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Evil Things: An Encyclopaedia of Bad Taste at the Museum der Dinge in Berlin
Ausgestopftes Meerschweinchen auf Rollbrett. Entwurf: Andi Domke, Schweiz, 2009. Photo: Armin Hermann.

By: Imke Volkers

BERLIN.- “If we want to discern what good taste is, we must first eliminate bad taste.”

With this purpose in mind, the art historian and museum director Gustav E. Pazaurek opened his “Cabinet of Bad Taste” in the Stuttgart state crafts museum in 1909. Pazaurek developed a complex system to categorize all kinds of design mistakes, demonstrating them with actual examples.

In keeping with the philosophy of the Deutscher Werkbund, Pazaurek assumes that things have a great influence on people, both aesthetically and morally. Consequently, his catalogue of design mistakes presents a drastic nomenclature which we naturally find disconcerting today. The rubrics with which Pazaurek labelled the objects read like an aesthetic penal code, a vocabulary of evil. The evil nature of the objects derives not from their purpose — from acts that could be performed with them — nor from their symbolism, but from the evil or badness that is manifested in their production, design and functional quality.

The present exhibition is the first attempt to reconstruct Pazaurek’s “Cabinet of Bad Taste”, and presents more than 50 objects on loan from the original collection in the State Museum of Württemberg. Furthermore, the exhibition takes Pazaurek’s classification system as a point of reference for an examination of present-day design tendencies. To this end, the historic objects are juxtaposed with a selection of contemporary products — from mass commodities to designer objects.

In the age of stylistic pluralism, it seems impossible to establish definitive criteria of “good” or “bad” taste. But a closer look reveals, first, that Pazaurek’s categories are applicable without amendment to countless contemporary objects, bringing to light a design practice that is both ludicrous and ironic, and second, that moral criteria are becoming pertinent again in conjunction with a new consumer consciousness. The “crimes” of today’s objects, however, are not evident prima facie, because they are manifested not in the design, the material or the decoration, but in the social, economic and ecological context. For this reason, new categories must be added to Pazaurek’s catalogue of mistakes.

In the last part of the exhibition, the visitor is invited to add to the Encyclopaedia by classifying and situating his own “evil things” in the field of playful and moral dimensions.

BAD TASTE, Systematized by Gustav E. Pazaurek

I. Material Mistakes

Bad and Spoiled Materials

Inferior materials such as knotty wood, poor alloys, or toxic substances; products that are poorly or cheaply processed or manipulated to conceal flaws; distorted moulds, heat checks, spotted or bubbled glaze, colour flaws, glazing flaws, reams.

Bizarre Materials
Objects of human bone, skin, fingernails or hair; rhinoceros horns, ostrich eggs, shed antlers, animal teeth, vertebrae, feathers, fish scales; lizards, lobster claws, butterfly wings, beetle wings, live fireflies, egg membrane, cherry stones, spices, hazelnuts, straw, pine cones, mosses, tree fungus, cork, coloured sand, vegetables, sugar, butter, ice, bread, etc.

Material Obsessions
Painstaking hobby handicrafts with inferior or waste materials which, seen from a distance, look like craft products, such as objects made of postage stamps, matches, cigar rings, patchwork, broken glass, sardine tins, corks, used paper, wax, etc.

Violations of Materials
Often very cleverly worked objects which overtax or completely disregard the properties of the chosen material; and objects made of perfectly good materials which are poorly or not at all suited to the purpose at hand.

Ostentatious Materials
Objects made of materials that are too good or too costly; objects that “flaunt their wealth”. The craftsmanship is usually less artful than the valuable material deserves.

Material Infringement
The substance of one object is used in the spirit of another. These objects are based on clever little ideas; there is no intent to deceive by imitating another material. Rather, the objects are crafted in the style that is appropriate to a foreign material, with its typical forms and marks of handiwork.

Material Decoys
Material decoys are playful attempts to imitate other materials without disguising the actual material substance of the object. Although the purpose is to create an illusion, the intent is not to deceive, but to make a “more or less clever, but usually shallow material pun.”

Material Surrogates
Material surrogates are inferior materials masquerading as more valuable ones. They imitate a costly material as closely as possible, with the intent to deceive and defraud the observer.

Reverse Surrogates
Unlike normal surrogates, reverse surrogates are imitations of an inferior material in a superior one. The substitute material is more expensive than the original.

II. Design Mistakes

Relief Transpositions

Translation of flat forms into relief (or vice versa), such as three-dimensional representations of popular paintings, or sculptures of individual figures from such paintings.

Unbalanced Weight
Objects made too heavy or too light; inconvenient distribution of weight; centre of gravity too high; base too small or extremely large.

Unsuitable or Tricky Objects
Vessels that tip easily or cannot be cleaned; handles that can’t be gripped; objects with sharp edges; also objects with overly fantastic or rich decoration at the expense of practical utility.

Combination objects that ostensibly serve two or more purposes, but are not optimally suitable for any of them.

Functional Lies
Objects or parts which look deceptively useless or delicate, make false representations, or are superfluous, such as architectural ornamentation or decorative buttons.

Design Decoys and Artistic Pranks
Useful objects in forms that bear no relation to their purpose. The functional form is replaced with “far-fetched fantasy designs”.

Technical Surrogates
An elaborate craftsman’s technique is imitated in the original material by machine; a difficult method or technique is merely feigned.

Patent Humour
Useless, frivolous inventions; bad designs that concentrate attention on unimportant secondary purposes at the expense of the principal function.

