‘The Mechanization of Adornment’ by Sigfried Giedion

Mechanization Takes Command is definitely one of those “upriver” books about design. How interesting could 750 densely packed pages on the evolution of things like locks, chairs and slaughterhouses possibly be? But you emerge from reading it, some time later, white-haired and changed forever. That’s Giedion’s task, anyway – he looks at how we have shaped mechanisms to suit us, and how they have in turn shaped us and our society. “Mechanization and Death: Meat”, the chapter on abattoirs and the long grisly history of building machines to dismantle mammals, is famous. More cheerful, though, is “The Mechanization of Adornment”, in which Giedion – an early modernist of the bracing, puritanical kind – looks at what happened in the 19th Century when machines began to make decorations, ushering in the ghastly excess of the Victorian home.

The tone is a Lovecraftian “doom-dragged wail”:

The machines began to pour forth statuary, pictures, flower bowls and carpets in mass. Simultaneously, furniture became bloated and its forms dulled. There followed a further packing of the room with all sorts of objects … at no other time in history did man allow the instinct for the goodly ordering of his surrounding to suffer such decay.  … What led them to this abandon?

In Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, first published 1948 by Oxford University Press