Much of what it means to be modern today emerged initially and quite dramatically in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In one city and in one amazing burst of creativity, an extra-ordinary array of genius (Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Mahler, O. Wagner, Herzl, Klimt and Hoffmann, among others) were to coincide and collectively plant an indelible stamp on twentieth-century culture. Psychoanalysis, linguistic philosophy, atonal music, several schools of urban planning, modern Zionism, the Secessionists and the Wiener Werkstätte were but a few of their contributions.
In 1880, Vienna was home to a confident bourgeoisie devoted to order, mannered charm and the grandiloquent facades on the Ringstrasse. But turn-of-the-century Vienna was swiftly becoming something quite different, a test of wills began emerging between well-behaved traditionalism and liberated modernism. The capital's population increased more than four-fold during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, from less than half a million in the 1850s to over two million by 1910. While technical and scientific advances followed one another in bewildering succession, the Habsburg empire clung to ideals of stability and the preservation of existing order the cultivation of the status quo.
If official Viennese society remained rigid and unchanging, its urban subculture of coffeehouse-and-cabaret cosmopolites united poets, writers and artists aspiring to break through the complacency of intellectual life. Such was the gap between actuality and what was presented as sham that Vienna is often described as the city in which psycho-analysis needed to be invented. The discoveries of science and medicine, to say nothing of the triumphs of the human intellect and the human spirit, were largely met with indifference by the stolid burghers of Vienna. The city at large was quite oblivious to the fact it was one of the intellectual centers of the world.
The wake-up call came in 1897. Facing censure by a governing panel, a coalition of progressive artists and designers seceded from the long established Künstlerhaus to form the Vienna Secession. Their unifying aims were to awaken Austrian art from its slumbering provincialism by promoting the living artist (for the first time in Vienna) and encourage cultural exchanges with the foremost contemporary European artists. Their first exhibition opened a year later, the accompanying poster and catalogue designed by Gustav Klimt. A new exhibition facility, the famed Secessionist Building (still fully functional as a kunsthalle), designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, was completed in time for the second exhibition late the same year.
The role given to the applied arts at the second Secessionist exhibition was an important breakthrough. It underlined the influence exerted by such architect-designers as O. Wagner, Olbrich, Hoffmann, Moser, and Roller within the Secession itself, and it confirmed a changing attitude by the European avant-garde towards design. An early precedent had been established in 1891, when the Salon du Champ de Mars in Paris exhibited applied arts on an equal footing with paintings and sculpture, disciplines previously regarded as higher levels of artistic endeavor. Belgian designer and theorist Henry van de Velde, also called for the unification of art, the re-evaluation of the role of craftsman and designer, the recognition that we are able "to impress beauty upon every aspect of our lives, that the artist should no longer simply paint pictures, but rather create whole rooms, or even whole dwellings, with wallpapers and furniture as well as paintings." This reappraisal of the status of the applied arts became a fundamental issue in the Secessionist movement.
Surprisingly, the Secessionist exhibitions were extremely well received by critics and public alike, opening up new markets which commercial firms tried to exploit. No on-going collaborations existed, however, between Secessionist designers and Viennese manufacturers. Realizing it was imperative they find craftsmen who shared their high standards and objectives if quality designs were to be consistently executed, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser co-founded the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) in 1903. Thanks to the fortuitous and generous backing of financier Fritz Wärndorfer, their plans were realized almost immediately. In an age dominated by second-rate production and a numbing imitation of the past, the Werkstätte saw its initial mission as one of reduction and divestment, to eliminate familiar historical and naturalistic motifs while simultaneously reviving meticulous craftsmanship. Its philosophical underpinning was the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total artwork), the integration of all related design elements into a single aesthetic statement.
Taking his lead from the English Arts and Crafts Movement, Hoffmann described the foundation of the Wiener Werkstätte as "part of a continuous process of development extending from John Ruskin and William Morris to the present day." While sharing many of their ideologies, particularly the ideal of a true art, produced by a community of craftsmen and an expressed confirmation of honesty to materials and techniques, Hoffmann and Moser based their model largely on Charles Robert Ashbee's British Guild of Handicraft. Initially, the WW (in actuality a consortium of individual workshops employing some 100 workers by 1905) designed, produced and sold metalware, leatherwork, bookbindings as well as furniture and joinery. Later, it introduced decorative paintings, sculpture, mosaics, wallpapers, postcards and haute-couture fashions.
