Otto Prutscher was a Viennese designer, part of the famed Vienna Secession Movement, whose beautifully detailed designs range from flowing organic lines to strict geometrical forms. Prutscher had a massive impact on the progress of design in Vienna and Europe. Join me in discovering some of his most exciting designs!
People may not queue up to see Prutscher’s creations like they do for some of his contemporaries (cough…Klimt). But he was a man of many talents, whose work ran like a well-designed art nouveau thread through the history of Viennese Modernism. His works are creative, beautiful, bold, and sometimes strange.
Otto Prutscher’s Life and Career
Otto Prutscher (1880–1949) was an architect and designer, an exhibition designer, teacher, and member of all the important arts and crafts movements—from the Secession to the Werkbund.
Prutscher was one of the first students of the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. Being taught by Josef Hoffmann and the painter Franz Matsch clearly left its mark on Prutscher’s designs: this is evident in both their high-quality draftsmanship and their constant alignment with prevailing architectural trends. The trained carpenter attended the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied under Josef Hoffmann and Franz von Matsch. He worked as a freelance architect after graduating. He worked as a designer at the Vienna Workshop starting in 1907. Besides his work as an artist, Prutscher taught at the Federal Education and Research Institute for Graphics from 1902 and at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts from 1909-1938. The architect Hans Prutscher was his brother. Throughout his life, Otto Prutscher contributed works to numerous exhibitions and produced designs for companies such as Thonet and Backhausen. Otto Prutscher was awarded the Austrian State Prize for Architecture in 1947.
Prutscher’s known oeuvre comprises over 50 buildings, almost 50 exhibitions, some 170 interiors, 300 interior designs, and more than 200 pieces and sets of furniture. His designs were executed by over 200 companies, above all the Wiener Werkstätte and firms like Backhausen or Augarten. 70 years after Prutscher’s death, this exhibition explores his complex creative work and his role in the development of Viennese Modernism. The show was inspired by the collector Hermi Schedlmayer’s generous gift of 139 designs, objects, and furniture by Prutscher.
Outside manufacturers were frequently used to produce and distribute designs that the Wiener Werkstätte was unable to realize in their own studios. By the early 1920s the Wiener Werkstätte had opened branches in Paris, Zurich, and New York. Influenced by Hoffmann, Prutscher frequently used geometrical and square forms in his early works. Later he applied more classical and indigenous motifs. In 1900, he participated in the ‘Exposition Universelle et Internationale’ in Paris, and in the same year he settled as an architect in Vienna. In 1902, he exhibited at the ‘Esposizione Internationale d’arte Decorativa Moderna’ in Turin. From 1903 to 1909, Prutscher was a teacher at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna, and afterwards he taught drawing at his former school, the Kunstgewerbeschule. From 1907 onwards, he produced glassware, textile, furniture, hard covers, metalware, silverware and jewellery, and designed for German companies such as Bakalowits, Loetz, Ludwig Hermann, Chwala, Lobmeyr and Thonet. Prutscher also was attached to Keramos, the Wiener Kunst- Keramik und Porzellanmanufaktur, where several famous artists worked, amongst others the sculptors Klablena and Klieber. Besides his activities as designer, Prutscher went on working as an architect.
What was the Vienna Secession Movement?
The Vienna Secession was founded on 3 April 1897 by artist Gustav Klimt, designer Koloman Moser, architects Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil, Wilhelm Bernatzik and others. The architect Otto Wagner joined the group shortly after it was founded. The goals stated at the founding included establishing contact and an exchange of ideas with artists outside Austria, disputing artistic nationalism, renewing the decorative arts; creating a “total art”, that unified painting, architecture, and the decorative arts; and, in particular, opposing the domination of the official Vienna Academy of the Arts, the Vienna Künstlerhaus, and official art salons, with its traditional orientation toward Historicism. During this time, Europe was undergoing a renaissance, as empires collapsed, new countries and governments emerged, new discoveries in sciences and technologies thrust society into a new world. However, as architecture tends to be a lagging trend, many designers and artists felt that the ambiguity of what this era would bring would remain if significant action was not taken.
The formation of the Vienna Secession in 1897 marked, quite accurately, the formal beginning of modern art in Austria – a nation at the time noted for its attachment to a highly conservative tradition. It was the coalescence of the first movement of artists and designers who were committed to a forward-thinking, internationalist view of the art world, all-encompassing in its embrace and integration of genres and fields, and – highly idealistically – freed from the dictates of entrenched values or prevailing commercial tastes. Led at the beginning by Gustav Klimt, the Secessionists gave contemporary art its first dedicated venue in the city. This, in concert with their official journal Ver Sacrum, not only introduced the Austrian capital to their work, but that of contemporary and historical art movements on a global scale.
