Carlo Mollino
Domus, 237 and 238, 1949

"The superfluous, a most necessary thing" - Voltaire

Every act reveals its author, every work is made in the image and likeness of he who made it, be it thing, man or animal.
In the beginning there was divination; as the customs, nests, lairs or shells of animals were born, so were born from man the ceremonies and laws, the houses, clothes, weapons and every device for communicating, building, transporting: extensions of himself in order live and assert himself and to moreover enjoy this assertion.
Extensions of his taste, taste that is nothing more than the individual or collective way of reacting to the particular conditions of existence, as lead and chalk react with a different result to the primordial condition of gravity.
Persistence or variability of the internal or external conditions, broadly speaking, create a sum particular qualities, preferences and sensibilities that are continuously changing which is precisely taste in its becoming. Like all definitions, that of taste also has indistinct boundaries where the characterization of a being is inseparable from the way of being or wanting to be, act, think and desire.
The aim of these remarks is to characterize the borrowed reflections between a particular taste of internal architecture, that is of that extension which is the setting, furnishing included, and the related society in its life of grandeur, misfortunes, miseries and ambitions. Without any attempt at aesthetic criticism. Like all schematic itineraries, this one also suffers still from legitimate judgements, subjective amputations and generalizations. Exactness is on an asymptote, at the infinity of approximation, there where every story falls silent, useless, now in concurrence with reality itself.
Unlike the rest of the population, a native chief of the Philippines lives and sleeps raised above the ground in a hut that is particular and distinct. The "outside" of this eminent habitation bears the mark of his dignity with a sort of deckchair (2), this too raised from the ground and made for "tandem" use: to the guest is reserved the same honor as to the chief, namely to raise themselves up and lie down on this form that is functional (for him) and decorative at the same time.
On the door of the habitation are displayed in order, perhaps chronological, the "family arms", or rather the effect of these: a series of heads (3). The "division" of this coat of arms in progression is indicative of almost always the same: "woe to he that touches me". In the case in question the assertion of self works across an immediate and persuasive symbol, without excuses, euphemisms or references to higher authorities such as God, Honor, the Emperor or similar recurring forms of honor codes or boastful credit.
Altogether different is the organization of dignity expressed in the settings of the most famous Western civilizations. In the open hierarchy of the rooms of a Roman house (4), order, clarity and perpendicularity make for a decoration without nuances of tone and of straightforward color: a setting of "representation". Already in the atrium the "clients" (footmen, mediators, accomplices and petitioners) and anyone who moves in the world of the "master" is psychologically effected by the spacial and decorative rigor of the scene. This classic scenography has the same function, although in inferior architectural forms, among current corporate heads or similar positions, regarding a nearly identical sort of "clients".
So too in the intimacy of the bedrooms and in the triclinium (5) there is dignity and strength ordered without softness; nature is admitted without abandon. In these settings one does not dream, there is no place for introspection in emptiness; the essence is action and the goal. One may end up in an orgy, but it will be a robust one.
Having become pesky and "anguished", this practical and decisive society will at a certain point even ban philosophers, carrying out a preventative mass expulsion. The cellular expansion of this leviathan future right of conquest and consequent killings, are legitimatized through an admirable mechanism which gives to the conquered the illusion of a social order in common with the winner, almost as though the army operated within a colossal charity institution given structure by that not less admirable architecture that is "Roman law". An organizational elephantiasis that in the end, having gotten out control, will be the beginning of ruin. Due to different factors, but due to an almost analogous phenomenon, the beginning of the crisis of the 19th century will take place, that of inventions, discoveries, Progress and all the rest.
It should be observed that the diplomatic classical recourse is the norm every time it is necessary to demonstrate or imposes a principle of authority or of order that one wishes to be unquestionable; just think of the architecture of banks, ministries and government buildings in general, from the atria to the halls, down to the legs of the desks, both in democratic as well as in totalitarian regimes, not least of all the Soviet Union. Of this latter, in the impossibility of documenting the desks, I will limit myself to recalling the stateliness of current directives aimed at making Colosseum out of every government building, and again the candid zeal of making them a choice and counterproductive object of propaganda.
The organism and civilization of Roman houses, submerged by the chaos of the barbarian invasions, will remain forever destroyed. A less order perfect, but functional and biologically articulated quite differently, will gradually arise at the end of the 17th century to reach its conclusion only in bourgeois apartment of the modern age.
For now (800 A.D.) Isolde the blond, "sweet music that through her eyes penetrates the heart", King Mark her husband and Tristan her lover of a love which transcends the law of men, and still ministers, courtiers, servants and jesters snore under the ceiling of a common "room", with well-known and obvious consequences. Even the royal palace is a covered encampment, permanent and fortified, though sumptuous. In the "room" of the Merovingian and Carolingian texts, everything in life occurs, one between the feet of another, among furs, hanging cloth, chests, weapons and sleeping pallets, quite secure however is the hierarchy of the table.
The serenity of a universe of only material, expressed in the concluded space of classical taste, will be transcended with fervent humility by the Gothic in the mystical aspiration of the infinite of the Gothic cathedral.
With the world of material, and thus that of the senses, mortified, the home of man will instead be a provisory incident of earthly passage; its layout becomes empirical, irregular and fragmentary despite its being done with that minute and ornate practice which it happily undergoes (6). The furnishings too will be incidental, portable and undifferentiated baggage that functions in virtue of the servant who is a living piece of furniture, a "prop master" and "bearer of": squires, cupbearers, shoe fasteners, lightbearers, wisemen and troubadours in function of the traveling library.
