Vienna has become known for its iconic production of design and architecture at the turn of the century, in large part thanks to one design association. What was the Weiner Werkstate, and how did they come to produce the longest lived design movement of the 20th century?
The Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), established in 1903 by the graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser, the architect Josef Hoffmann and the patron Fritz Waerndorfer, was a productive association in Vienna, Austria that brought together architects, artists, designers and artisans working in ceramics, fashion, silver, furniture and the graphic arts. The Workshop was “dedicated to the artistic production of utilitarian items in a wide range of media, including metalwork, leatherwork, bookbinding, woodworking, ceramics, postcards and graphic art, and jewelry.” It is regarded as a pioneer of modern design, and its influence can be seen in later styles such as Bauhaus and Art Deco. Centered in the Austrian capital, it stood at the doorway between traditional methods of manufacture and a distinctly avant-garde aesthetic. The Wiener Werkstätte’s emphasis on complete artistic freedom resulted in a prodigious output of designs, and this, along with an army of skilled craftsmen and a complex network of production and distribution made it the standard for Austrian design between the dawn of the century and the depths of the Great Depression.
What was the Weiner Werkstätte, and How did they Form?
Due to a comparatively late introduction to industrialization and modern consumerism, at the Fin de siècle (“end of century”), Vienna was only just beginning to grapple with the full impact of modernity in all its facets. Progressive artists and architects, in particular, felt a deep dissatisfaction with historicist solutions to the aesthetic problems that were so strikingly manifested in grand Ringstraßen architecture and on the lush canvases of academic painters like Hans Makart—but also present in the decoration of private apartments and the production of everyday consumer goods. In response, in 1897, a group of artists bent on artistic renewal—including such illustrious figures as Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, and Josef Hoffmann—founded the Vienna Secession. The reform movement created a forum to question tradition through the display and debate of modern aesthetics, and within its first two years—thanks to financial backing from steel magnate Karl Wittgenstein (the father of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein)—had established an exhibition building and the journal Ver Sacrum (“holy spring”). At first, organic twists and naturalistic twirls so characteristic of German Jugendstil and French and Belgian Art Nouveau also prospered in the Habsburg city. Soon, however, the creative avant-garde embraced a more restrained, geometric style, as practiced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow and Frank Lloyd Wright in the U.S.
The enterprise evolved from the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 as a progressive alliance of artists and designers. From the start, the Secession had placed special emphasis on the applied arts, and its 1900 exhibition surveying the work of contemporary European design workshops prompted the young architect Josef Hoffmann and his artist friend Koloman Moser to consider establishing a similar enterprise. Finally in 1903, with backing from the industrialist Fritz Wärndorfer, the Wiener Werkstätte began operations in three small rooms; it soon expanded to fill a three-story building with separate, specially designed facilities for metalwork, leatherwork, bookbinding, furniture and a paint shop. The range of product lines also included; leather goods, enamel, jewellery, textiles, millinerym fashion, lace, postcards and ceramics. These words by art critic Ludwig Hevesi served the Vienna Secession’s central demand for artistic liberty. Rather than confirming the traditional view of painting and sculpture as superior art forms, the new movement aimed to promote all the arts as equal—and equally important in achieving creative union.
The Workshop “derived inspiration from the rich tradition of the glorious past” with fine workmanship and high attention to detail, hearkening back to a more civilized, and secure, time. Beginning with the 14th Exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1902, the radical distinctiveness of certain Viennese artists began to emerge, setting a foundation for the widespread Modernist movement; this became known as Wiener-Werkstätte-Stil (literally, the Vienna Workshops Style). Among the innovators were the Austrian designers Gisela Falke von Lilienstein and Else Unger, and the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann. The latter’s cubist sculpture created in 1902 marked a break into independence for many Viennese artists. His works from this period are especially remarkable when one considers that the term “cubism” only found its way into the art lexicon around 1907 to describe the work of Pablo Picasso.
