New Design

The Wiener Werkstätte

The Wiener Werkstätte Collage
Started: 1903
Ended: 1932
Our aim is to create an island of tranquility in our own country which, amid the joyful hum of arts and crafts, would be welcome to anyone who professes faith in Ruskin and Morris.
Josef Hoffmann

Summary of The Wiener Werkstätte

The Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops) was one of the longest-lived design movements of the twentieth century and a key organization for the development of modernism. 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. Led by the unassuming architect Josef Hoffmann and his associates such as Dagobert Peche and Koloman Moser, the Wiener Werkstätte drew from movements such as the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau as well as from traditional folk art, and forecasted the flowering of Art Deco and the International Style in the interwar period. Its demise in the midst of repeated financial crises demonstrates the ultimate inability of artistic enterprises to completely free themselves from the economic concerns of the age.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Overview of The Wiener Werkstätte

The Wiener Werkstätte Image

Raging against "The boundless evil caused by shoddy mass-produced goods and by the uncritical imitation of earlier styles," Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffman founded the Wiener Werkstätte as "an island of tranquility..amid the joyful hum of arts and crafts."

Important Art and Artists of The Wiener Werkstätte

Josef Hoffmann: Palais Stoclet (1905-10)

Palais Stoclet (1905-10)

Artist: Josef Hoffmann

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.

Koloman Moser: Wiener Werkstätte letterhead (c. 1904)

Wiener Werkstätte letterhead (c. 1904)

Artist: Koloman Moser

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.

Josef Hoffmann: Sitzmaschine chair (1905)

Sitzmaschine chair (1905)

Artist: Josef Hoffmann

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.

Useful Resources on The Wiener Werkstätte

Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"The Wiener Werkstätte Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 16 May 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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