The "chest" (safe, lock box) situated in a sparse order, is the principal furniture of these adventurous furnishings (7). The bed is straw pallet laid out on chests that over the centuries turned into a "platform", a bed that is still barbaric, the memory of sleeping on baggage and having to place, except for one's sword, ones possessions and needs under the bed. The cloths were draped over chairs at the moment, likewise provisory, they hang in folds along the stone walls, blow in the wind when a draft enters, act as partitions and again, made new, wrap around the bed like a camping tent (8); symbol and necessity to finally isolate oneself in a perimeter of new modesty and intimacy quite different from that of the "proprietary" sort of Greek women. In the 11th century Love is invented: the Gothic woman is angelicized and armored; when she appears nude, painted on walls to allegoric ends, she is seen as a pale and strange animal violated by the light, very embarrassed despite wanting to appear relaxed. Excluding once again any aesthetic judgement, the comparison arises spontaneously with that encyclopaedic idealization, born from the daily visual exercise rather than the tactile or imaginative of Greek sculpture.
Some similar aspects and others in contrast, singularly expressed by the house, present a civilization of equal latitude, but nearly at the antipodes.
Japanese houses are the image of a society less dynamic than that of Rome, immune to the worries of the otherworld and likewise to the misfortunes causes by hegemonic races and expansion.
The above consideration is valid until that day, perhaps unfortunate, on which Japan, after having in 1624 closed the door in the face of the Jesuits and the rest of the West, reopened it in 1854.
Already at the entrance to the house (9) a clear rhythm of light fifths announce the magical possibility of retiring into a society as perfect as an egg, where every material contingency has disappeared or rather has been transfigured into grace, without the slamming of doors and the chronic discords of time, without speed apart from the fabulous kind of dragons. These spaces, modulated by the "standard" dimensions of the mats, seem isolated in space and free from the constraints of gravity; the decorative unity already seems to exclude any hierarchy between high and low (10). Leave your shoes at the door, the Japanese (the cleanest people in the world) enter into an interior where the feet become as respected as the hands; animal and happy spirit, reflected in the untouchable proportions of an essential geometric harmony, constant in its mobility.
A house that is a box of surprises, a place of the most changing settings and furnishings. A light scenography of portable and sliding frames transforms the settings, it separates them, it creates reception halls or reduces that along with the change of seasons, states of mind, ceremonies or daily household "events"; every domestic operation is in fact a ceremony and event; together they change the figurations on the walls, the furnishings and fittings, the variety of flowers; the furnishing is in a continuous and calm state of becoming like in a fairy tale. When it is inconvenient, the furniture, real furniture, disappears into the wall. Having reached the famous "harmony with nature" (11), in peace with one's neighbor and oneself, this Japanese man contemplates and functions without material or mystical anxieties. The beauty of his house, born from the idyllic encounter between freedom and interior discipline, the secret of a society, has enchanted and deluded the West on a quest for a model of hedonistic escape from its daily hell. As we shall see, from the beginning of the 20th century, and not only from Wright and the related "organic architecture", but from an entire crowd of architects, the Japanese house will be more or less openly dreamed of (12). Regarding this it would be opportune to add some observations that will perhaps dispel this illusion of a perfect world and of a possible model for Western anxiety.
The settings depicted, that are the norms of a class, date from 1550-1600, when a system that was impeccable in terms of its domestic organization governed this magical and most isolated island of these enigmatic and docile class leaders.
These refined houses, in ecstatic and linear simplicity, are the dwellings of a "Japanese man" who can be identified only as a feudal lord, with the "daimio" and again with the emperor and related courtiers.
The people live like frogs in the rice fields, or rather they "exist" (and removed from existence) only in function of the dominant caste which has the right of life or death over them, which imposes onto them a "bourgeois division" and with this eleven hours of daily work as well.
From an ethereal and dreamy caste of lotus eaters, disdainful of ambition and conquest, the reflection of a house for semi-gods was born, the poetry of nature with almond trees and more blossoming, the prodigious paintings made of breath, the grace of poems as long as a satisfied and peaceful sigh.
For the joy and security of this house there is to be found the origin of the "musmè", a living doll trained, or rather made, with that aim in mind, and of course the "samurai", literally chosen through generations and special nutrition and finally trained, I do not know through what suggestions, to blind obedience and easy death, a gigantic watchdog armed and defended like a lobster.
In the West, in a house nearly coetaneous, we find a setting that's quite different, but just as magical (13). In the "Dream of Saint Ursula" it is a space divided in a most serene order, without hours and time. Carpaccio furnishes this room with an atmosphere of dreams and suspension that for him is quotidian. An aura already prepared by a naval regime without serious problems or anxieties.
Venice is the peaceful center of Northern Italy; not even the Church can disturb the peace and the Inquisition, for all of its ominous presence, is skillfully eluded. Saint Ursula dreams in a setting that is a subtle encounter of the Gothic with the sweet elegance of Florence, in the happy instant of a civilization where even saints and madonnas are fables in the color of daily life.
When a society, pushed by the biological imperative of self-preservation, goes by its own virtue and fortunes from poverty and fear to leisurely security, a new conception of the world rises simultaneously.
