This post marks the first installment of a new Imprint series about the intriguing visual archipelago that is pattern. Why and how do patterns—polka dots, stripes, and all their filigreed and more complex cousins—beguile us? What is the range of conflicting and buried meanings that individual patterns can convey? Pattern cuts across disciplines—art, design, and science, to name a few—and reveals often thrilling intersections along the way.
I took Adolf Loos’s famous 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” with me on a recent family beach vacation—a perfect choice, it turns out, as “family beach vacation” is one of those irony-rich paradoxes requiring stockpiles of distracting reading material. Armed with a vehement, not-quite-perfectly-argued text by a grumpy Austrian Marxist, I was ready.
It’s satisfying to finally read for yourself those hoary texts that people in design love to quote and re-quote. I cracked open Loos as a skeptic: going in, I believed (and I still do) that ornament isn’t automatically vile. But what separates good ornament—or pattern—from evil? And what, if anything, can a fresh reading of Loos tell us today?
Despite 20th-century attempts to systematically purge it of pattern, design is again filigreed, infiltrated, and punched-up by the creeping tendrils of ornament. While pattern can still signal the twee, the effete, the imperialist, and the degenerate—all the old criticisms Loos levies against it—judicious use of pattern reveals its potential to be forceful, evocative, multivalent, and rich.
Today, the design community positively effervesces with pattern-making and delectation of same. The pattern-renaissance I first explored in Print in 2009 is by now in full and unapologetic flower. Pattern-swapping and -creation via social media and aggressively inventive wallpapers (of the old-fashioned kind, not your computer desktop) have progressed apace—more on those in a future post. This fall’s fashion runways are addled with graphic stripes, flowers, and dots. True to its rhizome-like nature, the proliferation of pattern goes on and on.
But my curiosity about pattern runs deeper and broader than putting a recent trend into perspective. If you pry off your modernism glasses and peer clearly at the idea of pattern today, what exactly does it say to us? Is there a semiotics of pattern, a tangled system of meanings embedded in visual signs? Do polka dots convey a certain personality, a shimmer of meanings suggested by their shape, their cultural uses, their layered contexts? I think they do—but almost nobody is trying to parse that visual language. Those are the questions I’ll be tackling in this occasional series.
But let’s get back to Loos, shall we? “Ornament and Crime” is a fascinating read, a spitting-mad manifesto that rolls thunderously along, studded with occasionally brilliant insights (“all art is erotic”) and eye-rollingly wild prejudices. To pluck just one from a short text: Loos equates a Papuan’s intelligence with that of a toddler, reserving adult status for Voltaire and his European ilk. Loos’s racism is so stark, it simply Xes itself out as you read—it’s too galling to credit otherwise. Antediluvian gems like these, though, still prompt a chuckle: “If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder.”
The essay is brief, illuminated by incendiary railing against something Loos felt was visually pernicious, and totally worth a read. For the cheat-sheet crowd, here some of Loos’s key points with my exceedingly modern reactions:
Pattern appeals only to degenerates and plutocrats, aiding the latter’s control of the former.
Here is Loos’s biggest beef with ornament. Modern man, he writes, should be freed of desiring ornament—a buzzing, debased desire that clouds the already-dull thinking of tribal peoples and lowly craftsmen. Ornament is a crime because it’s erotic, needlessly luxuriant, fatuously holy, a dim-witted version of more sublime art. “After the toils and troubles of the day we [aristocrats] go to Beethoven or Tristan,” writes Loos. “This my shoemaker cannot do.”
Modern takeaway: more pattern, more desire, please! So much deadly-clean modernism could badly use some enlivening. I’m sure all of us have strolled into an apartment decorated in fervid religiosity by a Mad Men purist who lacked the courage or wit to stray from its visual severity. I’m a card-carrying sucker for the Bauhaus, it’s true, but its poker-faced quality can certainly pall if unrelieved. (Is Apple not simultaneously a minimalist design hero for our age, and one of the most humorless companies in existence?)
The fresh challenge: to apply pattern in a way that startles the eye into roving, that enlivens a surface with curiosity. How impossible is it to create a pattern that propels a still image, a deadened set of vectors, back into living motion? Not impossible, just rare.
Pattern wastes labor and human capital.
“Ornament is wasted labor and hence wasted health,” Loos writes. “If I pay as much for a smooth cigarette case as for an ornamented one, the difference in the working time belongs to the laborer.” Loos’s laborers cling to ornament proudly, but are rarely compensated for the added effort and skill required to produce it. It’s this waste, Loos argues, that constitutes ornament’s chief crime.
It’s true that consumers’ penchant for ornament waxes and wanes, and the price-tag fluctuates along with it. However, Apple’s example demonstrates another clarion-bell truth of good design now: the ruthless reduction of bells and whistles actually consumes more labor now than the opposite. And that labor can hardly be considered wasted or unrecompensed. The era that coined the phrase “feature-creep” is one that recognizes the need to purge excess details, Loos-style: message heartily received.
Building a lovely pattern using computers differs greatly from the work-style of Loos’s shoemaker, who must belabor the scallops and whorls in leather by hand. There are few shortcuts in gorgeously detailed handiwork; that’s why it equals luxury today. Modern takeaway: smart, beautiful pattern can command a higher price, but achieving a great pattern is certainly labor-intensive, a tortuous path where additional detail may or may not translate into excellence. Ornament’s relation to labor is trickier now than in Loos’s day.
Pattern promotes consumer desire and capitalist churn.
“How often do we hear someone say after a fire, ‘Thank God, now there will be work for people to do again,’” Loos writes. “In that case I know a splendid solution. Set fire to a town, set fire to the empire, and everyone will be swimming in money and prosperity again.” (Trying reading that bit aloud in a crowded TSA line at LaGuardia.) Loos’s point: Ornament makes people tire of their still-useful goods quickly, fomenting unnecessary purchases based on ever-changing fads.
Shades of two key consumer-products figures flickered to mind as I read this: Raymond Loewy, the iconic midcentury product designer (whose credits include the Shell logo and Lucky Strike, among others), and Edward Bernays, the father of “public relations,” Freud’s nephew-in-law, and the focus of the fascinating documentary Century of the Self. “Industrial design keeps the customer happy, his client in the black and the designer busy,” wrote Loewy—a quote that curdles if read in light of sustainable design today.
Would we point the finger at pattern for our modern disposable product churn? Yes. No. Sometimes. You could just as quickly blame color, or tempting shapes or sizes—any of the attributes of a successfully alluring design. Now we recognize that good design stokes an itch to purchase, but also satisfies it—by making a product you’re loathe to replace. It also extends the proliferation of quite a lot of momentarily desirable junk. Again, the crime of ornament is harder to adjudicate now.
Racism aside—and that’s a big setting-aside, mind you—the biggest crime in Loos’s argument may be simply taking a purist manifesto too literally and too far. But it’s bracing; it rattles you by the shoulders; it’s strong reading, which is never terrible in my view. Some of Loos’s lessons should never be unlearned; some of them still elude full achievement; some of his calculations have changed ineluctably since a century-plus of industrial production, followed by a computing revolution, has immeasurably changed our relationship to handicraft.
That just scratches the surface of my latest obsession, pattern. Tune in again next month as we plumb deeper.
Matthew Pashkow’s Inspirability: 40 Top Designers Speak Out About What Inspires is now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.