Leading modernist of his day who was shown alongside Mies and Corb returns to the limelight in exhibition that celebrates his use of beauty to educate
In the 1930s, the architectural work of Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) was shown on a par with Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Yet after the Second World War, this most broad-ranging of architects and designers was largely forgotten until he was rediscovered in the latter decades of the last century. Now, a comprehensive new exhibition at the MAK in Vienna, Josef Hoffmann – Progress Through Beauty, seeks to do full justice to Hoffmann’s long and influential career in a Covid-delayed celebration of his 150th birthday.
According to exhibition co-curator Rainald Franz, ‘no material was alien to him’. Having studied architecture under Otto Wagner, he turned his hand to a Gesamtkunstwerk of interiors, furniture, decorative arts and fashion, introducing design into all aspects of everyday life and always acknowledging the role of the artisan in producing the work. Throughout, his focus was firmly on beauty, and in particular, says Franz, how beauty can ‘educate us and be a social factor’.
‘He never stopped designing and having positive ideas of what design could give to mankind,’ he adds.
Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Hoffmann is best known as a leading instigator of Viennese modernism and was at the heart of the rich creative scene in the city in the early 20th century. Inspired in part by the arts and crafts movement in the UK and the work of Ruskin and Morris, he was a pioneering co-founder of progressive art the Vienna Secession in 1897, followed by its offshoot the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903, a co-operative workshop dedicated to modern decorative arts. With the artist Gustav Klimt, he was a driving force in the staging of the Kuntschau exhibition event in 1908, intended to showcase art, architecture, decorative arts and industrial arts.
‘He was not a radical modernist but a modernist who used historical forms to design something new,’ says Franz.
In doing so, he adds, Hoffmann was able to give identity not only to progressive clients such as the Stoclet and Wittgenstein families, but to whole regimes in the form of political buildings, for example Austria’s pavilions for international expositions such as the Paris events of 1925 and the Venice Biennale of 1934. His other key works include the Stoclet House in Brussels (1905-11) – now a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of Hoffmann’s numerous private residential projects – and the Purkersdorf sanatorium near Vienna (1905). Interiors include the heady, avant-garde design of Cabaret Fledermaus of 1907.
The exhibition and accompanying weighty publication show how Hoffmann clearly made strong connections with fellow creatives both in Vienna – including Joseph Maria Olbrich and Koloman Moser in particular – and more widely in Europe and in the US.
‘He was a very social person, always surrounded by artist friends and pupils,’ says Franz.
In 1902 Hoffmann travelled to Glasgow specifically to see Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was an important influence and who had exhibited at a Vienna Secession exhibition. Hoffmann taught for many decades at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, imparting his modernist ideals to successive generations of students. Pupils included the renowned ceramicist Lucie Rie, who he promoted by arranging for her to exhibit her work at the Palais Stoclet.
He was held in high esteem by Le Corbusier, who visited his studio in Vienna and made a drawing of Cabaret Fledermaus, and by Carlo Scarpa, who cited him as an influence. His work was very well-known internationally at the time, and Franz comments that Hoffmann most have been a ‘genius’ media-wise in terms of his ability to get his work published so widely.
The MAK exhibition, designed by Gregor Eichinger, includes more than 1000 exhibits and offers a comprehensive presentation of the designer’s long career including both well-known work and lesser-known designs such as those from the years of National Socialism. The exhibition also examines his design ideas and his influence on architecture, decorative arts and design. Room sets include the recreation of Boudoir for a Big Star, originally created for the Paris World Fair of 1937. With its curvaceous furniture, mirrored floor and walls covered in aluminium paint, the room was a sensation in its day.
Visitors also get a chance to design like Hoffmann courtesy of an algorithm created by Ben James. This uses artificial intelligence to guide users to create new designs using Hoffmann’s typical design language.
Josef Hoffmann – Progress Through Beauty, until 19 June 2022, MAK, Stubenring 5, 1010, Vienna. The accompanying publication, Josef Hoffmann 1870-1956: Progress Through Beauty. The Guide to His Oeuvre, is edited by Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Matthias Boeckl, Rainald Franz and Christian Witt-Dörring