Cheap Originality
Crude forgeries, unimaginative imitations of established designs and forms, plagiarism.

III. Decorative Mistakes

Odd Proportions

Obtrusive, abnormal shapes and proportions that detract from the clarity and familiarity of a traditional, functional form.

Manic Ornamentation, Wasteful Decoration
Excessive inundation with ornament and extreme decoration, which can deteriorate into the “infectious and therefore very dangerous illness of ornamentational rage”.

Art as Atonement
Addition of decorative elements to hide material flaws or for lack of another way to “distract attention from a botched functional and artistic design”.

Misplaced or Misoriented Ornamentation
Unskilled use of decorative elements in regard to their relationship to the artistic form or to other decorative elements, or in regard to the intrinsic logic of the ornamentation, such as the direction of growth in botanical motifs.

Decorative Brutality
“When one of two decorative schemes not only disregards the other, but destroys it to usurp its place, that is brutality.”

Decorative Invasions
These objects are formed in a way that is typical for the material, but their surface imitates a different material, such as marbling on wood or gilding on porcelain or glass.

Recipe and Chance
Ornamentation created by the use of time-honoured recipes, especially those that make use of chance, such as ink blots, poured glaze, pictures drawn while in a trance, or pattern designers’ catalogues.

Original Decorative Ideas
Decorative designs that are contrived, affected or excessively “original”.
“Not all originality is praiseworthy. Some kinds of originality can only be called oddity [...] Such things may indeed be original, but that does not make them beautiful.”

Unfitting Decorative Motifs
Decoration that violates taste or the function of the object; unappetizing decorative motifs; mockery and misuse of national emblems for purely decorative purposes.

Anachronistic or Exotic Decoration
Motifs and ornaments copied from past stylistic currents and foreign cultures.

Exaggerated Finishing
Excessive use of a surface effect such as gilding, mother-of-pearl, iridescence, lustre, or fluorescence.

Primitive Decoration
An unimaginative, simple pattern used to adorn everything, such as a checkerboard or cube pattern.

Naive Decoration and Familiarity
Supposed folk art; inappropriately crude craftsmanship.

IV. Kitsch

Cheap mass rubbish with no attention given to the choice of materials, forms and decoration. The most common sub-categories are:

Jingoistic Kitsch (especially World War horrors)
Topical Kitsch
Travel Souvenir Kitsch
Folklore and Sportsmen’s Kitsch
Devotional Kitsch
Commercial Kitsch

“The absolute antithesis of artistically inspired work of quality is tasteless mass rubbish, or kitsch: it disregards all the demands of ethics, logic and aesthetics; it is indifferent to all crimes and offences against material, technique, and functional or artistic form; it knows only one commandment: the object must be cheap and yet still attempt to create at least some impression of a higher value.” After Gustav E. Pazaurek, Guter und schlechter Geschmack im Kunstgewerbe, Berlin 1912

V. Contemporary Mistakes

Glorification of Violence

Brutalizing objects; objects that encourage or trivialize violence and offences against humans and animals.

Harmful Toys
Objects that encourage physically or morally harmful activities.

Child Labour
Objects produced by working children.

Waste of Resources
Mass-produced, single-use articles; disproportionate, non-sustainable use of limited raw materials.

Insufficient regard for the consequences of the harmful substances involved in production.

Cadaver Chic
Objects that dramatize or demonstrate Man’s absolute power over the animal kingdom, such as trophies and travel souvenirs.

Crimes against Endangered Species
Objects made of endangered animal or plant materials.

Sexist Design
Discriminatory use of over-stylized and stereotyped gender characteristics in design.

Racist Design
Discriminatory use of over-stylized and stereotyped racial characteristics in design.

Exaggerated Claims of Exclusiveness
Objects which are declared as exclusive imports, but which are also available domestically, so that the additional cost of the imported objects is unnecessary.

Professor Gustav Edmund Pazaurek (1865–1935) was not only an art historian, writer and editor, but also a poet and playwright. He was director of the Northern Bohemian Crafts Museum in Reichenberg (Liberec) from 1892 to 1905, and director of the State Crafts Museum in Stuttgart from 1906 to 1932. Pazaurek was also a member of the Deutscher Werkbund from 1908 to 1928. He wrote numerous essays on topics in art history and aesthetics and seminal publications on the formation of taste and on arts and crafts, especially glass and porcelain manufacture, and was editor of the journal Keramik- und Glasstudien. Before devoting himself to art history, Pazaurek wrote plays, including comedies such as Der Kampf mit dem Drachen (“Fighting the Dragon”, 1890), Die Venus (“Venus”, 1890) and Die Liebeserklärung (“The Declaration of Love”, a “drama with living pictures”, 1891).

The “Cabinet of Bad Taste”
As early as 1899, Gustav Pazaurek, writing in Kunstwart, recommended that every museum of arts and crafts should add a “torture chamber” to present negative examples for the edification of those with a “thick aesthetic skin”: “Such a chamber of horrors, which could be collected and continuously renewed at very modest cost, must certainly act as a drastic cure with many salutary effects. [...] We may hope that some larger institution will soon move to put this theory of deterrence into practice.”

In 1909, Pazaurek himself carried out his idea in the Stuttgart crafts museum, establishing a “Cabinet of Bad Taste”. The collection was on display, and new pieces were continually added, until the early 1930s. Over 24 years, Pazaurek collected more than 900 objects for it. In 1933, against Pazaurek’s will, the collection was removed from the permanent exhibition for lack of space and placed in storage. Some 700 objects are still conserved.

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