How Vienna’s Secessionists Left Their Mark on the Coffeehouse

Between 1890 and 1920, Vienna was a world leader in design. An unlikely mix of imperial decree and cultural revolution drove the Wiener Ästhetik and left its mark on the city even today.

Vienna’s Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) is the cradle of the Wiener Ästhetik. Yet it is also a misrepresentation. The impressive brick building on Vienna’s Stubenring is an eclectic mixed salad: a classical gabled portal flanked with pillars and intricate friezes, and a magnificent main hall of soaring arches. Renaissance, Austrian style.

But as an institution, the MAK went on to power the movement that broke the monopoly of the past and restyled the 20th century. It was the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), combining architecture, furniture, furnishings that made the Wiener Ästhetik such a persuasive force. The MAK’s permanent exhibition documents the stylistic revolution of Vienna’s young radicals around 1900.

The MAK was there at the creation. In 1864, Emperor Franz Josef ordered the founding of a museum to support the artistic crafts and “contribute to raising the level of taste in such things.” Franz Josef was a military man, but he (or his advisers) saw that setting the aesthetic tone would be good for business.

“The monarchy wanted a forward- looking Austrian style,” explains MAK senior curator Rainald Franz. The pressure to differentiate from German historicism only increased after the catastrophic Austrian defeat by the Prussians at Königgrätz in 1866. The progressive Habsburgs could at least beat the conservative Hohenzollerns on the battlefield of ideas. In today’s cultural climate that worships creative independence, an imperial decree to go forth and creative beautiful stuff sounds like a non-starter. But it worked.

The decree kick-started creative industries across the empire, from Poland to Hungary, from exotic glassware to bent wood furniture. Koloman Moser’s delicate, flower-like wine glasses are stunning in any era, Josef Hoffmann’s rectangular perforations took silver tableware into the machine age and Adolf Loos’ bent wood chairs used modern technology to create a new kind of classical elegance. The pantheon of Viennese artists, architects and designers – the familiar names of Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner, together with Moser, Hoffmann, Loos and many others – set a style that echoed round the world, resonating in London or New York’s art nouveau and the art deco of Paris. The Vienna Aesthetic was born.

(C) Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Ledl

Mass Production & Authenticity

The economic surge of the late 19th century spurred a craving for everyday beautiful things, enabled by the mass production of luxury goods previously the domain of the upper class. This, in turn, led to ideological push-back against the industrialization of artisanal skills.

“The expensive superfluity and the cheap superfluity are one and the same thing, equally useless, equally wasteful,” wrote Charles Robert Ashbee, a leading light in the English arts and crafts movement in 1908, “and both must be destroyed.” As any astute consumer knows, he wasn’t wrong then or now.

The Workshop Principle, fusing the creative energy of contemporary artists with traditional craftsmen’s skills, took shape in England around 1885 and was closely watched by Moser and Hoffmann, the artist and the designer. The Wiener Werkstätte, a similar commercial construct with formidable aesthetic ideals, was incorporated in 1903, and as they soon discovered, purity of principle does not come cheap. Their beautiful hand-blown wine glasses and meticulously crafted silverware were luxury products for an elite. Today’s Klimt coasters and Moser dish cloths seem like a cruel parody. But there is still a Wiener Werkstätte store on Kärntner Straße offering pieces of the real Wiener Ästhetik. At a price.

All of a Price

The Vienna approach was a rigorous application of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. As Hoffmann put it: “I believe that a house should stand there as if made of a piece, and its exterior inherently disclose its interior.” Hoffmann himself designed or directed every last detail of his clients’ new houses, furniture, wall decoration, floor tiling, dinner services. The Palais Stoclet near Brussels is a showpiece for the concept: The Stoclet family commissioned Hoffmann as architect with a team of his fellow Secessionists, including Klimt who did the stunning murals, his famous tree of life motif. The whole house is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, a monument to the Wiener Ästhetik.

Otto Wagner’s magnificent Postsparkasse on Stubenring is the same idea on a monumental scale: every detail, from the heraldic angels dominating the façade down to the gender plates on the restrooms determined by the architect. Just walk into the former bank’s main hall for a sense of a world in the process of transformation: the unashamed structuralism of bare steel trusses, the awesome curved glass ceiling within a larger glass-covered atrium, the geometrically precise chair backs, down to exposed functional bolt heads, nickel plated for visual consistency.

The young artists around Klimt and his friends recognized that the establishment at the Künstlerhaus did not represent their art. In 1897, they formed the Secession, and built their own exhibition venue, the gleaming white cubes on Friedrichstraße that became the face of the Wiener Moderne. Today, we have the rebel Secessionists to thank for much of the city we love.