Dresses by Eduard Wimmer inspired Paul Poiret’s when the latter visited the Workshop’s Berlin exhibition in 1913. The work was considered both highly fashionable as well as functional. Other pieces at the exhibition included day and evening clothes, housedresses and negligees. Some of the earliest productions of the fashion workshop were artists smocks for Klimt and sculptor Anton Hanack Josef Hoffman wrote in a 1928 restrospective on the 25th anniversary of the Workshop that:”The Wiener Werkstatte…is an undertaking that furthers and nurtures all artistic and qualitative endeavors in the field of modern craftsmanship….Our main achievement has been to give practical and appropriate forms to all objects and then to make these unique and valuable through pleasing proportions and harmonious shapes. The materials, the tools, and sometimes the machine are our only means of expression. We do not dictate to an artist, but seek only to enourage him to follow his own intuition and develop his creative power.”
The dazzling range of objects produced by Hoffmann and his colleagues testifies to the quality and diversity of Vienna’s creative talent at the time. It also masks the fact that the aesthetically driven company was hardly a profitable venture, and it faced its share of critical and creative opposition. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the expense of running the Wiener Werkstätte drove Wärndorfer into personal bankruptcy and almost caused the company’s collapse. Refinancing and the creative reinvigoration initiated by artist Dagobert Peche helped it survive—at least until its ultimate dissolution in 1932.
The Most Important Designers of the Era
1. Josef Hoffman
Hoffman studied under Otto Wagner in Vienna and in 1899 joined in the founding of the Vienna Sezession, which, although influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, was more modernist than Wagner’s approach. Beginning in 1899 he taught at the School of Applied Arts, Vienna, and participated (1903) in the establishment of the Vienna Workshop, a centre for arts and crafts, which he directed for some 30 years. Hoffmann’s Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1903; Purkersdorf, Austria) was an important early work, and his Stoclet House (1905) in Brussels is considered his masterpiece. The exterior of that opulent structure achieved a monumental elegance not often associated with design based on straight lines and white squares and rectangles.Hoffmann designed the Austrian pavilions for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne and for the 1934 Venice Biennale. In 1920 he was appointed city architect of Vienna, and in 1924 and 1925 he carried out various housing projects for the city. Much of his work, however, consisted of design pieces from furniture to tea service sets, and even cutlery. Some of them, like the Sitzmaschine Chair, a lamp, and sets of glasses are on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a tea service in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of the works were hand-made by the artisans of the group and some by industrial manufacturers. Some of Hoffmann’s domestic designs can still be found in production today, such as the Rundes Modell cutlery set that is manufactured by Alessi.
2. Moriz Jung
Moriz Jung (1885-1915) was born in Nikolsburg (now Mikulov), Czech Republic. From 1901 to 1908 he attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, showed talent as an illustrator in woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs, and book illustrations, and became a member of the Wiener Werkstätte. From 1901 to 1908 he attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, where he was taught by Alfred Roller, Carl Otto Czeschka and Bertold Löffler. He showed talent as an illustrator in woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs and book images and became a member of the Wiener Werkstätte. During his studies he published a book of coloured woodcuts, Freunden geschnitten und gedruckt von Moriz Jung (Leipzig and Vienna, 1906), an alphabetical primer in the form of animal pictures, and in 1907 he designed a Poster for the Cabaret Fledermaus for the Wiener Werkstätte. He died in battle in World War I in the Carpathian mountains in East Gallicia.
3. Mathilde Flogl
Mathilde Flögl (9 September 1893 – 1958) was an Austrian artist and designer. She worked in several different mediums including textiles, glass, and paint. Flögl was also a member of the Wiener Werkstätte: she specifically was part of the Arts and Crafts movement dedicated to elegance, utility, and appropriateness. They aimed to refine art and expand it to all fields of life. Flögl was very active in this group, she participated in most of the major Wiener Werkstätte exhibitions. Currently, the Viennese Museum of Applied Arts houses over 1,600 of Flögl’s works from when she was involved with the Wiener Werkstätte. Among these are many independent works and collaborations with other individuals in the group. Notable members of the Wiener Werkstätte include two of its founders Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser as well as Gustav Klimt, among others. For the group’s 25th anniversary, Flögl amassed, arranged, wrote, and published, The Wiener Werkstatte, 1903-1928: The Evolution of the Modern Applied Arts. The book itself was a work of art using elaborate materials and decoration in its pages.
