I’m an American architect in 21st-century New York City. My everyday silverware was designed in 1906 by an Austrian architect in Vienna. When I’m setting the dinner table and polishing stray fingerprints from the forks, knives, and spoons, my mind often drifts to the early 1900s. It was an era of manifestos, both political and artistic, and a time when design could change the world. At the heart of the tumult was Josef Hoffmann, whose vision is as powerfully influential in our day as it was in his own—in museums and interiors, and on tables such as mine. This month, the MAK Museum of Applied Arts, in Vienna, commemorates the 150th anniversary of his birth with the opening of the exhibition “Josef Hoffmann: Progress Through Beauty.” (The show was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus.)
Hoffmann was born in 1870, in what was then Moravia, to a prosperous German family. His father owned a textile mill, and the company’s discarded wooden printing blocks were young Hoffmann’s favorite childhood toy.
His years at a prestigious high school, however, were a miserable failure, and his only solace was a friendship with the son of a local building contractor. As teenagers, they visited construction sites and helped with the work. After intense arguments with his family, Hoffmann transferred to the well-regarded Senior State Commercial and Technical School, in Brno, where he could study architecture.
He next won entry to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and earned every award the school offered, including its prestigious Rome Prize. He had found his path.
In 1897, only two years out of the academy, Hoffmann joined with Gustav Klimt and other progressive artists and architects in a revolt against official art salons. With near-religious fervor they founded the Vienna Secession, a movement that bulldozed national boundaries and unified painters, sculptors, and fine artisans under a single banner. They preached a “total art”—a Gesamtkuntswerk—in which every design element of an environment comes together with the integrity of a musical score. They believed a holistic artistic vision would magically reform social inequities.
Hoffmann wanted to push things even further. In 1903 he split from the Secession and with the painter Koloman Moser formed a workshop, the Wiener Werkstätte, to guarantee that the crafts would have equal status with the fine arts. This all seems terribly naïve to us now, but their fervor fueled a remarkable outpouring of creativity.
While I find Hoffmann’s architecture interesting—its stripped-flat surfaces foreshadow both Bauhaus and Art Deco—his design work with the Werkstätte leaves me in speechless admiration. No object seemed to escape his promiscuous curiosity. One might expect an architect to design furniture and doorknobs, as he did. And one might not be surprised to see an architect try their hand at textiles or jewelry or glassware or metalwork, as he did. But handbags? Hoffmann founded a fashion division at the Wiener Werkstätte!
Indeed, Hoffmann’s magnum opus in the realm of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the stern and sumptuous Palais Stoclet, in Brussels, now a World Heritage site—was not complete without the dress he designed for Madame Stoclet, which ensured that she was in harmony with her surroundings.
Hoffmann’s invention was boundless. I know of 30 tea services he designed, each exploring a different idea. Their forms range from rigorously geometric to sinuously suggestive and often show a sly sense of humor that leaves one smiling. In Hoffmann’s silverware, the rigor of his idealism and the breadth of his creativity find their way to my dinner table with a poetics as potent as a Mahler song. There are times, in a reverie, when an entire world can be seen in a spoon. —Lewis Jacobsen
“Josef Hoffmann: Progress Through Beauty” is on now at the MAK Museum of Applied Arts, in Vienna