The Wiener Werkstätte - History and Concepts
Beginnings of The Wiener Werkstätte
The Wiener Werkstätte grew out of the Vienna Secession, the movement with which many of its chief designers were affiliated, and was part of the larger emergence of the importance of the decorative arts in Vienna at the turn of the century. Founded on 3 April 1897, the Secession consisted of a group of artists who resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, which ran the Kunstlerhaus (Artists' House), the only venue in Vienna for the exposition of contemporary art. The Association of Austrian Artists favored the work of conservative, academically-minded painters and sculptors to the detriment of progressive-minded ones, as well as decorative artists.
The leaders of the Secession included Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Max Kurzweil, Wilhelm Bernatzik, and several other artists. Klimt served as its first president. In January 1898, the group began publishing its own journal, Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), and Olbrich designed its famous exhibition building, completed that year. The Secession also gained significant credence in 1898 when Otto Wagner, the most respected name amongst Austrian architects and a professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, joined the group, a move that shocked the national academic establishment.
The Secession was the group most associated with the development of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) in Austria. It favored the international exchange of artistic ideas, and welcomed artists such as the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to exhibit in Vienna. Mackintosh's highly geometric and rectilinear forms exerted a great influence on Austrian designers, as did the work of designers from the British Arts & Crafts Movement, whose work had generated much enthusiasm in Germany and were known for their emphasis on utilitarian design.
Inspired by these examples, in 1903 two Secession members, the architect Josef Hoffmann and designer Koloman Moser, formed an even-more-specific organization, the Wiener Werkstätte, 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. The Werkstätte set up shop in three relatively small rooms but soon expanded in October 1903 to a full three-story building, with facilities that were lauded by the contemporary press. The Werkstätte was backed financially by Fritz Waerndorfer, a wealthy textile industrialist who had shown great enthusiasm for the Secession.
Building a Brand
The Wiener Werkstätte had an auspicious beginning. In 1904 its artists exhibited for the first time at Berlin's Hohenzollern Kunstgewerbehaus (Decorative Arts House), for which the art journal Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration published the first article on the enterprise, and soon developed a very close relationship covering the Wiener Werkstätte's activities. The Werkstätte also received its first official commission that year, for the production of a lavish publication commemorating the centennial of the Austrian Imperial and Royal Court and State Printing Press.
Initially, Hoffmann merged his architectural practice with the workshop's activities, which he ended after a lawsuit in 1905. He received commissions for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium in 1903 and Moser contributed stained-glass windows for the Steinhof Church, designed by Otto Wagner, Hoffmann's mentor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in the 1890s. In 1905, having only completed a handful of houses in Vienna, Hoffmann received the commission for the Werkstätte's most important undertaking: the Palais Stoclet for the banker and railroad magnate Adolphe Stoclet in Brussels, whose design and construction would occupy the group for the next five years.
The Werkstätte relied heavily on its participation in expositions all over Europe to help build a network of clients. Along with the German-speaking countries, Great Britain provided the Werkstätte early opportunities for exposure, and during the First World War the organization sustained its activities despite undoubtedly the shortages of materials, exhibiting in neutral countries like Switzerland and Sweden. After the war, Austria - unlike Germany - was not blacklisted from international fairs, and the Werkstätte was represented well at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (which gave us, forty years later, the term Art Deco), in the extremely modern Austrian pavilion designed by Hoffmann.
Stylistically, the Wiener Werkstätte did not adhere to any stated set of guidelines. The principles of its founders were very similar to other progressive movements of the period. The focus on the design of utilitarian objects included the use of materials in ways consistent with their natural properties, emphasized the goal of raising the status of the decorative or applied arts in relation to the traditional dominance of painting and sculpture, and aimed to be in tune with current thinking and trends. Thus the real aesthetic qualities of the Werkstätte were often left to the individual designers, with the result that scholars and collectors can easily assign many of the workshop's examples to their creators at first glance.