Whether it be hatpin or the Hohe Warte colony (a series of villas outside Vienna), no detail went unnoticed. The Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1904) was an early, important commission, but the crowning achievement, the Palais Stoclet (1905-11) is found not in Vienna, but in Brussels. Designed by Hoffmann and furnished throughout by the WW, it remains entirely intact and a monument to total design synthesis. (1)
The applied arts produced during the early years of the Werkstätte are remarkable for their geometric refinement and elegant simplicity, an antidote to the repetitive march of ornament derived from historical models and the exuberance found in continental Art Nouveau. The turn to simplification reveals the influence of the Scottish school of design, particularly the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He had a strong formal impact on Hoffmann's early work (both he and Ashbee exhibited works in the 1900 Secessionist exhibition (2) and Hoffmann visited Mackintosh in Glasgow two years later). It was also a period of close artistic collaboration between Hoffmann and Moser, whose work the WW was exclusively devoted for the first three years. Occasionally their designs are indistinguishable, especially their metal lattice-like gitterwerk. Both enjoyed contrasting black and white color schemes and the play of bold, dramatic forms with decorative elements of extreme subtlety and refinement.
Over a thirty-year period, (3) the Wiener Werkstätte represented anything but a cohesive style. The ebb and flow of designers and their respective influence resulted in a series of works characterized by dramatic shifts in sensibility. The severely rectilinear designs forged by Hoffmann and Moser dominated production until about 1907 (4) when Moser resigned; thereafter, objects began to lose their purely structural character and surface decoration once again came to the fore.
The founding of the Wiener Keramik by Michael Powolny and Berthold Löffler in 1906 likewise coincides with the Werkstätte's purist phase and the consequent resurgence of ornament. Artistic activity was severely curtailed during the war years. Few designers, fewer clients and a scarcity of metals meant greater emphasis on ceramics since clay was still widely available and inexpensive. (5) Following the war, WW designs enjoyed renewed vigor under Dagobert Peche, Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill and many others who had been students of professors Hoffmann and Moser. (6) They introduced a new eclectic, essentially decorative mode, which drew upon Austria's rich tradition in the decorative arts, such vernacular precedents as Biedermeier and the Baroque.
Stylistic turnabouts were rooted in practical necessity as well, a need to accommodate a small but wealthy clientele who were entreated to stay in tune with the times. Many of the later objects designed expressly for the luxury trade possess a whimsical folk charm, a total antithesis to the austere and prophetic modernism of Hoffmann and Moser. Branches were opened abroad, including New York City in 192l under the direction of Josef Urban, Zurich, Paris and finally in Berlin in 1928, but by then the Wiener Werkstätte was nearly bankrupt. (7) When it formally closed its doors in 1932 its most important work had been long gone as had most of its celebrated form-givers. Most, but not all. Hoffmann, ever resilient, drew upon his prior experience with the Deutsche Werkbund (founded in 1907) to create yet another body of work in the late '20s equal in modernity to many designs produced by the German Bauhaus. Seldom acknowedged today (only a few are known to exist), they confirm Hoffmann's electic genius, a master assimilator, intuitive, endlessly inventive and the coalescing force of Vienna Moderne.
2. Some reviews in the daily press were less than enthusiastic: "Bareness is taken to extremes, and an artifical naiveté is affected, as in the works of the Mackintosh couple on show here, which are often too bizarre to be beautiful and often appear quite repulsively farfetched." (Reichspost, Vienna , 11 November 1900); "...where tastelessness and a lack of imagination indulge in veritable orgies. This hellish room has to be seen - there is no describing it. It is no better than a torture chamber." (Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 15 November 1900). "A passage leads to the last and most fearsome apartment, a torture chamber for taste. This is where the most dangerous and rabid of the lines have been locked up." (Neue Bahnen, Vienna, 1 January 1900). (Back)
3. Of the more than 200 artist-designers active at one time or another in the WW, only a few have thus far been regarded as worth a mention in encyclopedias. Interestingly, there were also 222 known firms for which these designers worked outside the WW. (Back)
4. Hoffmann's pupil, Gisela Baroness Falk von Lilienstein, and Moser's pupils, Juta Sittka, Antoinette Krasnik and Therese Trethan, deserve special mention. Works by them and several others were marked with a Schule Prof. Kolo Moser stamp, a very exceptional mark of quality. (Back)
5.Around 1916-17, the full effect of extensive schooling in ceramics made itself felt when the WW began to produce ceramics in its own artist's studios. Some 1800 numbered models were produced in two series, 766 in 1916-20 and 980 after 1920. (back)
6. The very prominent part played by the Kunstgerwerbeschule where both Hoffmann and Moser were professors from early on cannot be understated. Its importance in providing a training ground and a continuum for the WW aesthetic is illustrated by the fact that out of twenty-three designers active in the artists' workshops during 1920, no less than twenty-three were graduates of the school. These numbers included nineteen ladies and only four gentlemen; the significant reverse in the men-to-women ratio was due largely to the war. (back)
7. The WW suffered continual cash probems almost from the very beginning despite the initial largesse of Fritz Wärndorfer and later the Primavesi family. Consequently, many tasks were farmed out to occasional contributors, even Kunstgewerbeschule pupils in order to reduce costs. (back)