Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Vienna Workshop, I

The “Wiener Werkstatte” and its Ex Libris Artists

The Vienna Workshop


Heinrich R. Scheffer

When the Oestereichische Exlibris Gesellschaft (Austrian Ex Libris Society) was established over hundred years ago, it also marked the foundation of the Wiener Werkstätte as a “Cooperative of Craftsmen in Vienna,” whose aim was to promote the financial interests of its members – through teaching and instruction in the arts and crafts; through the making of all different forms of art /…/ designs, and through the establishment of workshops and the sale of their merchandise. The official name in the trade register concealed the initiative of two progressive Viennese artists and of a patron of the arts. They were Josef Hoffmann and Kolo Moser, professors at the arts-school in Vienna, and Fritz Waerndorfer, an art connoisseur and visionary, but most importantly a financially strong banker. They wanted to put into action the rather theoretical program of progressive Viennese artistry, calling it the “Secession” and injecting it with new life. “Stilkunst” (the art of style) should be incorporated into the “collective body of art,” and the works of the secessionists should encompass all areas of life.

Within the secessionist movement, Hoffmann and Moser were in charge of arts and crafts, and they tried to revitalize local or native handicrafts and techniques. These were to be transformed according to new criteria, as it was successfully done by Charles Robert Ashbee in his London workshop. The motto was “Art should be affordable for all” – whereby the craftsman was not working anonymously, as a “production machine” but in collaboration with the designer, and also having contact with the customer.

The Wiener Werkstätte (hereinafter WW) was a flourishing enterprise from its beginnings in 1903 until the company closed down in 1932. It managed to continue to do well even through World War 1, and in 1922 the WW set up a subsidiary in New York City. This company was registered under “Wiener Werkstätte of America Inc.” and had a salesroom at 581 Fifth Avenue. The commodity was therefore well established and much valued by collectors in the USA.

A sensitive modernization in the arts and crafts was noticeable as early as in autumn of 1900, at the VIII Exhibition of the Wiener Sezession (Viennese Secession), at which the works of the Scottish couple Margaret and Charles Rennie Macintosh were presented. First contacts with the British crafts-philosophy and their proponents were made during this time, which led to a lively exchange of ideas. One can draw a direct line from London to Vienna, and Hoffmann and Moser believed that, in a collective workshop, they would most likely be able to implement their new principles.

Initially Hoffmann’s and Moser’s artistic personalities dominated with their designs, but the English influence was highly visible. The black/white contrast, the square, irregular patterns by Macintosh were formative. The quadrat as ornament became the logo for Josef Hoffmann’s trellis decors; and the geometric shapes, such as the sphere, the cube, the ashlar or the cylinder, which were, at least during the first years of production the main features of design of the Vienna Workshop’s manufactured items. The monogram of the WW, and its registered trademark – the Rose label –and the signets of each employee also show the basic quadratic elements.

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