When the group was folding, In 1931, Flögl began a studio of her own which she operated for four years. Flögl was also a member of the Wiener Frauenkunst (Viennese Women’s Art), a group of female artists working in Vienna. Flögl’s work is currently in museums around the world including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, The Kyoto Costume Institute in Kyoto, and the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, among others.
4. Koloman Moser
Moser was an Austrian artist who exerted considerable influence on twentieth-century graphic art. He was one of the foremost artists of the Vienna Secession movement and a co-founder of Wiener Werkstätte. Moser designed a wide array of art works, including books and graphic works from postage stamps to magazine vignettes; fashion; stained glass windows, porcelains and ceramics, blown glass, tableware, silver, jewelry, and furniture. Moser’s designs in architecture, furniture, jewellery, graphics, and tapestries helped characterise the work of this era. He drew upon the clean lines and repetitive motifs of classical Greek and Roman art and architecture in reaction to the Baroque decadence of his turn-of-the-century Viennese surroundings. In 1901/1902, he published a portfolio titled Die Quelle (“The Source”) of elegant graphic designs for such things as tapestries, fabrics, and wallpaper.
Moser was one of the designers for Austria’s leading art journal Ver Sacrum. This art journal paid great attention to design and was designed mainly by Moser, Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann. One of Moser’s most prominent designs used in a building (The Steinhof Church) was selected as a main motif of one of the most famous euro collectors coins: the Austrian 100 euro Steinhof Church commemorative coin, minted on 9 November 2005. On the reverse of the coin, the Koloman Moser stained glass window over the main entrance can be seen. In the centre of the window is God the Father seated on a throne. The window is flanked with a pair of bronze angels in Jugendstil style, originally designed by Othmar Schimkowitz.
5. Dagobert Peche
Peche was mainly known for his metalwork. He trained as an architect yet his career was built on his extraordinary talent as a decorative arts designer. Peche has been credited with ushering in a new era for the decorative arts. He joined the Wiener Werkstätte in 1915 and exhibited at Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne and then became a co-director thereof in 1916. Whilst there in the early 1920s he introduced a ‘spiky baroque’ style inspired by folk-art, and using flowers, animals and human figures as decorative motifs. In 1910 he traveled to Great Britain, where he is believed to have seen the work of the graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley; Peche’s early style shows the influece of Beardsley’s line. Peche’s work was published in Der Architekt from 1909 until 1911. He met Petronella (Nelly) Daberkow in 1910, and the two married the following year, when he also graduated from the Akademie. While his involvement with the Wiener Werkstätte grew, Peche also supplied designs to other firms, including Johann Backhausen, & Söhne (textiles and carpets), Vereinigte Wiener & Gmundner Keramik (ceramics), Oskar Dietrich (jewelry), J. Soulek (furniture), and Max Schmidt and Flammersheim & Steinmann (wallpaper). Peche returned to Vienna at the end of 1919, where he died on April 16, 1923 of a malignant tumor. Upon Peche’s death, Hoffmann wrote, “Dagobert Peche was the greatest ornamental genius Austria has produced since the Baroque.”
10 of The Most Iconic Designs From The Period
1. Palais Stoclet
The Palais Stoclet represents the ultimate environment envisioned by the Wiener Werkstätte, as the cooperative received the commission during the brief period when Hoffmann had formally merged his architectural practice with the Werkstätte’s activites. The program consisted of a palatial residence for the wealthy Belgian banking and railroad magnate Adolphe Stoclet, who in 1904 had just inherited a vast fortune from his late father, and gave the Werkstätte carte blanche. Hoffmann designed the house to maximize the two long facades: from the street it appears as an austere, stately urban mansion set amongst a verdant environment, with a formal covered pathway leading to the main entrance, while the rear, which opens onto a park, and onto multiple levels of terraces which facilitate several different views of the landscape.