I suppose that each one of us, at least once in our lives, has observed this phenomenon in person. And we can again observe it in the (ambivalent) cause and effect elements of the Renaissance. The anguish of sin and divine sanction "pass away", the principle of authority (ipse dixit) falls; man feels himself to be his own maker, the maker of his fortunes and of his dignity and as such he represents himself in the world with the affirmation of his personality, prestige and love of glory. Man and the world, instead of being transcended in the infinity of divine mystery, are rediscovered in the limit of a new order of a finite measure, of autonomy and human grandeur. The fabulous "models" of the buried grandeur of Greece and Rome, always living under the ashes, are now of coinciding taste, and so are treated in the light of Humanism; additionally, as is only natural, one sees the flowering of modern utopias (Thomas More).
The emphasis is on the impeccable and canonized form; the house becomes palazzo, and, despite not having a cupola, it will essentially be like that of God. The interior space, no longer subordinated, continues the exterior; in a representative function of order, architecture enters into the house and becomes total and finished beauty (14).
The furniture in turn sets itself into the spatial composition with the setting, architecture within architecture where the frescoed vaults are pagan heavens descended into the house and onto the walls, among the "order" of the settings and the pilasters open up the figurations of pagan myths in which no one believes and are nothing other than a pretense for beauty and celebrative metaphors of the dignity of the master of the house.
It is then that the padded high chair (seggiolone) is born. Along with the reception room the bedroom becomes the focus of an apartment that is most rich, but, in the precise sense of the term, inexistent, insofar as it is made up of a string of places of "representation", the staircase included. "Apartment" is properly only the bed, which, between curtains columns and canopies, during the day will became a throne from which it will be customary for one to receive guests and visits while lying down, decorated more than dressed.
Meanwhile to the north Martin Luther contemplates and prepares the Reformation; the pomp of Rome is by now far from the evangelical ideal.
In what could be his room, like that of Dürer (15-16), his friend and fellow active participant in the Reformation, a conviction takes hold of us and invests us. In these settings there is scruple and fervor of life from the knotty wood; sure and without weakness the inhabitant here digs in his heels and might even decide to burn a bull of excommunication. The edges enter into one's sides and the chair backs are made of bars; there are pillows, it's true, but without fear of being wrong I can guarantee that they are padded with corn leaves. A minimal sense of complacency and softness in the guest would be enough for him to judge this "study" uncomfortable indeed.
With basely psychological layouts as scandalous as they are verifiable, I might now elucidate a continuity in the evolution of the taste High Renaissance to then reach dynamic and delirious pomp of the Baroque and finally close with its shattering in the playful affectation of the Rococo, in the Arcadian reaction or in the Neoclassical frost.
The Faustian adventure of Western man, of settlement and universal dominion over the earth, in virtue of his senses and intellect, evolves with the Baroque age, in drama; an age restless for a paradise perhaps lost along with a thirst for the infinite. The classical and static serenity of the line and the circle are substituted by the dynamic of the broken, the oval and the hyperbola. It is significant that the common term of hyperbola used for the geometric figure leaping at the infinity of the asymptote is also that of the rhetorical figure (hyperbole) that with the metaphor will be the instrument of the Baroque taste.
The house is the seat and scene of that spectacle which is man now unlinked from dogma and canon, illusory scenography of unexpected prospects, pictorial exaltation of matter and space. It should be noted that artifice is used for the expressive ends of an exaltation of a man who still believes in himself and not as an scenic escape into a world that does not belong to him.
Grave and haughty in conventional relations with the exterior, the Baroque façade contrasts with the pomp of the spectacle that greets those admitted into the interior; this is a contrast born of the encounter with the "hidalgo" of the house. From the monumental staircase dissolved into perspective ascent, the arcade is likewise born (17). The dimensions of the setting transcend human scale: they are of a man three meters tall. Every extension, costume and fitting is set for the prestigious celebration of the greatness of the owner; together with high heels for men, the odd wig and the walking stick, the ornate columns taller than the owner, and the birth of the armchair as well. The bed is isolated in an alcove, a room inside a room, the four poster bed hovers among plumes, spiral columns and caryatids (18). The furniture is embellished, but it also becomes specialized in filing (chests, drawers); we are at the prelude to the era of bureaucracy, of "many papers", of the modern inflation of communication. The cabinet, ancestor of the desk with drawers and frontal compartments, embellished with precious materials, indeed considered as "precious" object in of itself, will be the craze of the époque: Cardinal Mazzarino, schemer and intriguer, will upon his death have the bad taste to leave (in addition to 125 million in gold) seventeen of them to his heirs.
The cabinet, in its tiny and ornate versions as well, will still be the most adored, precious and expressive toy of the Rococo.
It is the taste of a society, or rather of a nobility turned courtiers by this point living in an aquarium of exquisiteness; from here the rest of humanity is seen merely as a world of beings whose fate is to be lamented even, but who are almost not, by their very nature, to be considered human. The parallel springs immediately to mind with that equally refined caste of Japanese civilization, which, not by chance, I discussed at length above.
Voltaire himself considers with the tranquility of a naturalist this fauna: "Il me parait essentiel qu'il y ait des grueux ignorants" ("It seems to be me essential that there be some ignorant beggars"). The home becomes a suspended limbo, gilded and padded, multiplied among mirrors and flourishes (19-20). Grace and affectation of minute things, minuets, harpsichords, Chinoiserie "bibelots", caprices and intrigues, skeptical and elegant complications are Il Giorno (Translator's note: The Day, a satirical poem by Giuseppe Parini about a day in the life of a young aristocrat) of a class without political ideals or civic commitments. Representation in delirious metaphor is replaced with conversation; the perspectives of cycloptic halls with an apartment articulated with sitting rooms, boudoirs, and again in alcoves that are "coffers" removed from the dressing room. Greenhouse, orangeries and lemonaries, nature tamed and domesticated, become halls for parties and pleasures.
