Wiener Werkstätte

Insight into the exhibition space of the Wiener Werkstätte, 1904/05, MAK - Museum für angewandte Kunst, Archiv der Wiener Werkstätte

In 1903, Josef Hoffmann, Kolo Moser, and Fritz Waerndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstätte. In close contact with their clients, architects, artists, and craftspeople designed and produced so-called Gesamtkunstwerke or “universal works of art” of high artistic quality for all spheres of daily use: architecture, furniture, porcelain, glass, textiles, fashion, jewelry, and all kinds of decorative art.

International Impulses in Vienna
As early as the end of the 19th century, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Charles Robert Ashbee propagated their ideas for the fine and decorative arts along the principles of purposefulness and solid craftsmanship in the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Around 1900, this new impetus for the renewal of art found expression throughout Europe and also in Vienna. In its “VIII. Ausstellung der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs” [“8th Exhibition of the Association of Austrian Artists”], the young Vienna Secession placed emphasis on European decorative arts, with Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, the Paris Maison Moderne, Henry Van de Velde, and the Scottish group of artists The Four, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, among the participants. In his role as vice president of the Secession, Josef Hoffmann asked the art-minded industrial tycoon Fritz Waerndorfer, who spoke English fluently and was familiar with the latest British design trends, to travel to Glasgow and win Charles Rennie Mackintosh over as a partner for the exhibition.

Foundation and Goals of the Wiener Werkstätte
Inspired by their new insights and several trips to England, Hoffmann, Kolo Moser, and Waerndorfer wished to counteract industrial mass production and encrusted Historicism with contemporary arts and crafts products of high quality. In May 1903, they founded the Wiener Werkstätte as the “Productivgenossenschaft von Kunsthandwerkern in Wien” [“Production Cooperative of Artisans in Vienna”]. With Waerndorfer as treasurer and Hoffmann and Moser as artistic directors, the Wiener Werkstätte initially had its office and workshop in a small apartment at No. 6 Heumühlgasse. That same year, it moved to No. 32–34 Neustiftgasse, as Joseph August Lux wrote in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration:

“This association of artisans has now found a home in a spacious new building on Neustiftgasse: three spacious floors accommodate the complex of the ‘Wiener Werkstätte,’ i.e. its own workshops for metalwork, gold- and silversmithing, bookbinding, leatherwork, cabinetmaking, and varnishing, as well as the machine rooms, the construction office, the drawing rooms, and the showroom.”

In the beginning, Hoffmann and Moser were the dominant designers. The English influence and an orientation toward a Japanese sense of art and form were obvious: the products stood out for their contrasts of black and white, ornaments based on the square, and geometric shapes, and they were mostly signed with the Wiener Werkstätte’s characteristic monogram and the signets of the individual artisans involved. Aside from enhancing the value of craftsmanship, the primary objective was the “practicality” of the products, which the Wiener Werkstätte formulated in its work program, published in 1905:

“We seek to establish a profound contact between audience, designer, and artisan. We start out from purpose, practicability is our supreme condition […]. The artisan’s work must be given the same weight as the painter’s or sculptor’s.”

Its well-funded clientele comprised industrialists and members of the Jewish bourgeoisie, including the Wittgenstein, Zuckerkandl, Gallia, and Ast families.

Commissions, Large-Scale Projects, Range of Products

However, the Wiener Werkstätte not only produced furnishings and everyday objects but was also entrusted with architectural projects, such as the Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1904–1906), the interior decoration of the “Schwestern Flöge” fashion salon (1904), and the Stoclet Palace (1905–1911) in Brussels. The latter is considered the Wiener Werkstätte’s masterpiece and most distinctly symbolizes the utopia of a Gesamtkunstwerk or universal work of art. Hoffman designed the building, Gustav Klimt supplied his famous mosaic of the Stoclet Frieze (1905–1911, private collection), and artists like Carl Otto Czeschka and Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel contributed to the furnishings and interior decoration.

In 1907, the Wiener Werkstätte was entrusted with the interior decoration of the legendary Kabarett Fledermaus, designing the furniture and majolica wall paneling, but also posters and program booklets. The workshop cooperative now also had its own publishing house, which produced such commercial art as Épinal prints, table and menu cards, and wine bottle labels; it also published Oskar Kokoschka’s epic poem Die träumenden Knaben [The Dreaming Boys], for example. In addition, a series of postcards comprising about a thousand individual numbers was produced, with artists like Egon Schiele, Rudolf Kalvach, and Richard Teschner as contributors.