The greater importance of the Palais Stoclet, however, lies in the interior, where Hoffmann and his associated artists used the most expensive materials available – gold, precious stones, rare woods, leather, and marble, among others. The key space within the house is the dining room, where Gustav Klimt – whose independent commissions separate from the Werkstätte included several portraits of the group’s most enthusiastic patrons – designed a mural that wraps around three different walls. The mural shows a sprawling tree of life motif flanked on one side by a woman and the other by a couple in embrace; the characteristic panels of gold and other colors almost dissolves the figures into an abstraction that mimics the geometric patterns and panels of the rest of the room, including the furniture. The angularity, regularity, and severity of the geometries inside the house, combined with the luxurious tastes of the client, suggest the move in the years immediately preceding World War I to a craft-like, nearly Cubist ostentation that forecasted the emergence of Art Deco in the years following the conflict.
2. Wiener Werkstätte letterhead
The letterhead of the Wiener Werkstätte must have appeared startlingly modern for its time. In contrast to most organizations, whose letterheads frequently used intricate pictorial graphics of their factories and ornamental script-like or serif typefaces, the bold geometry, clean lines, and simplified lettering of the Werkstätte speak to a precision and straightforward approach to their work. The individual sections of the design are ruled by an overarching, repetitive set of boxes and borders, which use the exact same line weights as the arms of the sans-serif lettering. At the top left, one notices the interlocking “WW” logo of the Werkstätte, which almost completely blends in as if to demonstrate that its form is the “generator” from which the rest of the design proceeds.
The design thus uses a regimented order that mimics the uses of the forme and chase in manual printing-press typesetting. This is highly appropriate, as it arguably references the hybrid-like manner in which the Werkstätte functioned as a massive, craft-based workshop that nonetheless could not completely escape the use of mechanized production (as demonstrated by its furniture). Even nature itself, as suggested by the flower-like bloom on the right side of the letterhead, is abstracted – a further revelation of the hand of the artist – but also uses the same regimented boxes that reference the role of machine production.
In the broadest sense, the letterhead also indicates the impressive range of media in which the enterprise worked (especially in contrast to the massive tectonic scale indicated by the Palais Stoclet). More specifically, on the other hand, it demonstrates the seamlessness of the Werkstätte’s graphic design, on multiple levels. This design, for example, resembles closely the layout of the address sides of the group’s postcards.
3. Silver Tea Pot Set
Josef Hoffmann’s designs before 1900 incorporated the curvilinear, organic motifs common to the then-fashionable Jugendstil and Art Nouveau styles. With the turn of the century, however, he abruptly abandoned them for a revolutionary new approach based on geometry, of which this tea service is an outstanding example. Its materials are lavish: hand-beaten silver, ebony, and semiprecious stones. Hoffmann, however, has integrated them with forms of uncompromising austerity: straight sides, domed lids, and squared-off handles. The only decoration, except for the inset jewels, is the single thin horizontal line of raised dots near the bottom of each container.
This service was made for the Weiner Werkstatte, the company of designers, artists, and craftsmen founded in Vienna in 1903 to produce luxury objects in the most advanced style. The set was purchased in 1910 by a San Francisco couple on their European wedding journey and descended from them to their grandson, the vendor to the Museum.
4. Sitzmaschine chair
The Sitzmaschine (“sitting machine”) chair, originally designed by Hoffmann for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, a sort of combination hospital/spa resort, is the best-known piece of furniture produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Its significance lies in the way it honestly discloses both function and construction without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. The legs and arms unite in dramatic curves that almost seem to suggest the forms of wheels of a machine itself in motion. Though the chair is pierced by gridded and slit-like openings, none of the lines or edges end in sharp corners, instead being rounded, which further underscores the notion of a well-oiled, harmonious machine. The exhibition of function, meanwhile, is evident in the set of balls on the back of the arms, which support a transverse bar behind the back and can be adjusted for different gradations of reclining for preferred comfort.
