Josef Hoffmann (designer)
Austrian 1870–1956

The Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, along with the designer Koloman Moser co-founded in 1903, with the financial backing of industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer, the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), a progressive design and craft organisation committed to creating modern, unified, integrated aesthetic environments and to the idea of a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk).

The Werkstätte designed and, in some cases, produced high quality household objects, including glassware, metalware, ceramics, jewellery, furniture, fashion and textiles for the Viennese luxury market. The WW also undertook architectural commissions where every aspect of a building, including furniture and fittings, formed part of a unified whole.

The form of this black glass vase, of bell shape with a splayed pedestal foot, was designed by Hoffmann but manufactured by the Moser Glassworks in Karlsbad, Bohemia. The WW was never equipped to produce its own glass; instead designs were executed by leading Bohemian manufacturers. At first, decoration was also carried out externally, but from 1916 on, the glass forms were sent back to Vienna to be decorated by WW artists.

The decoration of this vase exemplifies the design work of the WW in the postwar period and brings together a number of important strands of the WW’s changing aesthetics. The early years of the WW’s output, from 1903–08, were characterised by rectilinear austerity and an emphasis on functionalism. The black and white palette of the vase reflects a colour aesthetic pioneered by Kolo Moser in 1903 which became characteristic of this early period of WW design. From 1908, however, the work of Hoffmann in particular was marked by a turn to neoclassicism and a gradual introduction of a more ornamental approach to surface treatments. This decorative tendency increased dramatically from 1913 onwards under the influence of Dagobert Peche. Appointed director of the artists’ workshops in 1915, Peche’s idiosyncratic and highly decorative design work stood in stark contrast to the simple, geometric aesthetic of the WW’s earlier output. Peche’s whimsical designs were informed by central European baroque traditions, as well as by the idioms of Austrian folk-art. His delight in ornament for ornament’s sake placed his work in tension with the modernist tendencies of the early WW. Indeed, towards the end of his life, Peche defined the triumph over utilitarianism as a prerequisite to the rise of artistic expression. He believed in the exact opposite of expressing the nature of materials, reacting against Otto Wagner’s credo of the unity of form and function for which the first generation of the Viennese Secession had fought with such great effort.

The matt black surface of the vase exemplifies this tendency: at first glance the glass Vase can appear to be ceramic; the notion of truth to materials is intentionally subverted. The delicate floral sprig decoration executed in white enamel was painted by Fritzi (Fredericke) Löw, a student of Hoffmann and a leading WW artist. The decoration references Austrian folk-art and shows the clear influence of Peche’s work on Hoffmann’s design.

This particular Vase was marketed by the WW through its Fifth Avenue, New York showroom, a short-lived initiative which opened in 1922. A period advertisement for the New York outlet illustrates this model of vase. The New York showroom was not a success and disputes with headquarters in Vienna lead to its closure in 1924.

Matthew Martin, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts, NGV (in 2010)