Heard of Bauhaus? Yes.
Heard of De Stijl? Yes.
Heard of Wiener Werkstätte? No. No?!
That’s the problem: I haven’t heard of WW either, even though they were the most fashionable and successful Viennese design brands ever. Why is that? Why is mainstream art history oblivious to some of the most innovative exponents of modernism? Is it because of the hierarchy of arts, in which decorative arts stand much lower than painting? (seriously, when I came across their products, I was struck with their innovative and extremely modern forms. Everyone talks about Klimt, or Schiele, but does anyone ever mentions designers?).
I’m inviting you to my reconstruction of WW workshops. Would you ever tell these designs are a hundred years old?!
Art to penetrate every aspect of life
Does their mission statement sound familiar? Yes, it was modelled on William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement which advocated the exactly same thing in Britain. It’s nothing surprising though, as both groups retained closed links and exchanged ideas. In 1903, WW was officially founded by the architect Josef Hoffmann, the graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser, and the industrialist and patron of the arts Fritz Waerndorfer, as the first such an organization in Austria. WW’s modern decorative arts production included furniture, interior designs, porcelain and ceramics, glass, jewelry and fashion.
Good design NOT for all
Suprise, surprise, the Viennese, on the contrary to the British, did not believe their products would appeal to the masses. They openly retained that the goods they manufactured were the high-quality products for the empire’s socioeconomic elite who could afford it, in order to refine their surroundings and lifestyle. As they declared in 1905:
The limitless harm done in the arts and crafts field by low-quality mass production on the one hand and by the unthinking imitation of old styles on the other is affecting the whole world like some gigantic flood…It would be madness to swim against this tide. Nevertheless we have founded out workshop. Where appropriate we shall try to be decorative without compulsion and not at any price.
Were they really so progressive?
As they opposed historicising ornament and advocated clear geometric lines instead, they joined the Viennese Secession in the efforts of rebelling against the old neo-classical style of the ‘Association of Austrian Artists’ that dominated Vienna. They too, promoted the modernity over the old order and function over style (yet, their functional aesthetic was very stylish, wasn’t it?). They believed in the unity of the arts and hence always strove for Gesamtkunstwerk- a total work of art, which meant that for example a building designed by Hoffman would be decorated inside with the furniture and glass designs by Moser. The example of WW Gesamtkunstwerk was the Purkersdorf sanatorium built in 1905.
Moreover, since the WW worked in so many varied areas, it supported and promoted many female artists, even though they were still constrained to work in the departments like fashion, ceramics, or textiles, which by association were more feminine. Yet, this was dictated more by the situation in the educational sector, since women could have only trained in the aforementioned workshops. Nevertheless, fashion and textiles became one of the most successful departments of the Wiener Werkstätte, with Emilie Floge, Klimt’s lover and friend, at the forefront, and soon all the stylish Viennese women wore WW.
So What Happened?
Why did WW cease its production in 1932? During the almost 30 years long activity (1903-1932), the group constantly struggled with financial problems. The global economic crisis added to their failure, as it impoverished their most prominant buyers, the Viennese middle classes. But the bigger question probably is why the WW has been forgotten for so many years.
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