Expansion, Sales, and Distribution
The Werkstätte soon expanded its activities into a highly complex network of artists, craftsmen, sales outlets, and production sites. In 1910 it established a fashion department and the next year opened showrooms exclusively for fashion and textiles on the Kärtnerstrasse in a fashionable district of Vienna. Eventually it would add retail locations in Marienbad and Zurich in 1916, New York in 1921, Velden in 1922, and Berlin (for just a few months) in 1929. Increasingly after 1910 it became far less known for its work in creating entire built environments than for the individual pieces of decorative or applied art such as its glasswork, ceramics, fashion, and graphic work.
Meanwhile, the Werkstätte, which officially reported that it employed some 100 workers in 1905, including 37 master craftsmen, established various types of affiliations with other firms and artists. Some of these produced Werkstätte designs; others sold the Werkstätte's products in their own stores; some individual artists and firms produced items that the Werkstätte itself sold in its storerooms, sometimes on consignment or where the artists were paid by the piece with the Werkstätte acting as a middleman. Some artists, such as Gustav Klimt, produced occasional work in concert with the Werkstätte without formally joining it.
Starting in 1907 the Werkstätte functioned as the distributor for the Wiener Keramik, a ceramics enterprise founded by Berthold Loffler and Michael Powolny the previous year. The Wiener Keramik would supply tilework for some of the Werkstätte's most significant commissions, such as the famous interior decor of the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna from that year. Most importantly, perhaps, from the start the Wiener Werkstätte worked with the Backhausen textile company in Vienna, who produced many of the firm's fabric designs, including those for some of the Werkstätte's most important commissions, such as the Palais Stoclet and the Villa Primavesi in Vienna.
Relationship with Mass Production and Industry
The factory-like structure of the Wiener Werkstätte, with a large cadre of official and unofficial employees, might suggest that it would wholeheartedly embrace the new means of mass production and assembly-line techniques that were quickly transforming the face of modern industry worldwide. Yet this was not the case. The Austro-Hungarian Empire (and, after World War I, merely Austria itself) was not a heavily industrialized country or even one whose population cultivated a rich and broad artistic sensibility. Small collections of industries remained scattered around the Empire and its unwieldy amalgam of different nationalities, most of whom deeply resented the favoritism shown to Austrians and Hungarians. All of these factors meant that Vienna almost exclusively had the population and industrial capacities to support the cooperation of art and industry, and handcraft was the norm for most utilitarian goods.
The Wiener Werkstätte even officially acknowledged that it favored the specialized output of artists and craftsmen over the streamlined output of mass production, which it feared would lower the quality of goods it produced. This stood in stark contrast to the rapid industrialization in (for example) Germany, where designers and industrialists united formally in an organization called the German Werkbund to align both of these fields (though not without famous disagreements, such as the confrontation between the two factions at the Cologne Exhibition of 1914). Although before World War I Hoffmann had helped to organize a similar organization, the Austrian Werkbund, its ability to coordinate between designers and producers never approached the organizational successes of its German counterpart.
In contrast to many other design movements, a significant number of the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte were women. Maria Likarz, Jutta Sika, Mela Kohler, Valerie ("Vally") Wieselthier, and Mathilde Flogl, for example, were responsible for many of the Werkstätte's designs in a wide variety of media. These included textiles and fashion, principally, but also extended to graphics and ceramics. Unfortunately, the traditional male-chauvinist climate of the era meant that critics blamed the ultimate decline of the Werkstätte's fortunes in the 1920s on the influence of female designers, despite the absence of real evidence to that effect.
One of the consequences of the decision of the Wiener Werkstätte to eschew the methods of mass production was the narrowness of its customer base. Unlike the aspirations of the practitioners of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain or the United States or Art Nouveau in European countries, the Werkstätte's aim was never to appeal to individuals of all backgrounds and to make art accessible to the working classes. Instead, it relied on a more refined audience, mostly upper- and middle-class clients in major metropolitan areas, including large numbers of Jewish supporters, or artists who were already included within its circle.
The Wiener Werkstätte: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Wiener Werkstätte was heavily influenced by the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk that permeated the thought of Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts Movement at the same time. After the 1902 Turin Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts, however, Art Nouveau entered its definitive decline in the German-speaking countries, thus prolonging the search for a unifying set of visual forms to represent the modern world of the new century. The buildings and interiors of the Wiener Werkstätte, therefore, represent the most complete vision of a modern environment that Hoffmann and his associated artists could produce, requiring the coordinated effort of the multitude of Werkstätte craftsmen and designers. Hoffmann's status as the group's only real architect was unusual for modern collective artistic movements, and as the only leader of the Werkstätte who remained affiliated with it for the entirety of its existence, his hand is evident in virtually every area of the Werkstätte's production.