The chair’s association with the machine is further extended with the choice of materials, as it uses bentwood for the curved pieces, a significant instance where the Wiener Werkstätte bowed to the dictates of mass production. It represents as well a specific instance in which Austria could claim technological innovation, as the process for making bentwood were perfected in the 1830s and ’40s by Michael Thonet, a German manufacturer who moved his operations to Vienna in 1842. The Werkstätte outsourced the manufacturing duties for this chair to Jacob and Josef Kohn’s firm, which, along with Thonet, was one of the primary companies used by the Werkstätte for furniture production. Nonetheless, for all its associations with utility, the chair is notorious for being anything but comfortable for its sitters. It thus reflects the nature of Hoffmann’s design practice, wherein function was usually sacrificed to aesthetics when it became impossible to accommodate both.
5. Rundes Modell flatware set
Hoffmann’s designs for dining utensils also constitute some of the most recognizable items that the Wiener Werkstätte produced, able to be located in many museum collections in Europe and North America. This design exudes a rare sense of pure functionalism for the first decade of the new century, but one which is appropriate for the initial client of this design, the industrialist Adolphe Stoclet, whose business interests had to reflect a certain efficiency in order to be profitable.
Reintroduced by Alessi in 2015, this flatware line shows the simplification of the forms to their most essential characteristics: only handles and utensils, stripping away any extraneous ornament. The cylindrical shapes of the base of the handles of the forks and spoons taper to a thin flat plane as they reach the tongs or bowls, thus indicating the seamlessness between the hand of the user and the purpose the flatware serves. The only suggestion of decoration is the square incised at the base of the handle like a stamp that surrounds two W forms, indicating the items’ manufacturer with an absolute minimum of required work. The clarity of form and identification thus disclose the fineness of the craftsmanship to which Werkstätte artists aspired. Ironically, the sense of efficiency that the utensils exude did not match the nature of the Werkstätte’s design process, where organizational inefficiency and complete artistic freedom often contributed to wasteful expenses for materials and labor.
6. Wiener Cafe: Der Litterat (Viennese Cafe: The Man of Letters)
This design by the Czech artist Moriz Jung is one of the Werkstätte’s most famous postcards, whose subject matter, like many of its sisters, is probably most significant due to the way it situates the Workshops firmly within the realm of Viennese municipal culture – in this case, the famous Vienna coffee house. In fact, due to the geographic specificity of their subjects, the Werkstätte’s postcards perform this task of rooting the group in the city more effectively than any other type of item it produced.
The archetypal Viennese coffee house, whose form and function were well-established in the early-20th century, serves even today as one of the loci of the city’s intellectual activity, acting as a kind of great reading room serving its eponymous drink to those who tend to linger for hours while working, discussing, or digesting a great number of newspapers. The postcard’s imagery shows a caricatured example of one of the numerous writers – many of whom in real life were considered some of the most prominent Austrian intellectuals – who often inhabited the coffee house for long hours. He is slumped, presumably in a stretch of rumination – as suggested by his gaze to the space beyond the viewer – before putting the pen on his table to the paper nearby. His clothes, like his face, are rumpled in a way that suggests his intent concentration only on the work before him, and he sits on one of the high-backed upholstered seats covered in bright floral patterns, perhaps like those produced by the Werkstätte itself.
7. Cup (Josef Hoffmann and Mathilde Flogl)
Glassware formed an essential part of the Werkstätte’s production from the outset, and remained as such until the Workshops’ closure in 1932. Like textiles and clothing, Wiener Werkstätte glassware is so varied as to preclude easy choices to represent all its pieces. This cup, however, is significant on several levels. First, it illustrates the collaborative nature of much of the Werkstätte’s designs, as Josef Hoffmann was responsible for the shape of the vessel and Mathilde Flogl, one of the Workshops’ important women artists, completed the decorative painting.