In 1907 the Wiener Werkstätte opened a sales outlet in Vienna (No. 15 Am Graben) and established a joint salesroom with the Wiener Keramik factory, which had been founded by Michael Powolny and Bertold Löffler. That same year, Kolo Moser withdrew from the Wiener Werkstätte.

In 1909, a sales outlet opened in Karlsbad [now Karlovy Vary], and construction on the Villa Ast on Hohe Warte in Vienna (1909–1911) began. Around 1910, the establishment of the fashion department under the direction of Eduard Josef Wimmer expanded the assortment to include clothing, accessories, jewelry, but also new types of printed textile fabrics.

Bankruptcy, Restructuring, and a New Upswing
Due to financial difficulties, the Wiener Werkstätte shut down its production in 1913; bankruptcy was declared, and Fritz Waerndorfer resigned from the company. This was followed in 1914 by the liquidation and transformation of the company into a manufacturing company under the new management of Otto Primavesi, a banker, industrialist, and patron of the arts; Moritz Gallia also had a hand in refinancing the enterprise. Together with his wife, Eugenia “Mäda” Primavesi, Otto Primavesi commissioned the Wiener Werkstätte to build his country house in Winkelsdorf (1913/14), where he hosted numerous parties with artist friends like Gustav Klimt and Anton Hanak. Otto’s cousin, Robert Primavesi, also became a client and had the Villa Skywa-Primavesi (1913–1915) designed by the Wiener Werkstätte.

The decorative forms, initially strictly geometric, were successively replaced by ornamental patterns, and especially from 1915 onward, artistic director Dagobert Peche propagated an intensified use of figural, plant and ornamental motifs, thus contributing significantly to a change in style from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. He expanded the range of products to include wallpaper, printed fabrics, frames, goldsmithing, embroidery, and bobbin lace. From 1915, the Wiener Werkstätte’s assortment even included glass decoration, ceramics, and glass cutting, thus providing new impetus for the decorative arts around the globe. The company also cooperated with such glass manufacturers as E. Bakalowits and J. & L. Lobmeyr and such textile companies as J. Backhausen. New headquarters were established at No. 7 Tegetthoffstraße, followed by subsidiaries in Berlin and Marienbad [now Mariánské Lázně] and additional sales outlets at Nos. 32 and 41 Kärntnerstraße in Vienna. Dagobert Peche took over the management of the new branch office in Zurich in 1917.

The Wiener Werkstätte in the 1920s
In 1920, the company was once again restructured and renamed Wiener Werkstätte Gesellschaft m.b.H. Otto Primavesi’s brother-in-law, Egon Butschek, was to reorganize the company in his function as director general. In the meantime, customers often came from abroad, and in 1922 additional outlets opened in Velden am Wörthersee in Carinthia and in New York, under the direction of Joseph Urban. Among the most prominent projects of the 1920s were Villa Ast (1923/24) in Velden and Haus Sonja Knips in Vienna (1924/25).

In 1925, Otto Primavesi left the company, while his wife Eugenia remained a partner and artistic consultant. The Wiener Werkstätte was forced to apply for an extrajudicial bankruptcy settlement due to continuing financial difficulties; industrialist Kuno Grohmann, a relative of Eugenia Primavesi, was appointed new managing director in 1927. The 25th anniversary was celebrated with a sales catalog published by Mathilde Flögl and the Festschrift Die Wiener Werkstätte 1903–1928. Modernes Kunstgewerbe und sein Weg [The Wiener Werkstätte 1903–1928. The Development of Modern Decorative Arts], and in 1929 another sales outlet opened in Berlin.

Downfall and Highlights
Unfortunately, adhering to the elitist line, an unprofessional business management, and a group of buyers weakened due to the world economic crisis ultimately led to the company’s closure in 1932. The remaining stock was auctioned off at the Auktionshaus für Altertümer Glückselig, and in 1939 the company was deleted from the commercial register.

