Vienna's Prolific Design Czar

Josef Hoffmann strongly influenced several generations of designers

ALTHOUGH the IBM Gallery of Science and Art may not have intended it, the Josef Hoffmann exhibition on view here inadvertently provides a mighty push into the Year of American Craft 1993. The Viennese designer's influence on furniture, metal, textile, glass, and building designs in the early 1900s laid stepping stones for American artists of the 1990s. The exhibition should help fuel further public interest in arts and crafts and the movements surrounding it.

The Hoffmann show is varied and extensive: Hundreds of sketches for decorative wares, precise and detailed models of the architect's best-known buildings (the Purkersdorf Sanatorium in Vienna, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, and the Villa Skywa-Primavesi in Czechoslovakia), and cases full of ornate jewelry and glass stand as witness to his design abilities.

The excellent workmanship in these pieces proves the success of Hoffmann's efforts to raise the artistic competence of the craftsmen, and to improve on the production process. He broke down the division between artist and artisan.

Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshops) in 1903 with that mission in mind. In the collective's almost 30-year history, important artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Carl Moll were identified with the Werkstatte and its large- and small-scale projects.

Hoffmann's aim was to reform how decorative art was used in the homes and businesses of his upper- and middle-class clients. He expected functional items such as teacups to not only hold liquid, but also to be elegant, easily held works of art.

He worked closely to supervise both outside contractors and craftspeople in the workshops, and he expanded into new areas of specialization, such as fashion design and bookbinding.

Primarily trained as an architect, Hoffmann had an architect's love of total design integration: He wanted the outside of a building to correspond stylistically with the interior - right down to wall coverings, lighting fixtures, and knickknacks. As a result, he and his colleagues became design czars. Clients were forbidden to move anything in a Hoffmann-designed room from its specified place.

This tyranny was lampooned in an essay by rival architect Adolf Loos, titled "Poor Rich Man." In the story, a rich patron calls his architect to his home to propose a small change but is stopped by the architect's fixation on his slippers. The patron glances at them and is relieved to see that they are of the architect's design. He is astounded when the architect tells him that the slippers are not appropriate for that room; they were made to be worn only in the bedroom.

(This attitude finds a parallel later in the century in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who insisted on totally integrated design for his buildings.)

On the positive side, what Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstatte brought to the art of craftsmanship was a sheer love of materials. The exhibition glows with incandescent-colored glass goblets, shining silver tea services, smooth bent-wood cafe chairs, and brightly woven fabric samples.

It's astounding how modern these pieces look. The geometric shapes (especially squares, grids, and circles) and jewel-toned colors, as well as the simplicity of many of Hoffmann's mature designs, find echoes in current designs from Italian, German, and some US companies. (See the work of US architect Richard Meier, the firm Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, and the New York Museum of Modern Art's store catalog for just a few examples.)

Hoffmann's works also demonstrate that in order for industrial design to improve, the expectations and tastes of the public must be educated toward harmonious balance, proportion, function, and comfort. He hoped that by looking at well-designed and well-made objects, consumers would absorb the aesthetic - the principle behind a design - and so make better choices about products.

In the Year of American Craft, exhibitions the caliber of the Hoffmann show inspire and promote a deeper sensitivity to the objects with which we surround ourselves.

* Although the Josef Hoffmann exhibition closes tomorrow, a host of other events connected to Year of American Craft are opening around the country. A sampling includes: Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences, Manchester, N.H., (through Feb. 20); The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, (Jan 23-Feb. 28); New York International Gift Fair, New York City, ((Feb. 21-25); The Smithsonian Institution's 11th Annual Craft Show, (April 15-18).

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