(C) MAK/Katrin Wißkirchen

The Monster With No Eyebrows

However, idealists and radicals are by nature combative. “The Viennese need an antagonist,” the MAK’s Franz commented drily, and there was no shortage within the movement. Adolf Loos could be brutal: “The cruelest punishment imaginable,” he said, castigating a leading Secessionist, “would be to be locked up in a prison cell decorated by Josef Hoffmann.” Loos was a radical among radicals, a busy architect, much-published critic and verbal pugilist. His most famous essay, Ornament and Crime, sums up his attitude to the work of his acclaimed contemporaries. His targets put it down to pique at being excluded from the inner group designing the Secession building.

This is probably unfair; Loos was no carping scribbler, but a brilliantly original, all-round architect and designer. Like Ashbee, he abhorred what he considered superfluity in design. He was also deeply suspicious of the MAK’s founding concept of subjugating craftsmanship to high art. “This is … defrauding our craft industry,” he declared. As a working architect, he had no problem descending from the world of theory to workshop reality: “A man entrusted with the design of a chair need not know the five orders of Greek columns. First and foremost he must know something about sitting,” Loos opined. “What irritated people was his attitude,” Franz told us. “He made his pronouncements in the manner of Moses on the mountain.” As a senior curator, Franz can be forgiven for being, well, irritated.

As a critic, Loos was a shooter, as an architect a target. His enduring monument is the Looshaus on Michaelerplatz, just across from the imperial pomp of the Hofburg. Built for the Gentlemens’ outfitters Goldman & Salatsch with residential apartments above the store, at street level the exterior is relatively simple, faced in finely structured Cipollino gray marble with matching pillars. So far, so harmless. But as the scaffolding came down – shock, horror! The facade of the upper floors was totally plain, the windows without frames or lintels. No decoration at all. “Ein Scheusal” (Monster!) cried someone at the following council meeting. According to contemporary press reports, local citizens just referred to it as “The house with no eyebrows.” In 1947, the city reluctantly designated the Looshaus as a listed building.

According to legend, Emperor Franz Josef was so offended that he refused to use the Michaelertor of the Hofburg and had the windows permanently shuttered so he wouldn’t have to look at it. The city authorities imposed a halt on construction (soon lifted). But in the city of Wiener Ästhetik, a good verbal brawl was always welcome, and Loos had plenty of allies. “A rejection of aesthetic imperialism,” cried his supporters, and Loos became firmly established as the icon of Vienna Modernism.

Of Gemütlichkeit and Nihilism

Loos’ radical simplicity did not always add up to comfort, much less the renowned Wiener Gemütlichkeit. The Café Museum on Operngasse was one of Loos’ first commissions. His approach sidelined the prevailing taste for Biedermeier coziness: smooth marble, not table linen; bent wood chairs, not cushioned comfort. Even naked light bulbs without shades. “Café Nihilism,” mocked the critics, but this was the look that, at least in part, now defines the Vienna Kaffeehaus. In the 1930s, Loos’ interior was replaced with a more homey solution by Josef Zotti (ironically a student of Loos’ arch-rival, Josef Moser). Then came the 2000s and the new-found quest for authenticity. In 2003, new owners returned the Café Museum to its cool Loos original, but customers stayed away in droves, forcing its closure in 2009 and sale to the Landtmann’s Querfeld family. Over the summer of 2010, the Querfelds took a chance and recreated Zotti’s cushy upholstered niches and soft lighting. Then, as workmen were carrying in the last furnishings, passersby peered through the front doors. Were they open? “Tomorrow,” Irmgard Querfeld told them. But seeing their crest-fallen faces, she waved them in. And within minutes, as she tells the story, the rooms were abuzz with happy chatter. The Café Museum was back.

In retrospect, there is a double irony to the ideological tussle of those times, played out in the settings of everyday life. What began as a social conscience-driven movement to revive honest craftsmanship ended up producing products that were unsustainably expensive (the original Wiener Werkstätte went under in 1932). Looking at rival work today, for example, elegant villas or coffee sets from both Hoffmann and Loos, the bitter battle of principle between decoration and form is hard to see. Perhaps like religion, the fiercest fighting is between rival sects, not different faiths.We turned to Rainald Franz for clarity: Radicals vs. reactionaries? How would he define the warring parties? “Konservativ- Progressiven” he suggested. Or progressive-conservatives, we wondered? Whatever. They all produced beautiful things, many of them on view at the MAK. Or just stroll past their magnificent architecture all across the city and enjoy it. Mask-free.

Places to Visit (When Allowed)

Simon Ballam
Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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