The entire setting is nothing more than a "fixed" piece of furniture; the furnishing is incorporated, emanating from the walls. The real furniture become minute once again and tend towards sparse order: objects of daily use, cases, although very precious ones.
With the eighteenth century one can say that the series of modern furniture is complete: in addition to the cabinet and to the variety of writing desks, we see the carefree birth of armchairs, lounge chairs, commodes, bureaux and the love seat: two armchairs attached together, a gallant variation on the chaise-longue; and finally, there is the birth of the famous canapé. Fortunately and obviously the portable radio is missing, and, I believe in homage to good taste among so much frivolity, the portable or worse the "mini-bar".
The adventure of autonomous man in nature, strong only in his intellect, continues. The universe is enlarged, science and the scientific method (Galileo) open up Fata Morgana perspectives, rational and illusorily achievable.
The grandeur of nature discovered by science and reason, will later be the motivation behind that taste for the infinite, panic and naturalism (Rousseau), which in the end will resolve itself in the spirits of romanticism. And it is with evident contradiction that Enlightenment rationalism and romantic irrationalism, first in succession, than contemporaneously, will form as a dyad the most disturbing rift of our time.
A particular aspect will be clearly revealed by the taste in the home: the dualism between reality and dream, the desire for escape and the consequent scenery.
The neoclassical will be the optimistic principal of it all. From the Enlightenment and the Encyclopaedia, we have the first example of cultural style which is to say the prelude to romantic eclecticism; and the neoclassical is essentially romantic, as with every case where the prefix "neo" appears (21).
It is the imposing and nearly instantaneous crystallization of the taste and therefore of the culture of the Enlightenment. I say nearly, because between the elegant play of the sensiblerie of the eighteenth century and the ostentatious neoclassical composure, there is an interim of waiting and compromise, that is to say Louis XVI (22), the equivalent of that cautious and pasteurized aristocratic Enlightenment (Fénelon's ideal of the "enlightened prince") and related simulacra of reforms which, as we know, nearly always end up being the opposite, as for example that of decapitation.
From the spirit of definitive revision of the position of man in the world, scientific and enlightened by rationality, one with a refusal of every dialectic that does not operate on the basis of facts, the illusion is born of ordering everything, knowing everything; it is the distinct being of petits Larousses.
Linnaeus classifies insects, Winckelmann creates archeology, Paestum, Herculanum (1738) and Pompeii (1763) are discovered, and with Lessing the "eternal laws" of art are identified in the beauty of Greece and Rome, once for all time; again the illusion of having measured and rationally catalogued "absolute beauty". Among "consoles", "tribunes" and "Phrygian" caps the ideal model for the new order and dress is ready; a culture that is always on schedule. The "Committee for Public Health" discusses whether clothing should be Greek or Roman and charges David with creating the figurines for the new democratic Olympus. For the first time in history a style is rationally developed and put in circulation for the use of a triumphant class: the Third Estate.
In the house of the bourgeoisie as well, aware of its conquered rights, will have a style of its own and will begin a performance destined to last, though the most various of scenes and dramas, up to today and beyond, into the centuries. The people follow fashion: "Pas une petite-maîtresse, pas une grisette qui ne se décore le dimanche d'une robe athénienne... pour se dessiner à l'antique ou du moins égaler Vénus Callipyge" (Not one elegant young woman full of affectations, not one coquette who does not decorate herself on Sunday in an Athenian dress... in order to approach antiquity or at least equal Venus Kallipygos” (Mercier).
And the neoclassical will be precisely "décor" which will have its immediate effects on fashion and furniture. More realistic than the king, it enters with a hieratic step into the houses done up in marble clarity, it measures and frames geometric spaces and with a reserve as false as it is pungent it distributes palms, antefixes, rose windows, winged victories, crowns, caryatides.
The sleigh bed, psyché, Agrippina or Récamier sofa, three legged table, swinging mirror, console, clocks like a mausoleum, are among the reasons for that gloomy vein for which the usual textbooks have dispensed with neoclassicism with well-known commonplaces: an absence of élan, muted coldness, lack of originality and so on.
Decorative and linear, but in a closed form, the neoclassical setting does not extend in between light and shadow into space, but instead flatly and with a scenography that is designed rather than pictorial; and with this?
There is in fact new clandestine vitality pulsing under the mask of Hellenic severity; funereal and exciting are mixed to the point of an encounter between a scene of impassable bourgeois reserve and the heritage of an era of extreme refinement: austerity in function of coquetry. The risky step of a "merveilleuse" reveals that the "robe attaché par le ceinture à la hauteur des seins" (André Blum) shows the cleavage at the height of the garter; and still significative is the dissimulated functionalism of neoclassical furniture: the impassible dignity of the object of art, temple, colonnade, has its secrets and surprises. The walls of the temples break down, the columns rotate, the decorative palm leaves and the metallic friezes reveal a comfort not presumed (22). At the moment of the Empire the ideals of Greece and Rome are ready and well tested; from its enthusiastic "order" the neoclassical becomes the imperial style, the style of the state, indeed of Europe (23), which ratifies in new splendor the adventure and triumph of the "Grand Parvenu". Under the romantic hypnosis of a leader dying of cancer who keeps a volume of Plutarch's Parallel Lives on his nightstand, a new caste acts out a play.
