Four complete interiors by Secessionist architect Josef Hoffmann are on view at the Neue Galerie now through February 26. A book with these and other Hoffmann interiors is $60 at the gallery's bookstore: 1048 Fifth Ave., at 86th St.: 212-628-6200.
In his early career Josef Hoffmann was the impresario of high taste in fin-de-siècle Vienna: an avant-gardist who attracted the patronage of the haute bourgeoisie in his attempts to liberate architecture and design from the pastiche revival styles that had uglified the city.
Hoffmann (1870-1956) was a founding member of the breakaway Vienna Secession, with its belief in the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, orchestrating useful objects with paintings, sculpture and architecture in an overall composition. And he founded, with the painter and designer Koloman Moser, the influential Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), the artists’ collaborative that insisted on the handcraft component of good design.
Although Hoffmann designed complete houses for rich clients in and around Vienna, the show “Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902-1913” at the Neue Galerie focuses on four of his interiors, replete with furnishings according to the original commission: furniture, wall and floor coverings, textiles, lighting, ceramics, glass and metalwork. Many of the objects were executed by the Werkstätte; the Neue Galerie has also taken pains to reweave carpets and textiles and reproduce fabrics and wallpaper from samples in original, unfaded colors. Along with the interiors, the show, organized by Christian Witt-Dörring, the museum’s curator of decorative arts, is enlivened by photographs of other Hoffmann projects and additional objects designed by him and his colleagues.
Hoffmann’s early, intensely 20th-century design work, based on the grid and the square, feels a bit austere at first look, but it warms up when seen in context. Of the four interiors here, the most impressive is the dining room he designed in 1913 for the apartment of the Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler.
One of a series he did for fellow artists, including an atelier for Klimt, the Hodler dining room is a large, calm space whose padded walls are covered with a gray ribbed fabric. Its set piece is a sleek credenza placed against the longest wall, with an extension table in front of it, occupying the center of the room. Four rather traditional-looking armchairs around the table are upholstered in a vivacious linen print of yellow, black and white motifs from nature, designed by Dagobert Peche.
All of the room’s furniture, which also includes a buffet table and two display vitrines, is of oak stained black, with its strong graining limed in white. Some pieces, including the buffet, are given carved ornamental treatment as well. Although the set-up is that of a formal dining room, it has enlivening touches. Two portraits by Hodler hang over the buffet, and on its shelf there is a tea and coffee service in silver, designed by Hoffmann. An unusual feature of the buffet is that its three sides are tapered to give a slightly out-of-plumb reading — accentuated by the strong oppositional patterns of the graining — when seen from the front.
As for the table, the fluting of its pillarlike legs is continued up to its planar edge, blurring the distinction between vertical and horizontal. The difference between the legs and the tabletop can no longer be clearly defined, producing an ambiguous fool-the-eye relationship that melds 2D and 3D. While the conventional view is that Hoffmann retreated to much more conservative design in his later work, Mr. Witt-Dörring cites the table and buffet as examples of Hoffmann’s late “pre-postmodern approach,” even more evident in the buildings he designed. Their ambiguity, he suggests, encouraged the viewer to interpret the visual environment more subjectively, an augur of international postmodernism.
Behind the dining room installation is a huge vitrine fitted out with a dazzling variety of decorative objects designed by Hoffmann and executed by Werkstätte and other people. He used as basic materials silver, pottery, glass, leather and gemstones. Vases, a sardine tray, a writing desk set, coffee and tea sets, boxes, bowls and baskets, flatware, wine and drinking glasses, inkstands, beautifully bound books and even a sports trophy are in the display.
A number of other Hoffmann-designed objects appear in separate cases. One is a handsome but surprisingly ornate card table of Makassar ebony, designed for Karl Wittgenstein in 1907. Its marquetry top in wood, ivory and mother-of-pearl depicts an elegant horseman on each of its four sides, and the four legs are decorated with marquetry clubs, hearts, spades or diamonds. In ugly contrast to the table is a group of geometric Hoffmann vases, baskets, planters and other containers made from metal grids and painted white.
Reproductions of two of Hoffmann’s smart, self-important-looking little black stuffed Villa Gallia armchairs (1913), some of whose elements are outlined by black and white braiding, appear on a landing where they can be sat on by visitors. A library ladder, made in 1905 for Wittgenstein from modular grids (a portent of Sol LeWitt) of oak stained black with yellow graining, reiterates Hoffmann’s affection for the grid as a container and definer of space.
The 1907 Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer recently acquired by the Neue Galerie has its own Hoffmann element: the simple but elegant gold frame that surrounds the image. Two vitrines in a special gallery present small domestic works by Hoffmann and Moser from the early 1900’s, mostly executed by the Werkstätte. And a small gallery is devoted to photographs of Hoffmann’s own private dwellings, which he rarely opened to visitors.
Photographs give some idea of Hoffmann’s major building projects, including his two landmarks: the ultraluxurious millionaire’s home known as the Palais Stoclet in Brussels (about 1905-11), which was his ideal Gesamtkunstwerk, and the radically modern Purkersdorf Sanitarium in Vienna (1904). But this show, while focused on rooms and their fittings, goes a long way toward conveying the ideas of a designer immersed in a new vision.
“Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902-1913” remains through Feb. 26 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200.
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.”
“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.
If you want to know what God thinks of money,” said Dorothy Parker, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Well, God’s still on the job. The wealthy of our period are a great disappointment. Narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are not the problem; those come with the bank account. The problem is that today’s rich are doing too little with their narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance. A great fortune provides its holder with that rarest of luxuries, a chance to bring outlandish dreams to life. To astonish.
The failure of the contemporary rich to bedazzle—to open, for a moment, a window on paradise—came home with special force at the Louis Comfort Tiffany and Josef Hoffmann shows now at, respectively, the Met and the Neue Galerie. For those who aren’t initiates, exhibits about interior design tend to be worthy but dull, like gardening in Connecticut; the embalmed rooms and display-bound objects inevitably look musty. But these two shows successfully capture something of the bliss to be found in the creation of a perfected place. Although Tiffany (1848–1933) and Hoffmann (1870–1956) were very different, each was powerfully drawn to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” in which the various arts are not divided but joined together to establish a full-bodied alternative to humdrum existence. Tiffany was not simply a glassmaker, nor Hoffmann just an architect and designer. Each was a maker of enchanted worlds.
“Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall—An Artist’s Country Estate,” organized for the Met by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, focuses upon the dream palace that Tiffany built on Long Island Sound at the outset of the twentieth century. A lost masterpiece—it was destroyed by fire in 1957—Laurelton was one of the great American concoctions, a sublime folly even more remarkable than the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Tiffany oversaw the design of every detail of the eight-level, 84-room house and 600 carefully landscaped acres. A private Eden that was self-sufficient, with a farm, livestock, and greenhouses to supply every need, Laurelton mingled art and nature until they seemed almost inseparable. Around a resplendent Fountain Court, Tiffany filled rooms with hundreds of pieces of his work—typically inspired by natural forms—ranging from windows and glasswork to pottery and painting. He also placed his many collections on view, among them selections of Asian art and Native American basketry.
The exhibit includes numerous works from the house (whose contents were sold at auction in 1946), some borrowed from the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. The rescued architectural elements allow the curators to evoke, for example, the Daffodil Terrace, a glorious outdoor room that invited the garden into the house and the house into the garden. The many examples of Favrile glass on display are, of course, particularly beautiful. With their wisteria curls and exotic flickers, Tiffany’s creations are a version of Aladdin’s lamp: Laurelton itself sometimes seems to be a phantasmagorical apparition emanating from his moody, swirling glass. Refusing to kowtow to the polite, historicizing fashion of the time, Tiffany at Laurelton was a wild, lavish, excessive, over-the-top visionary. He denied fancy nothing. He represented the America that was boundless, not puritanical.
The façade of his vaguely Moorish mansion mattered less than its succession of magical rooms, of which there are many wonderful photographs in the catalogue. A magpie who loved sparkle, color, and Orientalist effects, Tiffany, some might argue, created just a plummy pastiche. But they’d be wrong. There was nothing typical about his excess or his mix-and-match. His lavish rooms were both organized—the various objects lived well together—and hallucinatory. They had the floating logic of dreams, where one neither wants nor expects consistency. Not surprisingly, Tiffany liked to animate his fantasies, using Laurelton as a stage for parties that make Gatsby’s look like coffee and doughnuts. At a “Peacock Feast” he staged in 1914 for “men of genius,” a young woman dressed as Juno entered at twilight from the gardens, bearing a peacock. Behind her came a procession of women in Grecian robes, the first three of whom bore silver salvers holding stuffed birds. In the show, you can see the young Juno’s exquisitely barbaric headdress, which includes a peacock’s head.
Hoffmann’s imagination was more rigorous and rectilinear than Tiffany’s, and he did not work with the same financial resources. But during the period covered by “Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913,” the Viennese designer also brought to serious money an extraordinary and otherworldly dream. The show at the Neue Galerie, which was organized by Christian Witt-Dörring, contains four complete interiors and a handsome selection of Hoffmann-designed objects. Hoffmann, who liked to design every possible detail of a place, did not create rooms that were just lovely containers. The objects inside were themselves organic parts of the environment: You would no more remove them than cut off your fingers. If there could be something airless about his rooms—a criticism often directed at utopian thought—there was also something both fantastical and reassuring. His rational eye established clarity; his playful eye summoned fantasy. The symmetries dance. In Hoffmann, you always sense order, which lets you know you are taken care of, which in turn makes it seem safe to float and dream—thereby creating a sweet, almost childlike version of paradise.
Like Tiffany, Hoffmann had a luscious eye, and he depended upon gifted craftsmen in a high-end workshop who were captivated by new ideas about materials and furniture. (He was the artistic director of the Wiener Werkstätte.) And like Tiffany, he turned his back on the historicized styles favored by the ordinary rich. If Tiffany and Hoffmann drew upon certain advanced ideas developed during the nineteenth century, however, they were also irredeemably idiosyncratic in their approach to the modern. They insisted upon making something fresh, something that stood on its own, something that advanced the cultural conversation of the time. They would have never built just another mansion, filled with name-brand art, in Greenwich.