Often those best at breaking the rules, have first mastered them. Josef Hoffman learned the skill of design during a time when structure and conformity was not only the norm, but the requirement. During the late 1800’s, the era of Architectural Realism was in full season. Born on December 15, 1870, Hoffmann was a student of the famous Viennese architect, Otto Wagner. In Hoffman, Wagner would unintentionally produce an even more accomplished architect than himself. A student who not only broke the rules, but changed them.
Hoffmann and Wagner met while Wagner served as Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Although Wagner was interested in pioneering a path toward more contemporary design constructs, it would be Hoffman who ultimately made good on this idea.
At The Academy, Hoffman met fellow artists Joseph Maria Olbrich, Gustav Klimt, and Koloman Moser, chance meetings that would forever change Vienna architecture.
His cultivated interest in the arts, and other cultural disciplines, blazed a trail towards design independence. This extra-architectural leaning led him down a path that was seen as almost heretical during his time. His maverick design ideas would forever become known as “Gesamtkunstwerk.”
The term “Gesamtkunstwerk” was made famous by German opera composer Richard Wagner and represents the fusing of all necessary elements for an authentic expression of art. Many define the term as total or complete artwork. Hoffmann’s Gesamtkunstwerk perfectly explained his concepts and design approach as he attempted to artfully represent an ever-evolving society. Hoffman essentially began to embrace an ecumenical philosophy. A philosophy that sought to incorporate, rather than distinguish itself as different. Music, painting, and even furniture design he saw as neccssary extensions of his work. The maturation of this philosophy led Hoffmann at the age of 27, to form the Vienna Secession.
The Vienna Secessionist movement sought to create new styles that had no basis in what had been done historically. Hoffmann’s time at The Academy of Fine Arts provided him with the building blocks upon which he cultivated a total departure from classic design. The learned theories of functional, “appropriate” architecture profoundly affected his later bold spontaneity.
The Secessionist artists desired a break from mass production products, in exchange for more sophisticated, commissioned work. To this end, Hoffman created work such as: The Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905), the Purkersdorf Sanitarium outside Vienna (1903), and the Fledermaus Cabaret in Vienna (1909).
In May of 1903, Hoffmann created the Vienna Workshop or Wiener Werkstatte. The Vienna workshop was the culmination of his new found Gesamtkunstwerk. The work done under this banner represented a unification of colors, motifs, walls, curtains, jewelry, upholstery and furniture.
The Neue Galerie, a Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York, City, has frequently placed on exhibition several Hoffmann/Wiener Werkstatte period pieces. The exhibitions have included: Biach bedroom (1904), Hans Salzer bedroom (1902), Jerome Stonborough and Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1905), and dining room designs done for the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (Geneva 1913).
Although Hoffman's earliest works belong to the secessionist movement and its tangent, Art Nouveau, his later works introduced the regular grid and square design approach. The clarity and abstract purity of his later work forever identified him as the artistic precursor to the Modern Movement.
By 1906, Hoffmann had built what many consider to be his first truly great work, the Sanatorium in Purkersdorf. He was finally producing customized works of art. The Purkersdorf Sanatorium project was obtained through Adolphe Stoclet. Stoclet sat on the supervisory board of the Austro-Belgischen Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft.
Hoffmann was commissioned to complete the Palais Stoclet in Brussels for the wealthy banker and railway financier, Victor Zuckerkandl. Considered the Masterpiece of Jugendstil, this work was the finest example of Gesamtkunstwerk. The project includes highlighted murals in the dining room by Klimt, and four copper figures by Franz Metzner.
In 1907, Hoffmann was co-founder of the Deutscher Werkbund, and in 1912 of the Österreichischer Werkbund. After World War II, he took on official tasks on behalf of the government. One position was that of an Austrian general commissioner with the Venice Biennale and a second position as a member of the art senate.
Josef Hoffmann will be remembered as a thoughtful risk taker. One that studied history before attempting to change the future. He was highly regarded as individualistic, willing to go into unchartered territory. Before his death in 1956, Hoffmann had forever enabled younger artist to take inspiration further just as he had done for Wagner.