The Wiener Werkstätte
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
- The Wiener Werkstätte was the first organization in Austria dedicated to the production of modern decorative arts. Together with the Vienna Secession, out of which it was formed, it broke away from the stylistic revivals that had dominated Austrian architecture and design during the 19th century, though eventually it returned to historical tropes when new designers joined the group in the 1910s.
- The Wiener Werkstätte initially emphasized the creation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," that sought to create a unified aesthetic across an entire designed environment, though this effort eventually fragmented into a highly diverse set of fields, with less and less emphasis on architecture and large-scale interiors, largely due to the financial constraints of the group's clients.
- The Wiener Werkstätte innovatively envisioned that many of its activities would complement and promote each other - for example, its postcards often featured the Workshops' output in architecture, textiles, fashion, and glass and ceramics - a move that helped Werkstätte attain two of its goals: first, narrowing the gap in prestige between artistic genres; and second, bolstering the commercial visibility of its designs.
- Unlike other contemporaneous movements in the decorative arts and design, the Wiener Werkstätte did not seek to create an art that would be accessible to all and enlighten the masses; instead, the group focused on the highest quality craftsmanship and materials for a socioeconomic elite that, perhaps ironically, would treat its work more as art objects than utilitarian items.
- Translated as the "Viennese Workshops," the name Wiener Werkstätte represents well the nature of its organization: it incorporated the craft-based production of decorative arts in a mostly rural country, which was historically concentrated in its primary metropolis. Though its artists made ample use of new industrial materials, they resisted temptations to completely turn to mass production.
- The artistry of the Wiener Werkstätte always took primacy over the commercial bottom line of the enterprise, and its reliance on wealthy underwriters to sustain its activities contributed to its gross financial insolvency. This, exacerbated by periods of broader economic troubles, was primarily responsible for its demise.
Overview of The Wiener Werkstätte
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
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.
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.
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
- Wiener Werkstätte: 1903-1932Our PickBy Gabriele Fahr-Becker
- Wiener Werkstätte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932By Christian Brandstatter
- Viennese Design and the Wiener WerkstätteBy Jane Kallir
- Modernism: Wiener Werkstätte - Minneapolis Institute of Art
- Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstaette - WOKA Lamps Vienna
- Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection - The Wolfsonian-FIU
- Curator's Perspective Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte - FristCenterLecture by Janis Staggs, associate director for curatorial and publications, Neue Galerie New York