Various institutions left their mark on the history of art and design. The Wiener Werkstätte community of artisans, artists, and designers, for example, played an important role in the cultural (r)evolution of the early 1900s in Vienna.
- Pioneers in merging art, design and utility in numerous aspects of daily life
- Associated with many top names (Hoffman, Moser, Klimt and others)
- Products covered everything from coffee cups to palace interiors
- See also: Wiener Moderne
What was the Wiener Werkstätte?
(Silver fork by the Wiener Werkstätte; photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
A note in the official Wiener Zeitung newspaper announced the formation of the Wiener Werkstätte on May 12th, 1903, describing it as (my translation) a producer cooperative of artisans in Vienna. Indeed, an accurate translation of the name into English is Viennese Workshop (or Vienna Workshop).
This artisan and design enterprise and community sought to create, make (or commission), and sell products based on particular criteria, namely:
- High-quality materials
- A combination of practicality with artistic quality (following the idea that art has a place everywhere)
Their remit covered numerous areas, including jewelry, ceramics, furniture, textiles, glassware, posters, postcards, and more.
The Wiener Werkstätte essentially snubbed its nose at the growth of industrialisation in manufacturing. It also moved firmly away from historicism; the prevailing admiration for (and devotion to) past styles and design approaches.
The enterprise and brand enjoyed international success but fell victim to the vagaries of history and economics: the global depression saw Wiener Werkstätte close its doors for good in 1932.
Why is it important?
(Postcard of Belvedere by Urban Janke from 1908, published by the Wiener Werkstätte; Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In a local sense, the Wiener Werkstätte formed one cornerstone of the wider Wiener Moderne movement: the astonishing period of artistic and intellectual creativity and evolution across multiple fields in the early 1900s that gave rise to all those exhibits you now see in museums across the globe.
The Werkstätte founders included two great names in art history, namely architect (and designer) Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and painter (and designer) Koloman Moser (1868-1918). The third co-founder was the industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer (1868–1939).
In an international sense, the Wiener Werkstätte also affected the broader artisan and design world and undoubtedly influenced the emergence of such movements as Germany’s Bauhaus.
Part of Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser’s enduring reputation derived from their involvement with the enterprise (and the numerous items they designed for it). Many other famous names in the design and art world also found themselves working for the Wiener Werkstätte. For example:
- Gustav Klimt produced a mosaic frieze for the interior design of Palais Stoclet in Brussels
- Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele designed postcards
Dozens of designers and artists became involved with the enterprise at one time or another, including numerous women (the subject of a 2021 exhibition at Vienna’s MAK museum).
Where to learn more
(MAK Permanent Collection Vienna 1900: Design / Arts and Crafts 1890–1938
© MAK/Georg Mayer)
The main way to explore the works and importance of the Wiener Werkstätte is to visit those museums with an emphasis on the same time period. Two in particular stand out.
- The MAK museum: the permanent displays contain many items from the hands of Werkstätte artisans and designers. 2021 will also see the installation of a specific Wiener Werkstätte showcase in the Wien 1900 permanent exhibition.
The MAK actually owns the archives of the Werkstätte (preliminary sketches and drafts, posters, books, letters and similar). The museum’s temporary exhibitions often cover the same era or relevant personalities, such as recent ones for Prutscher (in 2020) and Moser (in 2019).
- The Leopold Museum: the permanent exhibition on Vienna around 1900 also covers the work and influence of the Wiener Werkstätte. In particular, they have a rather beautiful gallery that presents examples of tableware, jewelry, glassware and similar.
(Josef Hoffmann, design for: J. & L. Lobmeyr Parts of the drink sets “Serie B” und “Schwarzbronzit Var. F”, from around 1911 © Ernst Ploil, Wien Foto: Leopold Museum, Wien/ Manfred Thumberger)
The last time I visited the Augarten porcelain museum, the display included examples demonstrating the influence of Wiener Werkstätte visual design concepts. Augarten still sell, for example, the classic Melone coffee cup and saucer designed by Hoffmann.
The Werkstätte tradition of combining aesthetics, utility and quality materials also continues in many of today’s local arts and crafts enterprises.
Take a peek, for example at some of the businesses under the Wien Products umbrella. Or the Österreichischen Werkstätte (English: Austrian Workshops), who emerged as a natural successor to the Wiener Werkstätte and were actually founded by Josef Hoffmann in 1948.