A few members of the Viennese Secession had been contemplating the current condition of Austrian craftwork for years and found it severely lacking in many areas. In 1903, these artists decided to form the Wiener Werkstätte, a so-called Produktiv-Gemeinschaft von Kunsthandwerkern in Wien (Productive Community of Artisans in Vienna), which would last until 1932. They were essentially following in the footsteps of a development that had begun with the 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement in England. The movement experienced its zenith between 1880 and 1920 and was most influenced by the painter, architect, and artisan William Morris and the art historian John Ruskin. In Germany, a similarly minded development resulted in the foundation of the Deutscher Werkund and later, the Bauhaus.
Ludwig Hevesi enthusiastically welcomed the event in an article from 21 January 1905:
[…] Today, Der Kunstwanderer presents as a novelty in this year’s series, the Wiener Werkstätte. This unusual but laudable undertaking is one of the most joyous developments in Vienna’s modern craftwork scene. It is especially remarkable since this project was set in motion by private citizens basing their decision on the righteousness and common sense of their own principles. We are facing a successful initiative of pragmatic idealists which no one would have dared to attempt to start a few years ago.
In secrecy, without the noisiness that is supposedly typical of craftwork, an artistic focal point has been created that is focused on reasonable, aesthetic and especially honest work with various materials. The principle of honesty that has been the mark of this new group from the very beginning, had nearly been lost in the current age of the machine and European-American mass production (according to the motto “cheap and bad”).
The desire for honesty in the applied arts was ultimately the catalyst for the change. The Wiener Werkstätte is today – and we want to say “hopefully” – just a beautiful beginning. It bears the seed for a healthy school for artisanship and artisans and thus also for the consuming public […].
Josef Hoffmann took on the artistic direction of the Wiener Werkstätte. As professor for architecture at the Kunstgewerbeschule, he had already worked with Koloman Moser before their Werkstätte-co-operation. They were joined by Fritz Waerndorfer, an industrialist and patron of the arts who volunteered to attend to the financial details of the venture, since artists were said not to have a very good comprehension of commercial issues back then; it was Hermann Bahr who introduced the two artists to Waerndorfer.
In an incredibly short amount of time, the Werkstätte, with their array of products ranging from Olbrich’s cutlery and Jugendstil-posters to complete furnishings for residential houses, were successful to such a degree that they had to hire a hundred more employees in order to handle the rising demand. Furthermore, they could open branches in Karlsbad, Zurich, and New York. Despite the raging world economic crisis, where even the wealthy had to act shrewdly to keep whatever they had, the Werkstätte was able to open another branch in Berlin in 1929. However, not even this sweeping success could prevent the impending end of the Werkstätte. Mismanagement and bad decisions paved the way for a declaration of bankruptcy in 1932.
Nevertheless, the legacy remains. The greatest international success of the Werkstätte was the Jugendstil-mansion of magnate Adolphe Stoclet, which was built according to blueprints from Josef Hoffmann in Brussels. Fernand Khnopff crafted the décor for the music room while Gustav Klimt decorated the dining room with his famous Stoclet-Frieze. Today, the Palais Stoclet is deservedly part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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