The cruelest punishment imaginable,” said the Viennese modernist architect Adolf Loos, “would be to be locked up in a prison cell decorated by Josef Hoffmann.”
Contemporaries though they were, the two design legends were at conceptual sword points: Loos was a radical purist and minimalist, Hoffmann part of the exuberant Secessionist school around Koloman Moser and Gustav Klimt. History makes a habit of revising the acidic judgments of contemporary rivals, and today most of us would gladly spend time surrounded by Hoffmann’s charming, and still provocative, designs.
And now we can: Through October, there is a unique opportunity to walk into Hoffmann’s world at a special MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) exhibition in his family home in Brtnice, just over the border in what is now Czechia. Hoffmann loved his parents’ old and spacious house dominating the námestí Svobody, the town’s main square (a very un-square Platz, typical for old Austrian Moravia) and kept it as his summer retreat until the Benes Decrees forced all “Germans” (German-speaking Czechs) out of Czechoslovakia in 1945-46.
The exhibition “Josef Hoffmann – Koloman Moser” by MAK curator Rainald Franz celebrates one of the greatest partnerships in the golden age of Viennese design. Both creative and business partners, the disciplined Hoffmann and the ardent Moser worked together for decades until Moser’s early death in 1918 of the Spanish ‘flu that also claimed Klimt and Egon Schiele. Hoffmann was a trained architect who could sketch beautifully, Moser a bold expressionist painter who loved design. Together they created the magical world on display in Brtnice.
Socialist benign neglect
This solid merchant’s house became the birthplace of the legendary Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops), at their peak a global lifestyle brand with stores in Zürich and New York. Changing tastes and the Depression forced the original WW into bankruptcy in 1932. After some bitter trademark wrangling in the early 2000s, two successors emerged to offer occasionally lovely, occasionally kitschy wares in the city today.
In Brtnice, their regular, arched rooms are decorated with Hoffmann’s signature motifs, a charming fusion of classic rural decoration and disciplined modernist -geometry. And thanks to the post war communist government’s chronic lack of funds for “improvements,” the house was used as a socialist workers’ club and the town library and left largely untouched.
Importantly for the exhibition, Hoffmann used the house as his Versuchswerkstatt (test lab) for many of his ideas, which he meticulously photo-documented.“A gift for us curators,” sighed Franz happily. One small, vaulted corner offers a Wiener Werkstätte panorama in miniature: Hoffmann’s severely abstract motif for the Cabaret Fledermaus, Moser’s charmingly lascivious poster for the 1899 Secession, a delicate little side-table of Shaker-like simplicity and sinuous wine glasses fit to turn Grüner Veltliner into nectar. And a woodcut print of Moser himself, the radical designer looking more like a benevolent provincial bank manager.
The distinctive Wiener Werkstätte was both uniquely Viennese and part of a pan-European movement. Hoffmann was often in London and Glasgow, where he worked closely with the great British art nouveau designer Rennie Mackintosh. The characteristic pierced metal tableware (vases, baskets etc.), so “typically” Wiener Werkstätte, owes much to the Glasgow school. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to make these connections, and spend a few hours pleasantly incarcerated in the enchanted world of Hoffmann and Moser – with the stony Adolf Loos no longer around to spoil the fun.
Through Oct 28, Josef Hoffmann Museum. Náměstí Svobody 263, 588 32 Brtnice, Czechia. Open daily in Jul/Aug, 10:00-17:00. mak.at
Take the A22 across the Danube and head toward Stockerau and Krems. Stay on that route, which morphs into the 303 to Hollabrunn, crossing into Czechia at Kleinhaugsdorf. Warning: True aesthetes may get a severe shock at the border just before Znojmo, possibly the nastiest piece of sub-Disney kitsch on the planet. Consider it a contrast for the pleasures to come. Through Znojmo, stay on the Czech 38 (E59) toward Jihlava, turning right at Stonarov to Brtnice (NOT to Brtnicka a few minutes earlier). You can reward your cultural exertions at the Radnicni (town hall) Restaurace across the charming little bridge opposite Hoffmann’s house. A pleasant courtyard with good beer of course, Polévka dne (soup of the day) and a menu for less than CK 100, (€5)