Two famous beauties, Paolina Borghese and Giulietta Récamier, "in performance" (24-25), exquisitely reclining, or rather "posing" on a sofa, close the heroic era of the bourgeoisie; and let the contradiction in terms be excused.


With Louis Philippe, the "bourgeois king", seated in an armchair of the style of the same name, the golden age of mercantilism and industry will be opened. From the Enlightenment one ascends to the 19th century, that of the "great inventions and discoveries", "of Progress", of grand undertakings and consequent current disasters.
Its style will be (and is still) that which it seems still today continues to offend only the minorities. Romantic, eclectic, historicist, culturalist, these are the terms used to express the subtleties of a chaos that has no precedents in history.
As neoclassicism is the style of the Enlightenment, so does the eclectic coincide with the affirmation of liberalism; and let this be said without the wish to offend a political doctrine of the right which I esteem, in its function and historical concreteness, like every other one, including those of the left or of the center.
It is the age of the "magnificent and progressive destinies", of the myth of technical infallibility, of organization, of the machine and the consequent identity presumed between progress, well-being and civilization.
The possibilities of feeling and imagination are unlimited; dissatisfaction is born from automatic and semi-free well-being, the "palpitations of infinity" in an undetermined directions. The consequence of that decrepit and always new truth, according to which reality always disappoints the dream even if it is achieved, the escape from the present will still today be the dominating motif of taste: life conceived as a becoming, not as a being. A hedonistic and almost idyllic escape then; an escape from ourselves, a forgetting of oneself in an exaltation of primordial impulses, in the present time.
The infinite tastes, by now a cinematographic commonplace, of this inexhaustible society are well known, which in the famous fin-de-siècle will reach the zenith of the most optimistic chaos: trains, trips everywhere and anywhere, cosmopolitanism, ruinous women and femmes fatales, green eyes, slavic charm the ark of every imagined pleasure, Byzantine charm, and Turkish, Japanese, perfumes, incenses, drapery, damasks, silks, soft lace, the great thrill of games, celebrated ruins and so forth (28).
A play of tastes which in the home is reflected in equally famous suffocating bric-à-brac where the entire cosmos of beauty must perforce enter into, for the pleasure of an easy life, the life of a society that takes everything everywhere.
The taste has all the directions, just as the needle of the compass goes "crazy" when it gets close a pole which in our case will never be reached (27).
All of the styles are evoked, collected, from the Turkish salon to the gothic bedroom, from trophies of exotic weapons to tapestries, to stoles and to sacred vestments, to seashells, the Japanese "piece", those from Capodimonte, from Sèvres; in these houses one fumbles past famous bronzes in miniature, oriental rugs, suits of armor and antiques (26), and, finally, for the first time in the history of furniture, we meet nature in the home under the form of not only flowers, but evergreen plants, or rather grayish green from the dust, in abundance.
The machine, exalted with pride, is the wonder of progress, but it does not yet enter in expressive function in external and internal architecture; devices are awkwardly masked in the form and decoration of the pre-mechanical era; from the chandelier with the bulbs attached to fake candles to the coffee maker with Rococo curves.
From the arts applied to furniture, and from conformist England, through the work of William Morris the seed which in a few decades will turn into a revolution on the continent. England has always given birth to these black sheep.
Morris, when he gets engaged to be married (1859) rebels against the thought that the charming creature of his dreams will have to accept along with himself to live among the horrors of the furniture then in fashion, or the sort that is machine manufactured, which the industry floods the market with. He blames the barbarities of the machine, and, returning to the sincerity of mediaeval artisans (see Ruskin), he starts build furniture the way he wants it, with his own hands. From his mystical and revolutionary ideas he goes on a crusade: a reaction to industrial-mechanic production and to historic "styles (read "classical"), a return to artisanal craftsmanship, imitation of natural forms (read: Gothic style + Morris + the Orient + nature). His is an adventurous style expressing with fresh and genuine coherence the interior reality of a joyful and liberated world of the daily discovery of nature; we are at the prelude to "art nouveau" (29). The fact that this world was entirely to be constructed, and thus a utopian dream expression in furniture, is another story. For Morris art is the means with which man expresses the joy of his work and must be "made by the people for the people... an enjoyment for who makes it and who uses it". The company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. which is intended to be the beginning of its realization, a part from the quality of the products, is a failure in every sense. Its handmade "pieces" are extremely expensive: anyone who likes and buys them is perforce a rich and refined élite. The case is dramatic and cruel; the age of the machine, we know, has no reverse gear. Morris is the first and a most noble example of the utopia of current architecture: dreaming on paper of an ideal and inexistent world while at the same time operating the way one can.