This vision is made permanently evident in the major houses that the Werkstätte artists designed, for which they were given virtually carte blanche, in particular Adolf Stoclet's residence in Brussels. The absence of official public commissions in the city following the completion of the Ringstrasse's governmental and institutional buildings in the 1880s meant that the Werkstätte's built structures remained relatively few and far between. Other examples, however, can be seen in the interiors of various commercial establishments, such as cafes and salons, that the Werkstätte worked on - and sometimes distributed on postcards, such as the famed issues of the colorful tilework of Vienna's Cabaret Fledermaus - as well as the photographs of numerous temporary designs for interiors that the Werkstätte produced for exhibitions.
The furniture produced by the Werkstätte remains some of the group's most recognizable work. It was a natural genre for the group to pursue as a foundational pillar of the decorative arts and for architecture, as the interiors for which the Werkstätte became especially famous both at exhibitions and for commercial clients demanded furniture as a prime component of the design.
Much like the Arts & Crafts Movement, there is an emphasis on the honesty of construction and the materials used in Wiener Werkstätte furniture. Hoffmann and Moser were initially the two artists responsible for furniture design, and the two can be distinguished from each other often by the materials used, reflective very much of their backgrounds. While Moser - the painter by training - was fond of using inlay to create gradations of color in otherwise blocky, massive pieces that have been said to look better as two-dimensional designs, Hoffmann - the architect - was more inclined to a lighter structure that included solely material necessary for the piece to function. Hoffman's pieces, especially the chairs, frequently make use of his favorite grid of squares puncturing the wood panels, thus revealing their true thickness and mass.
The Werkstätte tended not to produce its own furniture designs, though it was equipped with facilities for shaping wood; the bentwood pieces, such as Hoffmann's famous Sitzmaschine chair, were entrusted to Gebruder Thonet or J. & J. Kohn. The manufacture of bentwood itself was not an especially new process, having been perfected in the mid-19th century, but it was one of the most modern industries in Vienna and was invented by the cabinetmaker Michael Thonet, who moved to the city from Germany in 1842 and relocated his business there. Thus, it was appropriate that, in a relatively backward technological state such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the instances in which the Werkstätte used modern manufacturing methods were for products pioneered by Austrians.
Both architecture and furniture, the two largest scales of design produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, were most prominent in the group's production before World War I. As the client base for the Werkstätte became increasingly limited during and after the war (when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved), the commissions in these fields correspondingly dried up.
Most of the Werkstätte's glasswork was produced as functional drinking vessels, regardless of whether they were destined for actual use. The other major area in which the Werkstätte relied on other firms for manufacturing was glass, produced historically in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia that are now part of the Czech Republic. Instead, the Werkstätte licensed firms in these areas to produce designs, initially by Hoffmann and Moser, and upon receipt of the blown and shaped pieces back in Vienna, another artist - after 1915 often a woman - would paint them by hand.
Fashion and Textiles
The Werkstätte's fashion and textile departments were not part of the initial program of the group, but by 1911 they had both been separately established and given their own showrooms. They soon became some of the most important parts of the Werkstätte's designs, and a mainstay of the production in the last fifteen years of the group's existence, especially when other areas of the Werkstätte's design program were declining. The Werkstätte built a new factory for fashion and textile production in 1914, and expanded the showrooms in Vienna in 1919. In 1924, it officially boasted 150 employees in the fashion division, which was technically spun off as an independent company (though it was reattached three years later). Initially headed by Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill and then Dagobert Peche, by the early 1920s most of its artists and craftspeople were women, including some of the more famous designers of the group such as Mela Kohler and Maria Likarz.
The fashion and textile departments also cultivated a close relationship with the Werkstätte's graphic design section, as fashion photography in Vienna was still in its infancy throughout the 1910s. As such, the Werkstätte's postcards became one of the prime vehicles for advertising clothing and textile patterns, some of which might be featured on cards with other purposes, such as holiday greetings.
