An Inside View of Josef Hoffmann

An exhibition of the Austrian architect highlights his artful interiors.

Now through February 26, an exhibition at the Neue Galerie traces the influence of a leading figure in the modern movement, Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann. Presented for the first time are four interiors taken from Hoffmann’s most fruitful period, re-created with objects original to those rooms: furniture, wall and floor coverings, textiles, lighting, ceramics, glass and metalwork. His careful orchestration of each space and its contents, along with his willingness to experiment with color, create a dynamic play between order and whimsy.

Born in 1870 in what is now the Czech Republic, Hoffmann studied under architect Otto Wagner, a proponent of a movement known as Architectural Realism. Wagner taught a departure from the prevailing historicist style, incorporating new forms and materials to express a changing society. Along with Wagner and colleagues including Koloman Moser and painter Gustav Klimt, Hoffmann formed a group of artists called the Vienna Secession, the vanguard of Austrian Art Nouveau, and curated exhibitions of their work that strived to create a new style without historical influence.

In the following years, influence on Hoffmann’s interior sensibility shifted towards the graphic style of British Arts and Crafts, specifically the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Repeating patterns of squares and circles and heavy use of black and white became Hoffmann’s modern vocabulary, retaining the reductivist quality of Wagner’s surface ornamentation. But it was his pursuit of an independent Austrian movement that led Hoffmann to the foundation of Wiener Werkstätte, or Vienna Workshop, in May 1903. Joined by Moser, Klimt, and sixteen other artists, this workshop was dedicated to manufacturing good design for a more sophisticated market—breaking from the British desire for mass production. His architectural commissions of this era relied on the Werkstätte to present a completely designed space, with similar colors and motifs that extended from the walls and curtains to the furniture and upholstery. By unifying the fine and decorative arts he sought to realize the Werkstätte’s central goal: gesamtkunstwerk, or “complete work of art.”

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“His rigorously abstracted forms were essential in defining the style of the era,” says Renee Price, director of the Neue Galerie. Indeed, however playful or delicate Hoffmann’s designs may seem, such as the “tulips” on the walls of the girl’s bedroom from the Max Biach residence, rigor and in some sense rigidity remain in abundance. The architect’s furniture, with its austerity of form and straightforward arrangement, tempers these jolts of exuberance in color and pattern.

Amidst the museum’s vitrines of Werkstätte silver and vibrant sketches of Hoffmann’s patterns is a room which displays photos of the architect’s personal residences throughout the Werkstätte period. They each tend to deviate from the purism of his commissions with antique pieces of furniture, design prototypes, and mementos strewn about. However this suits Hoffmann’s approach as an artist: abstract forms from life and nature and edit to create a unified whole. Part fantasy and part function, his interiors reveal elements of eras to come, from art deco all the way to pop art.

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