Morris's diagnosis is prophetic and pours salt on a wound that for the progressist optimism of his time is the cause of widespread euphoria; this wound will become the current "motif" of our time: the depersonalization of the individual made by technical and mechanical specialization. The current conditions of manual and intellectual work and production abstract man from natural reality. The individual is an acephalous fragment of an organism, a blind and specialized termite. From the technical of "intellectual", precisely the "specialist", to the bureaucrat, typist, digger, industrial worker, one can also move up to the scientist, to the politician, finding in all of them the minimum of a common denominator of the crisis of dehumanization, of impotent confusion between ability, cunning and intelligence; in a word: a crisis of civilization. From this angle, which is then a 180º angle, a great man of industry, financier or similar, with his back against the wall will reveal on average the identical, if not inferior spiritual level, and thus of cultural as well (nothing to do with more or less specialized erudition), of a mediocre worker. It is not paradox: if forced to reveal without euphemisms the faith and morality in the name of which he acts he will have to admit that he is moved by a cancer, by an ideal of biological inflation and merely physiological exaltation; the exceptions, among which for example Batha, or Olivetti in Italy, prove the melancholy rule.
In this climate one cannot of course hope that "one style" in the house, even if worthy of the name, becomes "the style of an age", and, less than ever in the midst of press crusades and exhortations to "taste". Morris was seeking the great lost secret, that of life lived day by day, a current idea, in the joyous and envisaging oincidence of his activity with the becoming of the world. But the "Movement of Arts and Crafts" founded by him will last only ten years after his death. England, conformist and conservative even in the home, will continue in the flat binary of culturalist styles.
The renewed interest and awareness of new dignity, always of the "élite", for the decorative and applied arts emigrates and spreads throughout Europe; in a tangle of threads and reciprocal influences, in which historians of modern architecture regularly get bogged down in, will result in the origin of the liberty style (art nouveau) . Indirectly through now famous expositions and magazines, vines of in twirling movement are born, and stems exhausted in subtle recurrences and stretches in geometrical patterns of flowers, chairs, tables, armoires, modulated in chosen vegetal curves, cupped platforms in curved glass and supported by consoles of metallic vine leaves, flows of wavy venation. An asymmetrical gothic enters the house; all known vegetation is folded docilely and stylized in far off, plastic architectonic forms (30). To the romantic gothic influence of Morris, of naturalism stylized onto the pattern of a decorative linearity, two factors overlap, one 28,000 km away, the other 3500 years old, to coagulate into an ephemeral style, destined to die a reviled death in the space of twenty years; a "new" style for the play of an easy life, with emergencies or commitments, only sick with plain hedonism (31). Japan, closed since 1624 to every relation to the foreign, opens its ports up to the West in 1854 and conducts its first trading abroad; it is the beginning of the rediscovery of Japan. Furthermore, a fact that is regularly forgotten, the birth of art nouveau coincided and follows almost punctually the discovery of the Cretan-Mycenaean civilization. The culture is again and always on schedule with the taste of the age (32). It is the revelation of an extremely elegant society, radiating with joy and agreement with nature, free from every metaphysical preoccupation: "On the island of Crete the tormented race of men dreamt what was perhaps its most beautiful dream" (Romagnoli). The spirits of Art Nouveau could not have asked for more fitting models: Japan and Crete (33). The famous Cranston tearoom and the library of Glasgow by Mackintosh, the staircase of Horta, certainly were not born through a spontaneous flash (34). Certain Cretan vases, like certain ornaments, chiseled, cut stones from Japan, put in a setting of the best art nouveau, would certainly be mistaken for of that era and would not be recognizable except by a specialized eye (35). The fashion itself of the time, the taste of poster designers and certain paintings unmistakably shows those origins (36). Especially the formal sensibility, the nervous elegance and the "close" grouping of Vienna will find in these models the path of the Secession: a bridge towards "modern" architecture (37). If art nouveau arrays itself in the catalogue of eclectic styles and cohabits with them (even if it is dead today there are concrete hints that lead one to suppose exhumations and partial rehabilitations), it has on the other hand a historical merit that it is well to remember from time to time: it is the first movement of taste that totally frees the space, the surface, the decoration, from the millenary canons of classical taste; it is no mean feat. To find a similar nonchalance not only decorative, but in the planning of the house, it is necessary to look to Japan, to Crete and to Mycenae. If the Englishmen is the master of liberty in the area of compromise and of empiricism, the German on the other hand, a fanatic of objectivity, requires the presence of a directing idea even in the intimate refuge of the home. He is not initiator or pioneer, but realizer. The consequences are well-known: when he takes hold of a schema he does not let go, he will take it to the absurd and to disaster in midst of a implacable organization.
The call of Ruskin and Morris the return to a new sincerity and quotidian adherence between art and life, the refusal of imitation and of art for a minority, will be picked up by Germany and objectively developed and organized. The "Deutcher Werkbund" (1907) will be the most imposing organization of it. It is again in the German character to gather together (and dogmatize) not for vague pleasure, but in order to dive headfirst into a well-defined task: to acclimatize the humming bird, to classify the tiles and, furthermore, to organize the architecture in the home. It will be the machine itself, one with the taste of this architecture, that is the end and means of this realization; the machine, the mortal hate of Ruskin and of Morris. It seems like cruel irony, but it will be the new masters to hail them as founders of the new home.
It is in the furniture and in the objects of the furnishing, where it is one can that is most easily and immediately bring together the program of taste and the program of industry, which will have their origins in the isms of modern architecture: functionalism, rationalism, constructivism, and of course objectivism ("neue Sachlichkeit"). From here to the Bauhaus of Gropius the path is immediate.
To the growing taste for the machine in itself and for itself, there is a parallel in the willful and manifest mechanicity of its production, for the smug immediacy of functional and plastic vision of the tool, the object, the furniture. Thus the setting and furniture are seen in function of the organism and as such aesthetically expressive. From here is the definite refusal for any decoration applied and avulsed by the nature of the object and by its manufacturing technique, from here is the taste for essentiality, the sincerity of solid geometry, for simple and defined surfaces.