The Secessionists’ work provides in large part the visual representations of the new intellectual and cultural flowering of Vienna around 1900, in fields as diverse as medicine, music, and philosophy. Before long, however, internal divisions and difficulties arising from the commercial side of the Secessionists’ work ultimately fractured the group’s monopoly on the scene for contemporary and decorative arts. Nonetheless, even today the Secession remains a key forum in Austria for the promotion and discourse surrounding contemporary art.The Secessionists decided to design a building that would embody their ideals, and also serve as their physical home where they could come together and plan public events that would introduce the world to the new, modern Viennese movement of design. The result was the Secession Building, imagined by Olbrich, who was a student of Otto Wagner, which stood in stark contrast to several other large cultural institutions that surrounded it. The building was known as “Mahdi’s Tomb” for its white facade, and “The Golden Cabbage” because of the lattice structure of the dome on top of the roof. Above the entrance was inscribed in German “Der Zeit ihr Kunst- der Kunst ihr Freiheit” (To the age its art, to art its freedom), a bold reference to their revolution and their devotion to changing the aesthetics of art.
The Vienna Secession was created as a reaction to the conservatism of the artistic institutions in the Austrian capital at the end of the 19th century. It literally consisted of a set of artists who broke away from the association that ran the city’s own venue for contemporary art to form their own, progressive group along with a venue to display their work. Since the Secession was founded to promote innovation in contemporary art and not to foster the development of any one style, the formal and discursive aspects of its members’ work have changed over the years in keeping with current trends in the art world. It still exists and its famed building still functions as both an exhibition space for contemporary art and a location that displays the work of its famous founding members. Their work is often referred to (during the years before World War I) as the Austrian version of Jugendstil, the German term for Art Nouveau, and it is the work of its members in association with that style that has contributed most to its fame, particularly outside of Austria. The Secession’s most dramatic decline in fortunes occurred at virtually the same time that Jugendstil fell out of style elsewhere in Europe. When most people speak of the Vienna Secession, they are usually referring to the initial period of its history between 1897 and 1905.
The Secession continued to function after the departure of Klimt, Hoffmann, Wagner and their supporters, giving regular exhibitions in the Secession building, but they lacked the originality and excitement of the earlier period. The designer Peter Behrens became a member of the Secession in 1938. Under the regime of the Nazi Party the Secession building was destroyed as a symbol of degenerate art, but was faithfully reconstructed following World War II. In 1945, following the War, Hoffmann rejoined the Vienna Secession, the artistic movement from which he, Klimt and Wagner had dramatically quit in 1905. He was elected President of the Secession from 1948 to 1950. The Secession continues to function today, holding regular exhibitions in the Secession Hall.
8 of Otto Prutscher’s Most Beautiful Designs
1. Glass Goblet
This beautiful coupe has a colorless base with an unterfang* cut cobalt blue geometric decor with square motifs (chessboard motif). Very recognizable as the work of Otto Prutscher, a Viennese architect and designer. The work dates from the period 1905-1910, in that period Prutscher designed several glasses with the same decor, executed by Meyer’s Neffe, known from literature and museum collections. His ‘Stengelglas’, liqueur or wine glasses with a high linked stem, with the same cut geometric decoration in different variations and colours, are well known. The design of this coupe with the somewhat more robust facetted trunk is less known. He also used this decor for a small cup and saucer, drinking glasses, a liqueur carafe and vases, among others for the Wiener Werkstätte. * Unterfang is an old glass technique in which a second layer of glass, often colored, is largely ground away so that an image or decor becomes visible, such as in this case the geometric checkered decor.
2. Plant Stand
This plant stand’s towerlike design is a masterful example of the modernist perception of beauty as a direct expression of rational, clear structure. The black-and-white checkerboard is echoed in the alternating tiers of square cachepots. The motif is similar to one employed at the time in Glasgow by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose work was well-known and admired in Vienna. Interestingly, the piece looks very contemporary, with the checkerboard pattern being something that has come back into style in recent days.
3. Coffee set no. 1321
This coffee set is made entirely in silver, with ivory handles. The fine craftsmanship is evident in the details, and the precise geometry of each item. Like a lot of Otto’s work, the design somehow manages to walk the line between tradition and modernity, with an aesthetic that is extremely modern for its time, yet using traditional techniques and materials. Its elegance is in the subtle wave of the body coupled with the ivory finial and ball feet. Prutscher designed furniture, textiles, jewelry, ceramics, silver and glass for some of Austria’s top firms including Thonet and Lobmeyr among others. He sought to blur the lines between art and object creating beautiful pieces to fill the rooms of his client’s homes.
