Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) Centerpiece, 1924. Execution: Wiener Werksta¨tte Brass. Minneapolis Institute of Art. The Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota
BY VAL CASTRONOVO
It’s been more than a century since architect Josef Hoffmann, artist Kolomon Moser and textile industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) to unify the arts and marry form and function in the manner of the 19th century English Arts and Crafts movement. Its goal: to sow beauty into everyday life.
The collective’s idealistic principle, Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), adopted from the Vienna Secession, has been taken to heart by co-curator Christian Witt-Dörring, whose team has created three rooms at the Neue Galerie that immerse visitors in the modern aesthetic of Vienna in the early 1900s.
“You are going to be dipped in three different atmospheres going through the exhibition,” Witt-Dörring said on a tour of the show, which eschews labels in favor of booklets in each room to guide visitors. “I first create an atmosphere before you even read a label or a text. You are put in this atmosphere and then you start questioning.” Let your senses get the better of you and allow it to seep in.
“Every Wiener Werkstätte exhibit was designed as a total work of art. That’s what we wanted to create here. A total work of art means they dealt with every aspect of the arts — from the architecture to interior decoration to jewelry to graphic design.”
Faithful to the concept, there’s silverware, ceramics, glass works, furniture, lamps, leatherwork, metalwork, textiles, wallpaper, friezes, postcards and architectural models and design drawings displayed in tall vitrines that line the walls and in free-standing cases, some of them hand-painted with floral decorations. The more than 400 objects and their distinct environments illustrate the design group’s full range and evolving aesthetic.
The first, very austere room pays tribute to the early production — the “Founding Years” from 1903 to 1905 — when black-and-white designs and the simple geometric forms of Josef Hoffmann for the luxury market ruled. The second room, showcasing products from the “Harvesting Years” from 1906 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, introduces color and ornamentation and bears witness to the beginning of mass-produced goods like postcards and fabrics.
The third room, Witt-Dörring’s favorite, is devoted to the later production — the “Years of Reinvention” from 1915 to the liquidation of the firm in 1932 — when exclusive, one-of-a-kind pieces in gold, silver and semi-precious stones increasingly gave way to cheaper, mass-produced items in glass, ceramics, wood and paper. (No worries, though, luxury was hardly dead as the silver bottle-stoppers attest.)
As the curator said: “In 1914, this world that was enabling this kind of luxury production collapses. The country is suffering an economic disaster. There’s no food, no heating material. The haute bourgeoisie that was the main clientele of this production lost most of its money because they were signing up for war bonds. That was all problematic, so [the workshops] have to reinvent themselves, which leads us to the last room.”
Because of conscription, the Wiener Werkstätte lost most of its male craftsmen; next generation designers like Dagobert Peche were drafted. In response to the talent drain and scarcity of materials, in 1916 the group established artists’ workshops on the premises, which were dominated by women, and started making ceramics, which until then had been outsourced. “It’s the beginning of expressionist ceramic production,” Witt-Dörring said. Female artists also began creating their own designs for textiles and fashion accessories.
Relics from Vienna’s extravagant Cabaret Fledermaus, established in 1907 with interiors designed by the Wiener Werkstätte, can be seen in the second room and illustrate the group’s early spare-no-expense vision. “This is a program for a production that maybe lasted one week—all hand-printed,” the curator said, surveying the remnants. “Hoffmann designed the famous Fledermaus chair for it in bentwood. It was this idea that the quality has to be in every detail. They brought the cook from Paris to produce the meals in the cabaret” and designed the gravy boats, serving dishes, cutlery and more. “It’s wonderful this saucepot.”
But a parallel aesthetic developed in response to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after defeat in World War I and the subsequent loss of the empire’s markets. The Arts and Crafts philosophy, which elevated functional items into works of art, was called into question and an effort was made to appeal to a wider audience.
“A small class of major industrialists serving as patrons was increasingly replaced by the broad class of bourgeois customers,” Witt-Dörring writes in the lavishly illustrated catalog. Form and function were no longer married. “Either it’s art or it has to function,” he said, invoking Dagobert Peche.
Hence the reemergence of old techniques, like overlay glass, and retro styles — tea services with baroque shapes and handles. As he concluded about an ornate centerpiece designed by Hoffmann, circa 1924: “Designers were not afraid of the old styles any more. They could be inspired by them again and create something new from them. It’s like a piece of Rococo. You could buy it in brass or silver.”