To a large extent, the exclusivity of the Wiener Werkstätte's items is reflected even in their pieces that are available on the market today, despite the wide variety of media they produced. The fame of the artistic postcards produced by the Wiener Werkstätte - which depict an extremely wide variety of subjects, from the group's architecture and fashion designs to characters from children's narratives - help to set the Workshops apart from many other design movements. The postcards functioned in a way to advertise the activities of the Workshops both in graphic design and many of their other media, particularly the designs for women's fashions and the interiors of cafes and shops Hoffman and his collaborators completed.
The postcards are serially numbered and can be dated given the number assigned to them; in many cases, they also contain the prominent monogram of the designers of the items depicted, acting like a signature, as if to give the artist's official approval of the work's final form. They thus constitute one of the fairly rare instances wherein ephemera is truly raised to the status of high art. The stature of Wiener Werkstätte postcards as art objects is only reinforced by the particular individuals who are known to collect them - including the cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder, whose promised gifts of his cache of Werkstätte postcards have caught the eye of several prominent museums and have been the subject of several recent exhibitions.
While nearly ephemeral Wiener Werkstätte items such as postcards can be collected, they nonetheless command a premium when offered for sale, especially because of their associations with some of the best Austrian designers of the era. Even when sold during the early-20th century, the cards were often considered collector's items and not sent through the mail, and to attest to their popularity, the Werkstätte itself would display them in its shop windows. It is now probably much more difficult to locate a Wiener Werkstätte postcard that has been postmarked than an unused example.
Metalwork and Ceramics
As the postcards demonstrate, the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk as extending to covering every aspect of the human environment held true for the Wiener Werkstätte even down to the smallest items. Metalwork initially was reserved for highly functional items, such as baskets for desktop organization and other useful containers. Hoffmann's penchant in his early pieces for the repeated grid of punched squares through a piece of sheet metal, forming a waffle-pattern structure called Gitterwerk, became one of the Werkstätte's most recognizable designs. The repetitive, pure forms, uncluttered by extraneous decoration, look modern and highly functional to us even today. Similar features could be described in the Werkstätte's ceramics production before World War I.
In 1915, the addition of Dagobert Peche to the Werkstätte staff changed the course of the group's designs, instilling a far more enlivened, theatrical, and baroque sensibility to them that in some ways look modern, with their fragmented forms that appear as if they were picked up from the scrap pile and strange, non-narrative combinations of figures, and in other ways look retrograde due to their use of familiar imagery, like animals and plants. Some clearly reference Art Nouveau and other contemporaneous styles and movements, such as Peche's chandeliers that appear like tree branches and leaves. The collaborative nature of the Werkstätte's environment meant that Peche's designs became infectious; Hoffmann virtually abandoned the extreme geometries of his early work for an abundance of sensuous curves, knobs, and protruding handles.
Typography and Graphic Design
Peche's arrival also prompted a revolution in the Werkstätte's graphic work. The Werkstätte's official logo, created by Moser around 1903 but not registered officially until 1914, consisted of an interlocking sans-serif "WW" that uses thick weights for the characters' arms, framed by a square with a weight of equal thickness; it formed the basis for most of the group's early typography. The affinity for such rectilinear qualities mirrors the forms seen in the Werkstätte's contemporaneous work in most other fields, as the artists' monograms found on Werkstätte designs and the initials of clients stamped on personalized pieces before the war all usually contained stylized letters set within a square border. The emphasis on the two-dimensional surface, meanwhile, constitutes an homage to honest graphic design in its pure form and forecasts the sans-serif lines used by many Bauhaus designers such as Herbert Bayer.
While this logo lasted for the duration of the Werkstätte's existence, the group's typography underwent profound changes; Peche's influence introduced serif characters of varying weights that created the illusion of three-dimensionality, strongly resembling the typefaces simultaneously popular in Art Deco graphics of the 1920s.