Also importantly, one can also quite clearly see the enormous influence of Dagobert Peche on other designers some three years after he joined the Werkstätte: here Hoffmann has abandoned the strict geometries characteristic of his architecture and design for the applied arts between 1900 and 1915 in favor of a more decorative set of concave and convex profiles, particularly in the stem and base, but also in the flared lip. These recall the forms of Baroque and Rococo designs, and are highlighted by the way that Flogl has chosen to paint the lower half of the vessel in the alternating white and blue stripes.
Flogl’s decoration of the actual cup, meanwhile, is highly fanciful, mixing forms of birds, humans, potted plants, and deer with abstracted curves and twisted lines in a non-narrative manner; it likewise recalls the work of Peche, such as the gilt jewel box of his from two years later. The simplified forms, floating almost randomly on the surface of the vessel, seem to ask the user to choose or fashion a connection between them purely from the imagination, and perhaps serving a potential utilitarian purpose as a conversation starter over a drink. In some ways, therefore, they anticipate the developments of both Surrealism and German Expressionism during the 1920s.
8. Jewel Box
This silver jewel box is exemplary of Dagobert Peche’s creative work for the Werkstätte, which dazzled Josef Hoffmann and his colleagues from the moment that they met Peche in 1911. The box uses the motifs of a deer frolicking amongst grapevines, with the ground it stands on serving as the lid of the container. This is, in turn, perched on top of four pine cones that both serve as the legs and contain individual storage containers themselves – thus exhibiting the piece’s ultimate utility. The curves of the deer’s body and the vines and the deep ridges of the surfaces of the container recall the exuberance and ornamental qualities of Baroque and Rococo design, exhibiting a sharp contrast to the severe abstracted geometries of Hoffmann’s early work.
The jewel box’s artistic qualities exhibit several ironic twists: while the piece ostensibly functions to protect and guard valuable stones or other objects, its own precious materials and craftsmanship also rival whatever might be stored inside. On one level it only magnifies the precious nature of what it contains, both in the way the gold conceals the silver and the way it encapsulates other desirable objects. On the other hand, the valuable exterior means that it arguably ceases to perform its intended function and becomes its own precious object requiring proper safekeeping. The ultimate significance of the case, thus, might be that it subverts the honesty of construction and function common to modern architecture and the applied arts in favor of an increase in its fetishistic qualities. This aspect, along with the box’s highly exuberant forms, presciently forecasts the emergence of Art Deco and the materialistic values that characterized the culture of the Jazz Age over the coming decade.
Textiles and clothing form important parts of the surviving Werkstätte items available today, as several museums conserve considerable collections of the enterprise’s fabric swatches and samples. While this is fortunate for research purposes, the wide variety of patterns make it difficult to choose a single object as representative of the Werkstätte’s work as a whole. This dress, however, holds special prominence as a favorite of Friederike Maria Beer, one of the Werkstätte’s most devoted patrons, who insisted that Gustav Klimt depict her wearing it in a 1916 portrait (a commission otherwise unrelated to the Werkstätte). Indeed, the portrait reifies the design to a level of immortality: everyone who owned one could thus imagine herself as dressing in a Klimt painting.
The dress, created by two of the Workshops’ chief fashion designers, represents some of the Werkstätte’s innovative ideas about female fashion. Its irregular pattern of curved lines and regions, which requires one to look closely in order to detect the repetition within, also functions to obfuscate the actual shapely curves of the person wearing it. The free-flowing nature of the pattern also reflects its very nature as an “afternoon dress,” not intended for formal events, but for casual and carefree occasions. The colors of cream, blue, and tones of gray, together with the pattern, also abstractly recall the idea of running water tracing over and dripping from the contours of the human body, or the rippling of bodily forms like hair due to wind, thus deftly adding a layer of sensuality to a garment that otherwise conceals nearly the entire figure.