In 1966, the Galerie St. Etienne mounted the first formal Wiener Werkstätte exhibition ever held in the United States. It had then been over forty years since the Wiener Werkstätte's short-lived Fifth Avenue branch folded, and during those years turn-of-the-century Austrian art had gradually begun to recover from a prolonged period of eclipse triggered by the two world wars. With the triumphant arrival of the exhibition Vienna 1900 at the Museum of Modern Art, one might say that this dark period has now officially ended. The Galerie St. Etienne, which struggled long and hard to bring Austrian modernism the recognition it deserves, has organized this special presentation of Viennese Design and the Wiener Werkstätte to celebrate and complement the MOMA show.
The Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) is in many ways the ideal focus for a study of early twentieth-century Vienna. Not only did this crafts collective unite all manner of artisans and artists--from leatherworkers and carpenters to leading painters and architects--but as a functioning commercial enterprise, it reflected all of the social and economic realities of its time. The Werkstätte evolved from the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 as a progressive alliance of artists and designers. From the start, the Secession had placed special emphasis on the applied arts, and its1900 exhibition surveying the work of contemporary European design workshops prompted the young architect Josef Hoffmann and his artist friend Koloman Moser to consider establishing a similar enterprise in Austria. Finally in 1903, with backing from the industrialist Fritz Wärndorfer, the Wiener Werkstätte saw the light of day. From three small rooms, it soon expanded to fill a three-story building with separate, specially designed facilities for metalwork, leatherwork, bookbinding, woodworking and a paint shop. In addition to the workshops on its own premises, the Wiener Werkstätte had recourse to free-lance craftsmen, students at Vienna's Kunstgewerbeschule (the School of Applied Arts, where both Hoffmann and Moser taught) and contemporary industry. Furniture production, for example, though at one point part of the Werkstätte's program, was more congenially licensed to outside manufacturers such as Gebrüder Thonet and J. & J. Kohn. In 1907, the Wiener Werkstätte took over distribution for the Wiener Keramik, a ceramics workshop of kindred spirit headed by Michael Powolny and Berthold Löffler.
The Wiener Werkstätte's first years were heady times, during which the collaboration between Hoffmann and Moser reached its peak. The two artists created a geometric style whose functional simplicity anticipates later modernism and has influenced the work of many of today's leading designers and architects. While it would be an exaggeration to say that commissions poured in, the Wiener Werkstätte found adequate support from Vienna's upper middle class, and for a time Wärndorfer's money sufficed to make up for any deficits. In architectural commissions such as the Purkersdorf Sanatorium and the lavish Palais Stoclet in Brussels, the Wiener Werkstätte was able to realize its ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), a coordinated environment in which everything down to the last teaspoon was consciously designed. However, by the time the Werkstätte received the Stoclet commission in 1905, it was already heading for trouble, and it has been said that sometimes Monsieur Stoclet's advances were used to cover outstanding debts. A lawsuit over the accounting for the Purkersdorf project propelled Hoffmann to sever his architectural practice from the Werkstätte, thereafter limiting the organization's ability to orchestrate larger projects. In 1907, Moser, embittered by the financial squabbling, left the Wiener Werkstätte, which subsequently entered a new phase, both stylistically and economically.
The Wiener Werkstätte's ability to change with the times perhaps accounts for its longevity, for despite ongoing financial problems, the enterprise survived for nearly thirty years. Berthold Löffler and Carl Otto Czeschka, who both became associated with the Werkstätte around 1905, brought with them a renewed interest in figuration that had direct bearing on the early work of the Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. During and immediately following World War I, it was Dagobert Peche whose ornamental, almost baroque fancies exerted the most palpable influence. The founding of textile and fashion divisions in 1909 and 1910 brought a further shift in the Wiener Werkstätte's emphasis-- away from the architectural and toward the ephemeral. After the war, material shortages encouraged experimentation with less durable, less precious materials such as wood, ceramics and papier-maché. The original, grand Gesamtkunstwerk vision became diluted and submerged by the Kunstgewerbliches-- the artsy-craftsy.
The complete impoverishment of the truncated Austrian nation after World War I undoubtedly played a significant role in the demise of the Wiener Werkstätte. Attempts to expand the workshop's scope-- adding such items as wallpaper to its limited program of industrial licenses, and establishing branches in Zurich, New York and Berlin--were not particularly successful. After a close brush with bankruptcy in 1913, Wärndorfer was shipped off to America and the following year Otto Primavesi, a banker from Moravia, took over as chief financier and patron. Its need for a perennial Milchkuh (milk cow) to provide a steady stream of cash is often cited as symptomatic of the Wiener Werkstätte's economic naiveté, but in fact the notion of the enlightened patron was central to the Werkstätte's operating philosophy. The Werkstätte recognized early on that its role was not to reach the masses, but rather to create a rarified environment for the wealthy few. So long as the Austrian empire survived, whole and thriving, this goal was not particularly unrealistic. However, it was totally out of keeping with the priorities of a war-battered land, and after over a decade of struggle the Wiener Werkstätte finally gave up the ghost in 1932.