NEW YORK — The Wiener Werkstätte bears one of the more lustrous names in 20th-century design. In English, that name sounds nondescript, the Vienna Workshops. But there was nothing nondescript about the design collective’s exacting aesthetic aims (which it very frequently attained) or social and economic aims. If anything, the latter were even more challenging. The goal was both to bring beauty to everyday objects and then bring those objects, if not to the masses, then at least to the upper classes.
The combination proved financially unfeasible. The Werkstätte’s largest commission, and most famous creation, the Palais Stoclet, in Brussels, ended up costing 70 percent more than the agreed-upon budget. Yet business impracticality didn’t detract from artistic quality, as the more than 400 items in “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” attest. The show runs at the Neue Galerie through Jan. 29.
“Items” and “objects” are rather mingy words to describe the contents of the exhibition. Individually, they are almost unfailingly beautiful. Collectively, they are well nigh overwhelming. They’re also, at least as displayed, a bit confusing. Rather than individual labels, brochures provide information on each object. It’s a sensible decision. Some of the labels would be bigger than the item described. But it can be difficult to keep track of which is which.
Renée Price, director of the museum, notes in the show’s catalog that the Werkstätte’s output extended to architecture, bookbinding, ceramics, fashion, furniture, glass, graphic design, jewelry, lace, leatherwork, metalwork (about 45 percent of Werkstätte output), porcelain, textiles, and wallpaper.
Also on the list are landscape architecture and postcards (one of the artists was Egon Schiele), and, indirectly, American movie sets. A Viennese architect who’d immigrated to New York and set up a Werkstätte showroom became art director for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. He included the occasional Werkstätte object as a film prop.
Fin de siecle Vienna was one of the hothouses of 20th-century culture. home to Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele. The Werkstätte was very much a part of that swirl of tradition, upheaval, and neurosis. How much a part? Klimt, who provided paintings for the Palais Stoclet, went to the Werkstätte to buy Christmas presents.
The Werkstätte took Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement, with its dual emphasis on handiwork and collapsing the distinction between art and craft, and took it further. Where William Morris and his associates looked to the Middle Ages as a model for bringing artistry to the everyday, the Werkstätte saw itself as proudly modern. Even as it looked back to the Arts and Crafts movement, it looked ahead (as we now can see) to the Bauhaus.
It’s telling that soon after its founding the Werkstätte moved its headquarters and a hundred employees into a former factory building. The ideal was closer to industrial production than medieval guild.
In 1905, a journalist visited the building. He noted both the “noble sense of ‘refinement’ ” and “the simple, yet practical arrangement” whereby all operations were color coded: the metal workshop in red, the carpentry workshop in blue, and so on. Form still mattered more than function, but the emphasis on process was clear.
The Austrian writer Hermann Bahr contrasted the Arts and Crafts movement, where “the artisan should become an artist,” with contemporary Vienna, where “the artist should become an artisan.”
The dominant figure at the Werkstätte was Josef Hoffmann . It’s hard to say which is more impressive: the number of his designs in the show or the range of them. Also important were Koloman Moser, who cofounded the Werkstätte with Hoffmann, and Dagobert Peche, who joined the collective in 1915.
Stylistically, the Werkstätte might be described as a simpler, more muscular version of Art Nouveau and its Viennese incarnation, Jugendstil: restraining (while not eliminating) their orientation toward the curved and organic. Of course what can seem like fin de siecle ostentation to 21st-century eyes had a very different appearance to contemporaries. They saw an innovative simplicity aspiring to what we would now consider modernist functionality.
A Hoffmann brooch from 1904 balances geometry and color, variety and reductiveness. It’s lush without coming close to being overwhelming. Also from 1904, a small Hoffmann table seems at first glance unusually spare. But notice the use of latticework beneath the table top both to support the legs and provide decoration — and the materials used are ebonized oak chalked white, boxwood inlay, and silver-plated mounts.
This wasn’t a piece of furniture that would be found in a working-class home. Nor would three other representative objects designed by Hoffmann: a sardine tray, from 1904; a caviar dish, from 1909, or a silver candy tray, from 1912, with its egg-shaped legs adorned with circlets of lapis lazuli. Maybe there was something about the Werkstätte and sweets. A bird-shaped candy box, designed by Peche in 1920, is so gaudy and virtuosic (it’s the metallic feathers) as to seem to predate the century.
The candy box surely would have disgusted the contemporary Viennese architect Adolf Loos, another major figure in fin de siecle Vienna. Loos announced in his 1910 lecture “Ornament and Crime” (has there ever been a more provocative aesthetic title?) that “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” It’s a modernist credo through and through — which makes it seem all the more anachronistic in a post-post-modernist age. So much of the fascination of Werkstätte design — and what can make it seem so appealing in our have-it-both-ways time — has to do with how it both supports Loos’s view and rejects it.
WIENER WERKSTÄTTE 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty
At Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave., New York, through Jan. 29. 212-628-6200, www.neuegalerie.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.