Joseph Maria Olbrich

Joseph Maria Olbrich
© Bildarchiv und Grafiksammlung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

A co-founder of the Vienna Secession, the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich committed himself to the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk or universal work of art. He was also one of the founders of the Deutscher Werkbund and worked as a designer and graphic artist. He significantly influenced modernist art and architecture through works like the Vienna Secession’s exhibition building and the Mathildenhöhe Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt.

Joseph Maria Olbrich was born in the Austro-Silesian town of Troppau (now Opava, Czech Republic) on 22 December 1867. His wealthy father Edmund Olbrich owned a honey- and gingerbread bakery, held shares in the brick factories of Olbrich and Lamla, and was on the town council. After dropping out of secondary school early, Olbrich completed an apprenticeship as a mason and bricklayer with master builder Hubert Kmentt. In 1882 he moved to Vienna to attend the State Trade School and the architecture classes of Julius Deininger and Camillo Sitte. Olbrich returned to Troppau after graduating in 1886 and began working for the August Bartel construction company as a draftsman, but quickly rose to become a senior architect.

To complement his training as a builder, he returned to Vienna in 1890, where he studied architecture under Carl Hasenauer at the Academy of Fine Arts. He won several prizes with his designs and was even able to convince Otto Wagner of his abilities, who employed him at his office from 1893 on. Initially a draftsman, Olbrich later also worked under Wagner’s supervision on the buildings of the Stadtbahn, developing from late Romanticist and Neo-Baroque master builder to early Secessionist architect with a liking for floral ornament. A State Prize Scholarship (Rome Prize) took him to Italy, North Africa, France, England, and Germany between 1893 and 1895.

Olbrich became a member of the Cooperative of Visual Artists in Vienna in 1894, but also joined forces with Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Urban, and Kolo Moser to form the loose Siebener Club group of artists (Club of the Seven), which was interested in avant-garde art movements, and was one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession alongside Gustav Klimt in 1897. Even before the official establishment of the artists’ association, Olbrich, who was also a frequent guest of Fritz Waerndorfer and Carl Moll, began planning his own exhibition building, which opened in 1898. The modern building, with its white façade, dome of gilded laurel leaves, and the Vienna Secession’s motto “DER ZEIT IHRE KVNST. DER KVNST IHRE FREIHEIT” (“To Every Time Its Art. To Art Its Freedom”), prompted heated discussions due to its radically new appearance. In the following years, Olbrich was repeatedly responsible for the association’s exhibition designs and also supplied designs for the first two year volumes of the association magazine Ver Sacrum, on whose editorial board he sat in 1899. Even earlier, he had provided such graphic artwork as illustrations, vignettes, and initials for Der Architekt.

Olbrich left Wagner’s studio in 1898. His private commissions mostly had to do with both renovations and new buildings, as well as residential interiors. The Villa Friedmann in Hinterbrühl, the Stöhr residence and business headquarters in St. Pölten, and Hermann Bahr’s villa in Ober St. Veit were among his most prestigious works.

Olbrich developed ideal architectural plans for a town of villas called Cobenzl-Krapfenwaldl and horticultural designs, which, however, would never be realized. In 1899 he published a portfolio of architectural studies with a foreword by Ludwig Hevesi under the title Ideen von Olbrich [“Ideas by Olbrich”]. His architectural ideas were inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement and the Belgian Art Nouveau style of Victor Horta and Henry van der Velde. With his holistic approach, which meant that everything, from the largest to the smallest element of form, would be designed by him, Olbrich created universal works of art ranging from architecture to furnishings.

Call to Darmstadt
At the invitation of Grand Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse, Olbrich was called to Darmstadt to help found an artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe. The opportunity to realize his ideas on estate planning led him to move to Darmstadt in 1899, where he significantly influenced the renewal of German architecture. He shaped Mathildenhöhe’s appearance, as almost all of the buildings were designed by him. Olbrich was also appointed court architect and professor in Darmstadt and received orders and honors.

In 1900 he designed the Viennese interior and the Darmstadt room for the Paris World’s Fair. At the pavilion of the Austrian section, Gustav Klimt was represented with three paintings – Portrait of Sonja Knips (1897/98, Belvedere, Vienna), Pallas Athene (1898, Wien Museum, Vienna), and Philosophy (1900–1907, destroyed by fire at Immendorf Castle in 1945), the latter of which was awarded the Grand Prix. It was at this time that Hermann Bahr commissioned his friend Olbrich to build his villa in Ober Sankt Veit, where the latter realized the idea sketch “Ein kleines Haus” [“A Small House”], which he had already developed around 1899. Klimt’s Nuda Veritas (1899, Theatermuseum, Vienna), which had been purchased by Bahr, found its place in the study of this plain building.

This was followed by a trip to Moscow and numerous projects; Olbrich took part in the “1st International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin” in 1902. In 1904 he applied for a professorship at the Imperial-Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna – an attempt that would remain unsuccessful – and took part in the St. Louis World’s Fair with an interior design project. In 1907 he moved his studio to Düsseldorf. There he worked on his largest project, the Tietz Department Store, as well as several private homes in the Rhineland. That same year, he was one of the co-founders of the Deutscher Werkbund and applied for the position of director at the Düsseldorf School of Arts and Crafts, an application that was also rejected.

In 1903 he married Clara “Claire” Morawe and their daughter Marianne was born in 1908. A few weeks after her birth, Joseph Maria Olbrich, suffering from leukemia, died in Düsseldorf on 8 August 1908 at the age of 41.

Literature and sources

  • Architektenlexikon. Wien 1770–1945. Joseph Maria Olbrich. (05/07/2020).
  • Wien Geschichte Wiki. Joseph Maria Olbrich. (05/07/2020).
  • Joseph Maria Olbrich: Unsere nächste Arbeit, in: Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, Band 6 (1900), S. 366-369.
  • Otto Wagner: Joseph Olbrich, in: Die Zeit, 14.08.1908, S. 1-2.
  • Andreas Beyer, Bénédicte Savoy, Wolf Tegethoff (Hg.): Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Band XCIII, Berlin - New York 2017, S. 285.
  • Brief verfasst von Alfred Roller an den Ausschuss der Genossenschaft der bildenden Künstler Wiens, unterzeichnet von Gustav Klimt, Carl Moll, Rudolf Bacher, Ernst Stöhr, Johann Victor Krämer, Joseph Maria Olbrich, u.a., Austrittsgesuch (05/24/1897). Mappe Gustav Klimt, Künstlerhaus-Archiv, Wien.
  • Joseph Maria Olbrich, Ludwig Hevesi: Ideen von Olbrich, Vienna 1899.
  • Ludwig Hevesi: Villa Bahr. Juni 1900, in: Acht Jahre Sezession (März 1897–Juni 1905). Kritik – Polemik – Chronik, Vienna 1906, S. 512-516.