Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte

Through innovative and popular designs, the Wiener Werkstätte helped to lay the basis for the establishment of modern art in Central Europe.

Summary of Event

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the artistic establishment of Vienna, then the capital of a large empire, was conservative to the point of being reactionary. During the 1850’s and 1860’s, the medieval ramparts of the city had been demolished and replaced by a great circular avenue lined, to the dismay of progressive architects and artists, with grandiose buildings lacking in originality of design. The Künstlerhaus Künstlerhaus (House of Artists), which had been established to promote modern art, was governed by archconservatives hostile to innovative ideas of any kind. The Austrian Museum of Art and Industry Austrian Museum of Art and Industry and its School of Arts and Crafts, created to foster understanding between art and industry, was equally unprogressive. Wiener Werkstätte
Art movements;Wiener Werkstätte
Modern art
Design movements;Wiener Werkstätte
[kw]Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte (1903)
[kw]Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte, Hoffmann and (1903)
[kw]Wiener Werkstätte, Hoffmann and Moser Found the (1903)
Wiener Werkstätte
Art movements;Wiener Werkstätte
Modern art
Design movements;Wiener Werkstätte
[g]Austria;1903: Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte[00600]
[c]Fashion and design;1903: Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte[00600]
[c]Arts;1903: Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte[00600]
Hoffmann, Josef
Moser, Koloman
Wärendorf, Fritz
Wagner, Otto
Peche, Dagobert
Klimt, Gustav

A break came in 1894, when Otto Wagner, a structural rationalist, became head of the Architectural School of the Academy of Fine Arts. Among his students were Josef Hoffmann, who became one of Austria’s leading modern architects, and Koloman Moser, a highly imaginative designer. Wagner encouraged both to develop in new and innovative ways.

Another break in the conservative hold on art came three years later, when the avant-garde artist Gustav Klimt headed a challenge to the Künstlerhaus’s monopoly on modern art by forming a dissident group called the Secessionists. Secessionists (artists’ group) Both Hoffmann and Moser joined the Secessionists. That same year, the Museum of Art and Industry installed a new, more liberal director, Hofrat von Scala, who was also a member of the Secessionists. He, in turn, appointed the progressive Felician von Myrbach as director of the School of Arts and Crafts. Both Hoffmann and Moser subsequently joined the school’s faculty.

The way was now open to change. In addition to the Art Nouveau style, another influence on the development of modern art at the time was the Arts and Crafts movement Arts and Crafts movement developed in England under John Ruskin Ruskin, John and William Morris. Morris, William Dedicated to craftsmanship and individual creativity, the movement’s members hoped to counter the ugliness and uniformity of the machine age through the creation of handsome yet simple designs using honest materials. The movement had a pronounced effect on the Secessionists, who tended to divide into two groups, the stylists and the naturalists. The former were applied artists or designers, whereas the latter were studio or fine artists. Animosity developed between the two groups, in part because the studio artists considered themselves to be superior to applied artists. Hoffmann and Moser saw themselves both as designers and artists.

As Hermann Bahr, a leading journalist of the day, stated, what was needed was an organization that would bridge the gap between art and craftsmanship, giving equality to artists and craftsmen alike. Hoffmann and Moser wanted to create such an organization, and Fritz Wärendorf, a wealthy textile magnate familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement from his frequent visits to England, offered financial support. They quickly established the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese workshops), dedicated to the idea that the work of fine craftsmen, or artisans, is equal to the work of fine artists.

A combination of the finest materials, superb craftsmanship, and innovative designs (largely created by Hoffmann and Moser) resulted in the Werkstätte’s producing a variety of beautiful objects that delighted a small but wealthy and influential segment of the Viennese bourgeoisie. A successful exhibition in Berlin in 1904 established the reputation of the Werkstätte outside Austria.

At first largely confined to working in precious metals, ivory, and leather, the Werkstätte eventually expanded into furniture, enamel, bookbinding, graphics, knitwear, beadwork, embroidery, ceramics, glass, carpets, wallpaper, lacework, and woven, printed, and painted fabric. The objective was the creation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete work of art. Art;Gesamtkunstwerk
Gesamtkunstwerk The concept already existed in opera, as exemplified especially by the music dramas of Richard Wagner, which combined music, theater, dance, literature, and the decorative arts.

Josef Hoffmann.