So too in the occasions of current architecture one can always distinguish the components of the aforementioned dyad of contemporary taste: classical and romantic, which is to say plastic and functional.
To the question of use at this point, that is whether it was the technical fact and the "new materials" which generated the new architectonic forms or whether these were born from a pure act of free will, I do not believe there is any other response than that of posing the equally silly question of the chicken and the egg. There have even been those who, with the same mentality, and lit up with "pure visibility", have found in impressionism the origins of modern architecture (and perhaps, they would like, of the bicycle too).
As with art nouveau, so too the "modern style" arrays itself of the great catalogue of contemporary eclecticism. Rather than substituting itself it remains involved and absorbed, still and always an "élite" style. For anyone who flips through an interior design magazine worthy of that name, this claim may seem exaggerated, but to be convinced all one needs to do is flip through generic magazines, luxury ones, from anywhere in the world. And one will be more convinced the more homes throughout the western world one has had the curiosity to enter: from that of the Swedish or Lombard bourgeois, to the home of the North American businessman or of an aging celebrity photographed in "his environment" in London or Paris, to appear in an edition of Vogue. Also significative, as expressions of a "universal" taste, are the always eclectic settings of the films of the entire civilized world, imposed by a commercial necessity of exactitude that is above suspicion, the ideal expression of the international taste of a society (38).
And this is a new phenomenon in the history of taste. Equally unique is the fact that it has never happened that a style, a polemical movement apparently convinced and legitimized in all of its theoretic premises, has for half a century fought in vain to become the style of the age. The aesthetic results, concrete and undeniable, are a minimal percentage, lost in chaos, accepted by a minority of the sensibility and of the culture. I am not reciting a recantation of "modern architecture", but I am making some observations: from the chandelier in "artistic glass" which is providing me with light, to the legs of the chair I happen to be sitting on (39). In order to see something of authentic architecture, even if not exceptional, one must go to see it, it is a curiosity. When one says "modern", currently one means erroneously a number (40-42), put in a row with the other not less horrid recreations "in a style that never tires", from the botched attempt at "modernized Chippendale" to the barochetto, offered by the majority of luxury interior design firms of the entire world (41). With current idea of "modern" one goes from the fashion for plants for a colored herbarium (43) or antique flower prints on lampshades, to reproductions of old sailing ships which, like the old prints of framed birds, no one will ever look at again, not even the person who chose "amorously" and unfortunately bought one. the rooms "rustically" scorched or sandblasted, the ones that integrate "cretonne" so that they "suit" adolescents and can be "disengaged" cheaply, they are the high point of the current bourgeois unscrupulousness. In order to find an acceptable production result in series, it is necessary to look back to the unfaltering exceptions of Thonet, or, in Italy, to the stuffed chairs of Chiavari or again those of the provincial churches.
There are however exceptions that do not hold up to the level of constant dignity of taste of the current production, prior to Louis Philippe; from here one can easily trace the way up to the contemporary furnishings of Ramsete, and beyond.
Without disturbing Ramsete, we can get proof looking through the pieces of any modest antiquary, stripped of any snobbism of hyper-sensibility, without the expectation to discover some piece from the dynasty of Boulle or of the Pifetti, Cressant, Meissonnier: here the ugly is the exception. As counter evidence we can now visit a well-known firm of "antique and modern" interior setting to see what they offer us that is "posh".
Even if the utopia of Morris should be realized and an authentically artisanal production worked for the beauty and the decor of everyone's home we would always find melancholy results. The artisan of today, to the contrary of that of the past, Japanese lacquerer or carver from the time of Louis XVI, is no longer being born on a contemporary and unitary wave of taste and for this reason naturally accepts. The artisan, in his hierarchy, was part of an authentic society, whatever that was. Today he has no world to interpret naturally and unconsciously; today he searches and imitates, if it suits him, what he is asked by a clientele without taste, without a world.
In its turn the industry is not so mad as to turn a machine for profits into an institute for aesthetic propaganda. For this propaganda, as I have said, fifty years have not been enough.
It is with the analysis of this historical paradox (44-45), with regards to furnishing, that I wish to conclude this essay.
It is a commonplace, the object of way of thinking that has replaced "novelized-life" or the "novel-river", this observation of the current crisis of society and related diagnosis concerning the "decadence of the West" and other such things. Promised lands (19th century) constantly found arid, in spite of a very refined industrial and mercantile activism, uncontrollable technical-scientific progress in disharmony with that of civilization, the death of ideals and unreplaced faiths, silence and pacific and clandestine amorality, are the fragments of a configuration that is still cloudy, but that which end with the image of a society which denies its own present and searches in the most contradictory forms for an escape, as I have already mentioned, towards a state which not its own. A state that is often illusorily and consciously constructed scenery and nothing other than the declaration of its own nonexistence. It is born with Talma (1790) and thus with the establishment of the Third Estate, the support for the actor, that is for he who knows how to recreate the type sought after; this support is continues, imposingly, with the celebrity behavior of the cinema actor: symbols of escapism.
Other than a satisfaction of preeminence for the individual, even gratuitous, other than a biological refinement, the present society no longer knows what it wants. It does not even need, in the end, a home, except for a scenographic vanity; the ideal of home is by now in the hotel. To the worries of her fiancé for the expense of the new house she answers: "It's quite simple: a room to sleep in, a bathroom and a car to go away with".
