PRINT February 2007


Josef Hoffmann

TODAY DESIGN RULES. The notion of a designed world, a designed home, a designed life has penetrated deep into consumer consciousness through reality TV shows, magazines, and huge stores dedicated to the concept. Architects and the product industry promote customization, while Chinese factories can imitate virtually any existing style. “Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913” at New York’s Neue Galerie reveals an extreme example of the impulse to create an environment unified by design, and re-creates in grand detail an early collision of past styles with the forms of industrialized labor and technologies that continue to shape our world.

A well-known early modernist architect based in Vienna, Hoffmann proposed that his clients live within a seamless domestic world of his own making—a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total design.” At the Neue Galerie curator Christian Witt-Dörring has reassembled two dining rooms and two bedrooms from photographs of Hoffmann’s interiors for Austrian, German, and Swiss families. Architects Brian Strawn and John Vinci have ingeniously attempted to reinvent the stale period-room structure by creating complete rooms within rooms that viewers can peer into through different apertures where windows would be. Dark-stained wood furniture, painted and unpainted metal, and geometric wall stenciling in the Stonborough dining room create a stark but still ornate setting. In the bedroom of the young Katharina Biach, motifs are repeated and interrelated within every element, from the wardrobe to the bedcover to the hanging lamp’s ceiling cap. The meticulous reconstruction of these spaces makes clear that this is not mere interior decoration. No one could simply purchase items that shared such specific graphic, proportional, and material relationships. In this sense, these interiors represent a kind of wildly elaborate customization.

Yet Hoffmann’s vision should not be confused with the cliché of the egocentric architect or designer intent on imposing his will down to every last ashtray. He enlisted his patrons to support the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), an industrial “manufacturing cooperative” that he founded in 1903 with painter Koloman Moser and “arts manager” Fritz Waerndorfer. The Werkstätte was a complete system: a network of artists, designers, in-house mechanized workshops, outside factories, retail shops from Vienna to New York, and clients groomed to receive its wares. It was itself a “total work of art”—an attempt to design all stages of the production and experience of environments that Hoffmann and his collaborators hoped could survive within society’s new structures.

Perhaps owing to the connotations of the word workshop, the Wiener Werkstätte is often assumed to be a group of handcraftsmen in the vein of visionaries like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, but it in fact created the conditions of industry on a small scale. The main building was filled with machines, so that Hoffmann’s experiments in modernism could utilize the mechanized methods of the factory. One of the first instances of collaboration between the avant-garde and industry, the Werkstätte created a system of aesthetic ethics, in which the designer/artist should be directly involved in industrialized production in order to discover and respond to the forms native to its processes.

This philosophy, admittedly, can today be somewhat hard to perceive in Hoffmann’s quirky mix of nineteenth-century styles and modernist notions. Divorced from the period-room displays, the desks, lamps, stencil patterns, and fabrics might seem more like fragments of a stylistic moment than evidence of early attempts to create a coherent visual environment using the methodologies of the factory. The materials appear too luxurious: The exotic wood, silver, and cut glass recall a bygone world of wealth before industrialization and economic restructuring took hold. Often, the overall effect of the objects might be described as whimsical (as in the case of textile patterns depicting umbrellas), erotic (a chair with testicles), or even postmodern (the clashing elements of historical styles and figuration).

But close observation of the individual shapes and construction methods used in Hoffmann’s designs points to their origin in industrial, at least partly mechanized, production. Simple molding and right angles abound; disks, perforated grids, and repeated geometries predominate. These are forms created by presses, brakes, and mechanical saws, and they rely on materials of refined quality and uniform consistency. The chandeliers and flower vases utilize industrial spinning and stamping technologies. Specific elements of the forms themselves, such as large unadorned panels, suggest their applicability to mass production. A variety of the desks and cabinets could have been manufactured using the uniform veneers common today, though here we see them in solid wood. Even if deployed in objects made for specific clients as custom goods, many of the details, geometries, and proportions are part of a visual vocabulary that could have been, and subsequently has been, re-created on a wide scale.

Hoffmann’s efforts can be read as a narrative of an older aesthetic both surviving within and being changed by a new production regime. After World War I, the potential radicalism of his interest in uniting conception and execution was pursued in the many failed attempts to produce high-minded design for all levels of the societies that were being democratized, or at least restructured, by the effects of the industrial economy. The question remains as to whether the urge to create a unified design environment is driven more by the structures of capitalism than by the hope for a new world.

“Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913” is on view at the Neue Galerie in New York through Feb. 26.

Josiah McElheny is a New York–based artist. His project exhibition concerning German Expressionist architecture debuts Feb. 12 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.