Hoffmann realized the objective of Gesamtkunstwerk between 1905 and 1911 with the building of the Palais Stoclet Architecture;Palais Stoclet
Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Adolphe Stoclet, a wealthy Belgian industrialist, admired Hoffmann’s architectural designs, and when Stoclet inherited a huge fortune on the death of his father, Hoffmann persuaded him to commission the construction of a house in Brussels completely designed by the Wiener Werkstätte, with no consideration given to cost. The house became a landmark in modern architecture, admired even by Hoffmann’s critics. Every detail, down to the doorknobs, was designed by the Werkstätte. Some claimed it was the most perfect house ever designed.

Moser resigned from the Werkstätte in 1907, discouraged by the group’s casual method of operation and the continual waste of expensive materials resulting from lack of planning and supervision. Hoffmann, however, refused to put any restraint on either the artists or the artisans, nor would he entertain the idea, despite repeated suggestions, that the Werkstätte design for the commercial market. The only exception was the Werkstätte’s creation of chairs designed by the firm of Thonet. Dagobert Peche replaced Moser as chief designer. His preference for a softer, more playful and decorative style was a definite influence on the development of Art Deco. Art Deco

Because the cost of the Werkstätte’s items, although high, never covered the cost of production, benefactors constantly had to be found to cover the deficits. Nevertheless, its creations were increasingly admired and purchased, and the Werkstätte might have existed indefinitely had it not been for World War I. A number of the Werkstätte’s artists were killed during the war, including Klimt. More important, the defeat devastated Austria, leaving Vienna the impoverished capital of a truncated state. In 1920, the Werkstätte mounted an exhibition of items that seemed not only excessively costly but frivolous; it drew largely unfavorable comments and few customers.

Peche died in 1923. Hoffmann, although increasingly occupied by his architectural practice, insisted that the Werkstätte’s customary method of operation continue even though customers who could afford the expensively crafted products grew ever fewer with the onset of the Great Depression. Supporters attempted to keep the Werkstätte alive by opening branches in Berlin and New York, but the effort failed. All the Werkstätte’s shops closed in 1932, and the remaining stock was sold at a bankruptcy sale.

Hoffmann once commented that were its products to appear in every shopwindow, the Wiener Werkstätte would soon be forgotten. Individualistic styling, superb craftsmanship, and limited production are the characteristics that have made the creations of the Werkstätte increasingly valuable and appreciated and have kept its name alive.


It is difficult to establish any direct impact of the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte on the art world of the early twentieth century. The production of the Werkstätte was limited and followed no particular style. Its influence cannot be compared with that of movements such as Impressionism, expressionism, and Surrealism. The Wiener Werkstätte did have considerable indirect impact, however.

The art world of Vienna in the last decades of the nineteenth century was almost moribund. Such style as existed was the “Makart style,” named for Hans Makart, who specialized in exuberant and eclectic historical paintings glorifying past achievements of the Habsburg Dynasty, which still ruled in Vienna. The founding of the Secessionist movement in 1897 and the ensuing establishment of the Wiener Werkstätte effected significant changes. Vienna in the decades before World War I was witness to an amazing flowering of modern art of which the Wiener Werkstätte was an integral part and to which the Werkstätte made lasting contributions felt not only in Vienna but outside Austria as well.

Among the greatest composers of the new art was Gustav Mahler, Mahler, Gustav who was also director of the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler’s father-in-law, Carl Moll, a member of the Secessionist movement, organized the first Wiener Werkstätte exhibition in Vienna. In 1902, Hoffmann designed a major exhibition honoring Ludwig van Beethoven for which Mahler wrote an arrangement of the Ninth Symphony and Klimt designed a frieze. Although technically sponsored by the Secessionists, the exhibition actually was the work of the Werkstätte, which was formally organized a year later.

In the fine arts, three of the greatest Viennese artists of the day were Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Schiele, Egon and Oskar Kokoschka, Kokoschka, Oskar all of whom were associated with the Werkstätte. The Werkstätte commissioned and sold Schiele’s works when no other dealers would do so because of the works’ sexually explicit nature. The same support was given to Kokoschka, whose agitated style and “psychological portraits” disturbed even members of the avant-garde. Kokoschka left Austria for Germany to become part of German expressionism.

