With or Without Ornament: Home tells the Story of its Occupants.

[Originally posted November 2009]


Looking at the work of architects Adolf Loos and Christopher Alexander, they would appear to be diametrically opposed. Adolf Loos was a rational architect who pioneered modern architecture in the early 20th century; he opposed the decorative Art Nouveau movement. He said in 'Ornament and Crime': 'The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects … Behold the true greatness of our age, that it can no longer bring forth ornament, We have vanquished decoration and broken through into an ornamentless world.'


Christopher Alexander, winner of the Scully Prize, on the other hand has outlined specifically how to create ornament, which he argues is necessary. He says, "All people have the instinct to decorate their surroundings.....Search around the building, and find those edges and transitions which need emphasis or extra binding energy. Corners, places where materials meet, door frames, windows, main entrances, the place where one wall meets another, the garden gate, a fence -- all these are natural places which call out for ornament. Now find simple themes and apply the elements of the theme over and again to the edges and boundaries which you decide to mark. Make the ornaments work as seams along the boundaries and edges so that they knit the two sides together and make them one."


So it may be a surprise that when it comes to furnishing a home, they are remarkably in agreement.


As one might expect, Mr. Alexander is interested in the occupants' control over their domain. In A Pattern Language he said, ". . . lastly, when you have taken care of everything, and you start living in the places you have made, you may wonder what kinds of things to pin up on the walls. 'Decor and the conception of "interior design" have spread so widely, that very often people forget their instinct for the things they really want to keep around them. Therefore: Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic, or "natural" or "modern art," or "plants" or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life - the things you care for, the things that tell your story."


It is surprising, however, how similar Adolf Loos sounds on the same topic, "...I did not, thank god, grow up in such a "stylish" apartment. Every piece of furniture, every object, every thing had a story to tell, the story of our family. Our home was never finished, it developed with us, and we with it. It was certainly without "style"; that is, it had no alien, no old "style". But it did have a style, the style of its occupants, the style of our family." (Ornament and Crime, 1908)


The lesson is that when it comes to interior design of assisted living facilities, regardless of stylistic intent, it is important that residents have their stories in their furnishings and that their stories continue to develop.


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