Artistic visions for prosthetic design XVII - Albert Loos and ornamental minimalism

My prosthetic arms have one function - to relieve tension. That is the targeted goal for me and everybody else - both functionally (robust, comfortable, reliable, ADL, EODF) but also through their design (the arm's visual has to negotiate a reality between me and the others) were we to distinguish these.

It just so appears that the more authentic and real the arm comes across as, the less tense people seem do react.

Just what on earth is authentic?

Albert Loos, "Ornament and Crime". Humanity is still to groan under the slavery if ornament. Evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament. - Ethics and aesthetics are made interchangeable because one's own very choice of materials raises fundamental issues of truth versus falsehood, of the genuine versus the surrogate.

I really liked to read this at first. I did wonder what was wrong with me since everybody loves and wants tattoos - but when I looked at some ornaments or tattoos for my arm, for my stump, for my body or for my prosthesis, I felt my breathing get narrow and my heart clench - and I realized that a lot of this was not for me. As much as this resonated with me at first, Loos wrote this as polemic counter point when an imperial Austria seemed to - design wise - drowning, suffocating in a degree of ornamentalism that would be hard to imagine today.

Now, I do oppose any suffocating amount of ornament - but I have no issues with functional outcomes and looks - and if a scar is where happenstance caused it to be, it's perfectly alright, to the point where we'll build our future express highways around these. Any visual distraction that is anywhere for an unavoidable reason I will accept. But an ornament as such, particularly a permanent one, at first and by nature feels culturally objectionable: the time invested in painting it should be better spent elsewhere.

Yet, that feels to be the very reason why ornaments may be so degeneratively attractive. Ornaments are cool exactly because of that objection. So while I would like to credit Loos with reflecting some of my initial thoughts, let's move on from there. After all, minimalism was tested and tried and the fifties and seventies gave us a lot of bare concrete walls to stare at. And that wasn't just as great - just as suffocating in imperial ornamentation was not too great either.

The fine line seems to be between the clever integration of ornamental design and pure function on one side, and the suffocating and overbearing effect of the exaggerated ornament on the other side.

An ornament is acceptable if it is not an ornament but an end product of an industrial process. Any ornament that manages to save time in the process of manufacturing thus avoids the Loos objection and wins. Alternatively, for an ornament to pass as cool, it has to be hard to obtain for peers, so it does help to get it from a different market region, or to actually fake it (and hand make it using lots of time) just as long as it looks irreverent enough.

So, subtle ornaments, hinting at ornaments, not excluding an ornamental structure while not necessarily aggressively pursuing ornamental structure seem to be all the rage. Ornaments that did not take weeks or months to complete and that are not unique, such as industrial decoration that is individualized - those are the general pieces or strategies that seem to work.

My cardboard deer exemplifies the first approach (laser cut cardboard pieces) just as my chromed cuckoo clock illustrates the second approach (careful painting of wooden consumer product to give impression of another consumer product). Both examples seem to expose the inherent contradiction in searching for the 'authentic ornament' (as there may not be such a thing) that in its essence remains hollow - maybe unless there is a cultural or spiritual connection that - in expression and amount - matches the deviation from the Loos ideal of bare necessity.

For prosthetics, there is a very important further effect to take care of: from a certain degree on, attempted simulation that fails can imply just how much sincere authenticity is absent - and do not fool yourself there, all prosthetic arms fail in representing the human anatomy so well that they can replace it.

Even when I wear my silicone hand - just because I am really into the plastic-chique of cheap B-movie props from the seventies - the average observers will not see it as that. Instead, they will feel wronged in their perceptions. And that is not necessary! There is absolutely no objective necessity to play hide-and-seek with other people.

Because all prosthetic arms have the capacity to really be something else besides trying to imitate human anatomy: and that other thing that they really are, is: prosthetic arms (not grown human natural arms). As that is what they really can be, question is how to convey that we all agree on that as being their role. Obviously we can talk about it but in a way I want my arm to speak for itself. It should speak a clear functional and visual language.

So failed attempts at simulating a human naturally grown arm have the awkward potential of coming across as repressed, inhibited and tense and so they may fail twice: they fail their promise - but instead of ending the drama there, they can dramatically increase tension after becoming exposed and thus avoid to improve life to the user but deteriorate it a bit.

And as that does not seem to be the case for almost any other neat appearances (rather than failed fakes), these other neat appearances come into closer consideration.

Real may not be what we see

The authentic real is not necessarily what we see. Truth may be different.

This of course is a school of thought dating back to the era of Fin-de-Siecle Vienna ~ 1895 and is anything but modern or new. It did evolve after anatomical dissection, medical science and then X-rays brought us a clear understanding of more physical issues being buried or hidden inside. But also, psychological and mental issues were acknowledged to be hidden inside. Then, artists such as Schiehle made us see new realities by exaggerating their appearances.

A very relevant aspect was an increasing realization that body and soul, mind and matter were intrinsically one. We are so much ourselves - to the point where our perceptions are a prison, where objects objectively modify the dominating filter of our own experiences and actual mindset. We are perpetually caught in our own cloudy mess of perceptions. On top of that, decay is not seen as external factor as much as an internal force now, and death is linked to our existence to the point where artists now look for portraits that show death in people's faces rather than representing cheerful faces and an adjacent skeleton equipped with a scythe. So complex understanding of 'real' and 'authentic' evolves.


Colors can reflect emotions.

An authentic color could be one that reflects what the observer tends to feel. That is a perception of authenticity used in marketing strawberry marmalade, for example: the product itself ends up with a dull brown, but as the customer usually feels happy when strawberry marmalades are red, happiness depends on these being red. So beetroot extract or artificial coloring - none of them close to strawberry material - may be used to fabricate authenticity.

An authentic color could be also one that reflects what I feel. When I feel that my arm stump is a worn down used up shabby piece of my body and I do make my prosthesis to reflect that look, I will authentically transmit this once an appropriate visual language has been found that both I and observers agree to understand in the same way.

Clean design

Design of social interaction now avoids ornaments almost completely.

Road traffic signs alert us by using the colors red, white, blue.  Fonts used for street signs or airports are industrial sans serif fonts, some of them initiated by industrial design specialists such as Adrian Frutiger. Computer software operates with clean panels or buttons. Today, commonplace parts, interactive shared items all have a clear and accessible design. At the very least, this type of understanding of an arm would require it to send clear (and not ambiguous) signals.

But other stereotypes or standards also allow for a clean design. Black shiny ebony and white ivory will signify distinction, animal hunting and to a degree piano playing. Black and white checkerboard stripes are found as symbols in car racing. Yellow checkerboard stickers are hallmarks of crash test dummy outfits.

[work in progress]

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - Artistic visions for prosthetic design XVII - Albert Loos and ornamental minimalism; published 23/05/2010, 14:46; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1653033342, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - Artistic visions for prosthetic design XVII - Albert Loos and ornamental minimalism}}, month = {May}, year = {2010}, url = {} }