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Adolf Loos Architect.Dandy.Provocateur.

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

He is perhaps most well known for his manifesto Ornament and Crime, which paved the way for modernism. Although he is considered a precursor to modernism rather than a true modernist, much of contemporary interior design can be traced back to his ground breaking work. Loos was the master of crafting multiple spaces of differing heights and scales within a smaller footprint by manipulating the building section to create differently scaled spaces. In fact, one might say he was the originator of the urban loft interior. Yet he never achieved the kind of international fame that le Corbusier and Gropius did.

Architect Provocateur His provocative manifesto “Ornament and Crime”condemned the use of ornamentation in building design which was incredibly radical in 1908. The main target of his disdain was the Art Nouveau movement which at that time, entangled most of Europe in its swirling tendrils. Although he couldn't stand ornamentation on buildings, he was more traditional in his taste in furnishings. Interestingly, and unlike his modern contemporaries who invented their own furniture to work in harmony with the architecture they designed, Loos believed in an interior inspired by “cozy” English homes that was very much at odds with his clean,modern architecture.

Portrait of Loos by Oskar Kokoschka

Before Martha and Gwyneth, there was Loos.

He was born in 1870 in Brno, in the Czech Republic to a working class family. His father was a stone mason who died when he was nine. Despite this humble background Loos went on to become an influential tastemaker, at the center of the intense artistic world of fin de siècle Vienna. (At the turn of the century Vienna gave birth to many artistic movements in art, literature, painting, architecture, even psychology and was seen as the cultural capital of a Europe on the brink of both modernity and war.) He became particularly close to the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Loos had an opinion on everything. He wasn’t just concerned with the home that you lived in, he also wanted to tell you how to dress and what to eat for breakfast. In fact, he may have been the original lifestyle guru.

Adolf Loos wants you to eat your oatmeal.

In 1890 he attended the technical college in Dresden, but never completed the program. He left the school in 1893 to travel to America, which had a profound effect on his life and work. He stayed in America for three years, working various odd jobs and traveling to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. It was in America that he became obsessed with not only the modern, American lifestyle but also, bizarrely, the healthy breakfast of oatmeal. In his collection of essays “Creating Your Home With Style” he advises his readers to follow the "American" example of a family breakfast with apples and oatmeal. Apparently it is oatmeal ”to which all Americans can attribute their energy, the country’s greatness and posterity.”

Kellog's Eggo waffles may beg to differ.

His architecture career began in earnest in Vienna in 1896 when he started working with builder Carl Mayreder. His first solo project, the Café Museum in 1899, instantly caused public outrage due to its lack of ornamentation and cemented his reputation as an architect- provocateur. Despite the uproar over the building, he went on to receive multiple commissions for homes and a large mixed-use retail building on Michaelerplatz. In 1923 he was invited to participate in the design conference in Paris known as the Salon d’Automne and was made a member of the Salon, both tremendous honors.

Of course, as far as this blog is concerned, his most important work was the American Bar in Vienna, naturally. Designed in 1908 this tiny bar is crafted from the most luxurious materials such as onyx, leather and walnut-similar to Philip Johnson's palette at the Four Seasons. The space makes the most of the tiny space, with both intimate banquettes and lots of open seating at the long bar, which takes up most of the space. It is a testament to the modernity of Loos' design and choice of materials, that the bar is still operating and open to the public with almost no change in its decor.

In 1924 the fifty-four year old Loos and his second wife, nineteen year old dancer Elsie Altman, moved to France where they split their time between Paris and the Cote d’Azur. Loos and his wife danced their way through Paris, even taking lessons from Josephine Baker! They were once again at the center of the avant garde artistic community where they were friendly with many of the leaders of the surrealist movement. He became close to Surealist writer Tristan Tzara whose house he designed and built in 1925. He also designed a house for Josephine Baker (don’t worry- she’ll get her own post soon) during this period, but it was never built. He returned to Vienna in 1928 without his wife Elsie, who left him to pursue her dancing career. He went on to design and build a series of modernist villas in Austria and the Czech Republic until 1930 and subsequently died in 1933 at the age of 63.

“What is the value of common sense if you can not reveal it through your attire?” In addition to his obsession with oatmeal, Loos was also very concerned with how people dressed. While he frowned upon “fashion” he felt that everyone should be well-dressed or ”correctly dressed”. He took great pride in his own appearance and felt that everyone else should as well. He was almost always photographed in an immaculate three-piece suit, accessorized by his enormous ear trumpet. (He had severe hearing loss throughout most of his life, so why not make that part of your outfit?) Naturally he wrote extensively on the subject, published in the collection “Why A Man Should Always be Well Dressed”.

Architecture and Crime

It's hard to believe, but Adolf Loos' lifestyle was even more scandalous than his provocative manifestos. He was married three times; first to Lina Obertimpfler for three years, next to Elsie Altmann for eight and lastly to Clair Beck in 1929 for three. In 1928, he was tried and partially convicted of child sexual abuse at the age of 58, but he was not sentenced to prison. His crime was soliciting young girls aged 8-10 from poor families to pose naked for him in his “art studio”. (This is where the lifestyle guru comparison falters...) The indictment stated that he had exposed himself and forced them to participate in sexual acts. YIKES! The bulk of the evidence at the time was a vast collection of child pornography which his first wife, Elsie, claimed were images removed from Theodor Beer’s ( A German naturalist who was also convicted of pedophilia) home in 1905. (Sure Elsie.) The original case record was rediscovered in 2008 and confirmed the accusations. Shockingly, this scandal didn’t seem to stop him from getting commissions. Nor did it cause his fiance, Clair Beck (age 24) to back out of her marriage to the 59 year old Loos. He was also troubled by ill-health throughout his life. In addition to his inherited hearling loss, in 1918 he also had a portion of his stomach and intestine removed due to stomach cancer. Despite sickness, mental illness, and hearing loss he managed to be a prolific writer and architect whose streamlined designs paved the way for subsequent modernists. He remained a control freak until the end, even designing his own grave stone.

Naturally it was free of ornament.

Thirsty For More? Don't forget to check out our Loos' Inspired cocktail here Sources and Notes Beatriz Colemina, Sex, Lies and Decoration: Adolph Loos and Gustave Klimt, Thresholds.31 2010 Christopher Long, Adolph Loos On Trial, Kant Books 2017 Adolf Loos, trans. Michael Edward Troy, Why A Man Should Always Be Well Dressed Metroverlag 2011 Adolf Loos,trans. Michael Edward Troy, How to Decorate Your Home With Style Metroverlag 2011 Adolf Loos, trans,Shaun Whiteside Ornament and Crime Penguin books 2019

August Sarnitz , Loos Taschen books 2003 Frederick J Schwartz, Architecture and Crime: Adolph Loos and the culture of 'The Case', The Art Bulletin 2012 94-3

Want to read more about Loos? Buy these Books!

Classic Loos Designs

Loos-ish For Less


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