The Werkstätte contributed to literature through bookbinding, lettering, and graphics; it contributed to fashion through textile, clothing, and jewelry designs; it designed the first loose-fitting dress to free women from corsets—a design admired and emulated by Paul Poiret, the Parisian couturier. When the playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wished the great Eleonora Duse to perform in his new play Elektra (pr. 1903), she agreed to do so only if the Werkstätte designed both her costumes and her jewelry. A connection can also be drawn between the theories of Sigmund Freud, the Viennese father of psychoanalysis, and the works of Schiele and Kokoschka. One of the reasons many of the designs of the Werkstätte were so popular was that they seemed sensuous and even mildly erotic.

The greatest impact of the Wiener Werkstätte in the field of modern art and design, however, was inadvertent. In 1907, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Olbrich, Joseph Maria the architect of the Secessionist headquarters, and Josef Hoffmann were among those who sponsored the Deutscher Werkbund Deutscher Werkbund (German alliance of craftsmen), the aim of which was to enhance the position of craftsmanship through cooperation among art, industry, and handicraft. Whereas the Art and Crafts movement and the Werkstätte had for the most part rejected methods of machine production, the Werkbund embraced them wholeheartedly.

Among the members of the Werkbund was Walter Gropius, Gropius, Walter a young German architect. In 1911, the same year Hoffmann completed the Palais Stoclet, Gropius designed a building with revolutionary “curtain” walls. Whereas Hoffmann’s building was a magnificent private residence, Gropius’s was a factory that would serve as a prototype for what became known as the International Style in architecture, a style repeated thousands of times all over the world. In 1918, Gropius founded the Bauhaus Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, with the intent of creating good prototype designs that would be mass-produced to adorn the homes of the general public. The Wiener Werkstätte, in a sense, became the link between the Arts and Crafts movement of Ruskin and Morris and the Weimar Bauhaus of Gropius. The Wiener Werkstätte can be said to have been the midwife to the birth of modern industrial design. Industrial design
Wiener Werkstätte
Art movements;Wiener Werkstätte
Modern art
Design movements;Wiener Werkstätte

Further Reading

  • Adlmann, Jan E. Vienna Moderne, 1898-1918. Houston, Tex.: Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, 1978. Catalog for an exhibition of Wiener Werkstätte designs mounted by the University of Houston in 1979. Contains instructive short essays on the philosophy of design by authorities such as Friedrich Poppenberg and Walter Gropius. A valuable feature is a list of the initials used to identify works by the Wiener Werkstätte.
  • Brändstatter, Christian. Wiener Werkstätte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Offers as complete a record as possible of the Wiener Werkstätte’s creative work, from complex, integrated environments such as Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet to individual objects such as enameled-glass stemware by Otto Prutscher and vibrantly colored postcards by Oskar Kokoschka. Heavily illustrated.
  • Delano Greenridge Editions. Josef Hoffmann: Furniture, Design, and Objects. New York: Author, 2003. Provides a comprehensive look at Hoffmann’s designs for furniture, decorative objects, and printed material for the interiors of his visionary buildings.
  • Kallir, Jane. Viennese Design and the Wiener Werkstätte. New York: George Braziller, 1986. Kallir is codirector of a New York gallery that specializes in the works of twentieth century German and Austrian artists, and so is knowledgeable about her subject, but some of her assertions, such as that the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk served as a starting point for the establishment of the Werkstätte, may be disputed. The book is divided into five parts: background, history, architecture, fashion, and the graphic arts. Includes detailed notes and an excellent chronology.
  • Neuwirth, Waltraud. Wiener Werkstätte: Avant-Garde, Art Deco, Industrial Design. Translated by Andrew Smith. Vienna: Neuwirth, 1984. Catalog of designs from the archives of the Wiener Werkstätte in the Austrian Museum of Applied Art in Vienna. Presents a wide range of styles, from Art Nouveau to proto-Art Deco, but most are uniquely the creations of the designers and artists. Includes examples of furniture, lace, pottery, jewelry, silver, enamel work, and graphics.
  • Schweiger, Werner J. Wiener Werkstaette: Design in Vienna, 1903-1932. Translated by Alexander Lieven. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984. One of the most comprehensive works available in English on the Werkstätte. Schweiger, a native Austrian, is obviously enamored of his subject; this makes some of his observations open to question. Includes brief biographies of artists associated with the Werkstätte. Profusely illustrated.
  • Sekler, Eduard Franz. Josef Hoffmann. Translated by E. G. Sekler. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. A comprehensive study of Hoffmann’s life, philosophy, and works. Focuses on Hoffmann’s architectural creations, with the Palais Stoclet receiving extensive coverage. Excellent appendixes, including considerable primary material concerning Hoffmann. Many detailed black-and-white photographs.

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