The artist, man of his time, cannot but reduce himself to the expression of a subjective world, problematic to communicate. The extreme subjectivity, the cause of the incommunicability of the public with the artist is also a new phenomenon in history. Every artist emigrates towards unknown shores, individuals and set loose by a world that has disowned them. From here it is just a short step to the utopia.
It is now time to openly observe that the figurative arts, even in the noblest and highest of their present manifestations, are sincerely interesting to a scanty group of respectable specialists, who are followed by the usual maniacs and snobs. It is also a fact that the majority, whether they be these respectable and cultivated specialists or experts or people off the streets, even without being bored, most tranquilly not without reason, could not care less about modern figurative arts; this is not the place to discuss whether it is a case, as with other arts (for example tragedy), of a natural agony. In the case in question the practical need, particularly implicit in the activity of the architect, fatally fails in face of the result of a home for a society that does not exist, and fails again when the aesthetic result has been perfectly achieved.
The blame for this practical failure will be squarely places inside of the home, on the furnishing, where the contrast between the world of the author and the inhabitant assumes multiple and immediate aspects. Instead of a common ideal interior landscape to interpret in the comprehensible area of an equally common taste, the architect has created a setting for a super-celestial world, coinciding with his dream and organized in his image: a world which does not exist, that cannot exist except in the realm of the utopia. A quotidian illusion that can also be constructed with the real elements that should construct it perfect, but, in the current case, dead before it is born.
An impeccable industrial and mechanical technique will allow habitations to be brought to the extremity of purity and refinement for transhumanized beings, pure spirits intent daily on the most serene enjoyment of untouchable spatial and chromatic relationships (46).
Quintessential equilibriums in a Euclidean and Platonic world where it is not permitted to have a toothache, debts, family troubles, heavy delays. In these settings, which will remain in history as works of art as authentic as the famous works of every age, the contingent cannot take place, the clash of the quotidian would result in continuous catastrophe; a newspaper on the floor, a table set for a meal, a pair of forgotten slippers, would correspond to a series of collapses.
I believe that reading a book in these astral settings would be anything but easy: an armchair moved a few degrees from how it should be would be an insupportable dissonance in so much tension of golden sections. After the admiration for it a feeling of uninhabitability arises: one exits as from a painting and goes to see a Western or Veronica Lake. Similar and equally uninhabitable for the Western world appear those ecstatic and serene Japanese homes already illustrated, true only for their most wise inhabitants and for the dream of Western architects.
After these golden knots (... 1930) the developments of "modern architecture" proceed in more or less impeccable orbits, but always astral ones: formal and constructivist dynamism, psychological functionalism, the proclamation of Romantic needs for a "return to nature" and the return again to positions of origin, such as abstract formal exercises, and even a declared self-denial in exasperated mechanicism (see existentialism). I repeat, they are programatic and astral orbits that only interest critically and polemically the usual small "élite", but that do not influence but imperceptibly on the architecture that is done throughout the world. Equally optimistic and utopian is the commitment, always returning, that is purely functional of modern furnishing, still deluded by a taste for dimensional and organizational expectations for paths forced and calculated along plans for a life as perfect as it is unknown, that one can mistake for those manning the tubes of a torpedo boat. Plans that fail fatally at every objective faced with the innumerable exceptions which are the norm. And from the interior planning of the house the concept could be extended to the observation of classical interior planning in general, the kind planned on paper in all of its most elastic developments and in chronic agony from the day of its birth, upon its realization.
Finally another aspect of the utopia is the well-known intellectual refusal of decoration properly named so (47). Without wanting to pronounce judgement on a disquisition on the essence of it, and the related demonstration of its irreplaceability, I limit myself to noting its arrogance with the return from the window in architectures of setting of very great architects, above suspicion of any reactionary weakness (48-49). And it will be the "abandoning" to the surrealist unconscious, even if a transitory label, that demonstrates the legitimacy of current taste like that of every age (50). Truer than ever is the Voltaire's paradox "Le superflu, chose très nécessaire" ("the superfluous, a most necessary thing").
It is usual, for those discussing decoration, to conveniently forget or avoid asking themselves about the solution to the embarrassing problem of its nature through the millennia, from the engraving on a reindeer bone to the Greek "frieze" and to the design on fabric of "creations of high fashion", and in spite of allow of programatic wishes for functionalization or reduction to the measured harmony of the pure formal or chromatic compositional elements. It is this decoration, a gesture that is useless, in the most precise sense of the term, that is among the most exquisite signs of the progressive distancing of man from animals, which is to say civilization. We are at the antipodes of polemical "Ornement et crime" of Loos, of good memory (1908).
There is no need to bother Freud to find its origins in a ludic activity, sublimated liberation of a vitality or instinct "repressed" by the tension of an excess, more than ever current, of normative technique, that is of merely biological politics, in daily life (51). Thus one could still argue for the rational disappointment faced with the vitalistic return of organic architecture.
The plot of this schematic profile of the history of the relationships between interior furnishing and society certainly cannot conclude with exhortations and proposals. Architects, we shall continue in the utopia, the only current way of existing as such. The only conclusion is to wish that we may be part of an authentic society, and that this society in turn be not so barbaric as not to have need of an equally authentic house (52).

interbellum cover

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(The English translation was curated by Becky Besley, who commented it with her notes, and was published in ArtReview, May 2003)