiar with it, it seems likely that it was a part of his early professional education.  Loos’ stance on ornament was like a swift current in the river that flowed from Belle Époque to Modernism. The core (i.e. architectural form) was quickly emancipated from its clothing and jewelry. Le Corbusier considered Loos’ essay as “an Homeric cleansing” of architecture.  Could the Loos manifesto have been a progenitor of the Sullivan’s enigmatic adage—”form follows function” (itself an adaptation of a line of poetry from sculptor and classicist Horatio Greenough)?  I’ll keep searching. . .

Except for the architecturally-literate, perhaps not many today could identify a Loos building, though his legacy is omnipresent in our 21st-century world. Think hard on often you see a post-1920s building with scrolls, figures, floral elements, or, for that matter,  exterior moldings, capitals and cornices, and you will understand the magnitude of acceptance for his ideas. It follows then that the tastefully neutral, textured, but pattern-less interiors, so perennially popular with contemporary designers, are also a Loos legacy, if indirectly through the example of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.  On the other hand, our persistent desire to pattern walls, sofas and pillows (often with historically-mined material) seems to me to be an obvious link to Jones. Some of us like the ornamental, even in the midst of our minimalist world.

Thankfully I say, the two camps still happily co-exist.

The Rabbit Hole

Owen Jones
The Grammar of Ornament

Owen Jones, Textile Reformer

Adolf Loos
Ornament & Crime

Extract—Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture by Joseph Mascheck


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