Hands Cannot Contemplate: On Ornamentation and Not Leaving Furniture Alone, Pt. II

In my last post, I defended the value of ornamentation in furniture-making, and also introduced the architect Aldolf Loos’ famous 1910 polemic, “Ornament and Crime,” in which he propounded that – you got it – ornamentation was bad.

Here’s one redeeming thing about Loos’ proclamation, though. By glorifying pure form, he was condemning an awful turn-of-the-century factory culture. One that appropriated countless variations of traditional, culture-specific craft ornamentation – then figured out how to industrially stamp or impress those patterns onto bowls, wallpaper, dress hems, and all the other everyday items with machines in a form of “surrogate art” or “add-on intarsia.” As the architect Ingeborg Rocker puts it:

Loos’ critique responded to the increasing alignment between ornament and fashion, which sought to encourage consumption beyond actual need. Slightly altered versions of the same goods were successively produced so that a model’s age could be easily detected, and fashion worked to create such slight differences, often displayed in the easily ornamented surfaces of consumer goods. These surface alterations rendered fully functional objects from prior seasons obsolete. Thus ornament was produced neither as an individual, artistic expression nor for aesthetic reasons but rather to stimulate consumption through the creation of arbitrary difference.” 1

In fact, Loos blamed ornamentation itself for spurring the planned obsolescence of cheap products that he was swimming in during the heyday of the second Industrial Revolution. At one point in the essay, he caustically remarks, “A consumer who has his furniture for ten years and then can’t stand it any more and has to re-furnish from scratch every ten years, is more popular with us than someone who only buys an item when the old one is worn out. Industry thrives on this. Millions are employed due to rapid changes. This seems to be the secret of the Austrian national economy; how often when a fire breaks out one hears the words: ‘Thank God, now there will be something for people to do again.’ I know a good remedy: burn down a town, burn down the country and everything will be swimming in wealth and well-being. Make furniture that you can use as firewood after three years and metal fittings that must be melted down after four years because even in the auction room you can’t realize a tenth of the outlay in work and materials, and we shall become richer and richer.”2

In seeking to put decoration and ornament in their places, Loos hoped to jaundice his readers’ attention against mass-produced knock-offs and the businesses that made them. Factories that hoovered up centuries of carving and lace and printing patterns that Northern European craftspeople had developed in order to hawk their cheap imitations on oodles of baskets or wainscoting or whatever.

This is, by the way, not to excuse how Loos also much more troubling, misapplies evolutionary theory to art throughout the essay, arguing – for example – that South Pacific tattooing practices demonstrated an “unadvanced” aesthetic, and that his Austrian preference for the absence of ornament bespoke something essential about European “superiority.” That’s ethnocentric and racist nonsense. And by demeaning ornament and championing avant-garde painting and sculpture instead, Loos also unfortunately further perpetuated an all-too-familiar myth: that traditional crafts that incorporated significant ornamentation (particularly traditionally “feminine” crafts like lace-making, weaving, and knitting) were unserious forms of art.

This is nothing new. As the Canadian art critic John Bentley Mays wryly observed in the mid-80s, art critics have never paid as much attention to craft. “Hands,” he muses, “cannot contemplate; and the creation of works for disinterested, hands-off contemplation has traditionally been a central concern of all Modern art production . . . Modern art itself, in all its variety, is proof that the historically anti-hand, anti-craft strategy continues to be radical and greatly rewarding.”3 (The recent mania for NFTs—disembodied virtual art that exists in an entirely disembodied space, .jpgs “owned” by some rich blockchain bro as an investment—only proves his point.)

Loos’ campaign against ornament in favor of “timeless form,” of course, ironically turned asceticism into another time-bound aesthetic. As Rocker points out, “the rejection of ornament turned bareness itself into ornament.”

If you don’t believe me, hop on over to Design Within Reach or West Elm or peruse the furniture aisle of Target or Wal-Mart or your local furniture megamart. You’re not going to see much Chippendale-inspired carving. The mass furniture-makers of the 21st century are more than happy to supply unadorned, geometrical purity to American consumers, because it favors the bottom line and because midcentury modern-inspired – or at least simple – furniture continues to be the kind people buy these days. Or that they can afford. And it’s not because they’re picking simplicity for simplicity’s sake for religious reasons, like the Shakers did.

This kind of furniture doesn’t need to be the kind you make, though. The vocabulary of carved elements, marquetry panels, weird inlay, chip carved panels, painted motifs (like in Pennsylvania Dutch chests, as Jim McConnell detailed in his article in Issue Six of M&T), and other ways in which woodworkers have refused to let a piece rest “as is” testify to both human ingenuity and skill. Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (1856) or 18th-century pattern books, as Bill Pavlak’s classic M&T article explores, are a bottomless mine of motifs to riff on in your own work while also putting yourself into conversation with the past. And, if you do include these elements in your work, don’t worry about making them perfect.

Or, if you really do want your ornament to be a sign of our time, why not try inlaying some 20th- or 21st-century line permutations, the kind of algorithmically generated digital geometry that artists like Max Bense or Georg Nees pioneered with their “information aesthetic”?

Do it entirely by hand, if you want to make some deeply ironic and hilarious furniture.

After all, hands, in fact, do some of our best thinking, despite what Loos’ acolytes might claim. So keep yourself busy and add more stuff to the thing you’re building.

-Cameron Turner 


1 Ingeborg M. Rocker. “Signs of Their Time: Calculated Formal Excesses of Digital Ornament, Part I.” Log. Fall 2012, No. 26. 87-96.

2Adolf Loos. “Ornament and Crime.” 1908.

3John Bentley Mays. “Comment.” American Craft. Vol 45, No. 6. Dec. 1985/Jan. 1986. 38.


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