Later Developments - After The Wiener Werkstätte
The prime issue for the Wiener Werkstätte was, unsurprisingly, money, which was problematic from the start. Koloman Moser left the enterprise as early as 1907, partly due to the fact that he did not want his wealthy wife (whose accounts were kept separate from his own) to become entangled with the group's finances, and was insulted when Warendorfer and Hoffmann went over his head to directly ask her for a loan.
The Werkstätte never was able to become financially solvent on its own, and relied constantly on Warendorfer's capital to support a huge number of craftsmen and their activities. Its relationship with its benefactors could probably be best described - as Jane Kallir has indicated - as constantly looking for a "milk cow" that would continue to pour money into it without expecting a return on the investment. This was essentially Warendorfer's understanding of his role until he essentially went bankrupt in 1913 and - having been long considered the black sheep of the family - his relatives shipped him off to the United States after settling the organization's debt.
The problems were exacerbated by the Werkstätte's limited client base from the start, as it never intended to truly develop a mass appeal or accessibility for its items. These limitations sometimes fed back on themselves, as the Werkstätte counted many of its own and related artists among its clients, who, if unpaid, would also be unable to compensate the Workshops for the work and materials expended on its own projects.
In 1914 the Wiener Werkstätte was liquidated and reorganized as a private corporation, and found another backer, the banker Otto Primavesi, whose business contacts and acumen for a time in the late 1910s seemed to produce a profit amongst some of the Werkstätte's various branches, especially with Primavesi's ability to get the Werkstätte to exhibit at international trade shows. Otto Primavesi's cousin Robert even commissioned an entire house from Hoffmann and the associated Wiener Werkstätte artists in Vienna in 1913. In 1915, Dagobert Peche joined the Werkstätte and reinvigorated much of the small-scale production of clothing, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, and crafts with an infectious, baroque personal style that soon spread to many other Werkstätte artists, including Hoffmann, who soon abandoned the severe geometries that had characterized his earliest designs for the group.
But this second wind was short-lived. As World War I dragged on, resources and money amongst the Werkstätte's clients became increasingly tight, and these only deepened with the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its breakup in the war's aftermath. Material shortages plagued the Werkstätte, making it difficult to produce items with genuine silk, silver, gold, and other metals, stones, and fabrics as originally envisioned. The quality of craftsmanship suffered as a result, with products that began to appear more like cheap knockoffs or knickknacks than fine art, damaging the Werkstätte's brand.
In the early 1920s, Philipp Häusler was brought in to reorganize the Workshops, and discovered that Hoffmann's system of allowing artists complete creative freedom had created an unsustainable environment of waste and ineptitude. Often craftsmen of questionable ability had been hired, including some of Primavesi's destitute relatives, with the result that their work squandered materials and time when it had to be scrapped altogether. Häusler's reorganization efforts may have been too little too late, as he was fired in 1925. In 1926 Primavesi's bank failed, and soon the Werkstätte went into receivership before its creditors granted it a reprieve, but the stock market crash of 1929 finally did it in. By 1931 it was clear that the Werkstätte would not survive, and its remaining inventory was sold off in September 1932.
Despite its persistent financial troubles, the Wiener Werkstätte today represents the height of Austrian decorative art design during the first half of the 20th century, and examples of its work exist in dozens of museums and private collections, mainly in Europe and North America. Perhaps due to its remarkable emphasis on artistic freedom and its commitment to the spirit of the times, its designers' work did not seem to go out of style while it existed.
At its outset, the works of the Werkstätte artists anticipated the turn away from Art Nouveau that soon became apparent across Europe in the first decade of the 20th century towards a more severely geometric aesthetic. On the one hand, this harmonized with the revival of interest in classicism, which would eventually morph into Art Deco in the 1920s, a style with which many late Wiener Werkstätte designs exhibited a number of similarities. On the other hand, the simplicity of forms also reflected a minimalist aesthetic and emphasis on functional design that reflected the values of the Bauhaus in Germany, especially the emphasis on craft that Walter Gropius and his faculty promulgated during the school's early years.
The rights to the original designs of the Wiener Werkstätte are owned by various companies and many of them are still in production today. Backhausen, for example, owns a large number of the textile schemes, and WOKA owns a significant portion of the lighting designs. Backhausen even maintains a Museum of the Wiener Werkstätte in the basement of its headquarters in Vienna.