With its forward-looking formal language and interdisciplinary aesthetic principle of penetrating all spheres of life, the Wiener Werkstätte revolutionized the decorative arts of the early 20th century and contributed significantly to their renewal. As early as 1900, director Felician von Myrbach had appointed the influential artists Josef Hoffmann, Alfred Roller, Kolo Moser, and Carl Otto Czeschka as teachers at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. There they gave new impulse to the students and engaged many of them as employees of the Wiener Werkstätte when they were still studying or shortly after graduation. The sophisticated designs were distributed worldwide, not only via the Wiener Werkstätte’s international outlets, but also by participating in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad and through the extensive coverage in magazines like Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration. Particularly noteworthy were the presentations at Galerie Miethke in Vienna in 1905, the “Imperial-Royal Austria Exhibition” in London in 1906, the “Kunstschau Wien 1908,” and at the “Esposizione Internazionale di Roma 1911” [“International Art Exhibition of Rome 1911”]. The Wiener Werkstätte achieved great fame within a short period of time and established itself as a brand featuring an independent style that had a lasting influence on the history of design.

Literature and sources

  • Peter Vergo: Fritz Waerndorfer as Collector, in: Alte und moderne Kunst. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Kunst, Kunsthandwerk und Wohnkultur, 26. Jg., Heft 177 (1981), S. 33-38.
  • Gabriele Fahr-Becker: Wiener Werkstätte. 1903-1932 (Reprint 2003), Cologne 1994.
  • Heinrich R. Scheffer: Die Wiener Werkstätte und ihre Exlibris Künstler. (11/09/2021).
  • Christian Witt-Döring, Janis Staggs (Hg.): Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932. The Luxury of Beauty, New York 2017.
  • Ursula Graf, Stefan Üner: Ausgewählte Firmengeschichten, in: Eva B. Ottillinger (Hg.): Wagner, Hoffmann, Loos und das Möbeldesign der Wiener Moderne. Künstler, Auftraggeber, Produzenten, Ausst.-Kat., Imperial Furniture Collection - Vienna Furniture Museum (Vienna), 21.03.2018–07.10.2018, Vienna - Cologne - Weimar 2018, S. 135-156.
  • Werner J. Schweiger: Wiener Werkstätte. Kunst und Handwerk 1903–1932, Vienna 1982, S. 271.
  • Christian Witt-Dörring: Das Palais Stoclet – ein Gesamtkunstwerk. Eine Schicksalsgemeinschaft von Auftraggeber und Wiener Werkstätte 1905-1911, in: Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Matthias Boeckl, Rainald Franz, Christian Witt-Dörring (Hg.): Josef Hoffmann. 1870–1956. Fortschritt durch Schönheit, Ausst.-Kat., MAK - Museum of Applied Arts (Vienna), 15.12.2021–19.06.2022, Basel 2021, S. 145-148.
  • Joseph August Lux: Wiener Werkstätte. Josef Hoffmann. Koloman Moser, in: Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, Band 15 (1904/05), S. 1-14.
  • Peter Noever (Hg.): Der Preis der Schönheit. 100 Jahre Wiener Werkstätte, Ausst.-Kat., MAK - Museum of Applied Arts (Vienna), 10.12.2003–07.03.2004, Ostfildern-Ruit 2003.
  • Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Anne-Katrin Rossberg, Elisabeth Schmuttermeier (Hg.): Die Frauen der Wiener Werkstätte, Ausst.-Kat., MAK - Museum of Applied Arts (Vienna), 21.04.2021–03.10.2021, Vienna - Basel 2020.
  • N. N.: Die Wiener Werkstätte im Ausgleich. Ein Wiener Schicksal, in: Die Stunde, 12.05.1926, S. 5.
  • Siegfried Geyer: Der Leidensweg der Wiener Werkstätte, in: Die Bühne. Wochenschrift für Theater, Film, Mode, Kunst, Gesellschaft, Sport, 3. Jg., Heft 81 (1926), S. 6-9.
  • N.N.: Auflösung der "Wiener Werkstätte", in: Wiener Zeitung, 28.08.1932, S. 7.
  • Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv. Handelsregister C 17/7, Signatur 2.3.3.B78.17.7, Wiener Werkstätte. (10/13/2022).
  • Wiener Zeitung, 23.05.1903, S. 600.
  • Josef August Lux: Moderne Kunstausstellung, in: Arbeiter-Zeitung, 13.12.1905, S. 1-2.