4. Jugendstil Dressing Table
This spectacular and simple dressing table was made by Thonet, and designed by Prutscher. Thonet is a name that counts in the history of design. Since 1819 and the beginnings of Michael Thonet in Boppard on the Rhine, this name of German-Austrian origin has been at the origin of industrial mass production of furniture. The adventure of this outstanding entrepreneurial family could have ended with the first and second world wars. However, the direct descendants of the founder of the Thonet dynasty, Michael Thonet, continue to produce and distribute bentwood furniture around the world, the trademark of the company launched more than 150 years ago. He drew inspiration from other fields such as cooperage and boatbuilding, which were thinking about exploiting the natural elasticity of wood. His revolutionary idea was to boil sheets of wood of the same thickness in glue to give them the desired curvature. Thonet is known for its famous bentwood furniture and classic tubular steel furniture from the Bauhaus era, the brand continues to enrich its collections with creations by renowned contemporary architects and designers. So the Thonet dynasty is not about to die out!
5. Jugendstil Pendant
This pendant is one of Prutscher’s many jewelry designs, in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau style. Its delicate fine details are combined with bold lines and a design that blends fluidity and geometry. The teal enamel is a signature of his, and of the time, while the spider web formation at the centre is quite an innovation. Even the chain includes detailed etched pieces of silver that look like mini ginkgo leaves folded over one another.
6. Small Cabinet
Representative of classical vintage Viennese design from the Jugenstil is the cabinet on stand above exhibited at the Vienna Kunstschau in 1909. The wood frame is covered in black buckskin and embossed in gold and geometric patterns. This is a very luxurious piece of furniture. It looks like the type of piece Gustav Klimt would have used as the backdrop in one of his fabulous paintings. While clearly of the period, it would look perfect in a contemporary home amongst modern furnishings. The hanging drum light (above) is another example from Prutscher’s early work. Great design can always act as a focal point in a room.This cabinet is a truly spectacular sight to behold. The level of detail and inlay is something we just don’t see anymore: attributed to the philosophy of the Viennese Secession, whose values led them to create pieces that required expert craftsmanship, and placed value on quality over quantity.
Otto Prutscher and Hans Ofner were both born in 1880 and Josef Hoffmann’s students at the School of Arts and Crafts. They have dedicated themselves to the prevailing idea of the “total work of art” and created versatile artworks. Next to Prutscher’s famous glass designs for the company Bakalowits in Vienna, we also show the elegant furniture designs for the company Thonet and part of the interior of the dining room in Otto Prutscher’s apartment.
In the year 1911 the entire furnishings for two villas in St. Pölten, the Villa Schießl and the Villa Godderidge, were carried out according to Hans Ofner’s designs. Architecturally Prutscher was responsible for about 50 buildings and some 170 interiors and 300 interior designs. Exhibition design and arrangement also became a particular forte. His career continued successfully until forced into retirement by the Nazis – his wife had Jewish blood. His activity resumed briefly after the war before his 1949 death in Vienna.
8. Adjustable Arm Chair
This chair has elements of the classic Thonet chairs, while remaining distinctly Viennese, as well as disntinctly Prutscher. Steam was the key driver of early industrialisation. Steam locomotives transported goods and people; steam engines set looms, boats and mills in motion. And thanks to carpenter and inventor Michael Thonet, born on 2 July 1796, steam was also the key factor in the first industrially manufactured pieces of furniture. A pioneer in the furniture industry, Thonet invented a technique in the mid-19th century that allowed rods of beechwood to be bent into delicate, curved shapes. It was using this method that he would go on to manufacture his famous coffee house furniture. The same technique was used in the production of this chair, while Prutscher added his own touches, like the adjustable feature on the arms, and the wider seat and back.
Prutscher has been somewhat overshadowed, despite the versatility, productivity and connectedness of his career. To this day, this pupil of Josef Hoffmann’s often stands in the shadow of the great master and other renowned proponents of Viennese Modernism, such as Koloman Moser and Adolf Loos. Yet the incredible spectrum of objects Prutscher designed is unsurpassed, not least due to his compelling ﬁnely tuned sense of style. A detailed knowledge of his work is therefore imperative for a lasting understanding of Viennese Modernism. The MAK – Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna boasts an extensive legacy of prints and signiﬁcant objects from Otto Prutscher’s design oeuvre. There is much less readily available information about him online, lacking documentation and writing about specific pieces and buildings he worked on, as well as his own life. If given the opportunity, it would be incredible to see his works in person, as well as perhaps read through an entire book on his work. There are very few, but that makes it all the more interesting. His style seems to still resonate today in many ways, that perhaps go unrecognized. You can probably see elements of his work that connect with contemporary trends in homeware and furniture, and yet the Vienna Secessionists are a much less talked about group than any of the subsequent designers in the 20th Century.