No other figure epitomized the design and architecture component of the new Vienna Moderne than Josef Hoffmann. From 1892 to 1895 he along with Joseph Maria Olbrich were students of Otto Wagner’s in the School of Architecture at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste ( Academy of Fine Arts ). Wagner and Olbrich both were Rome Prize winners and in 1895 traveled to Italy together. Throughout his career,Hoffmann emphasized the great influence of Otto Wagner in his professional life.
In 1897 Hoffmann began working in Wagner’s office on the new Stadtbahn (city train) along with other projects. In this same year the Vienna Secession was founded by the city’s progressive artists including Hoffmann, and Olbrich was selected to design the new Secession Building. Olbrich then collaborated with Hoffmann on the groundbreaking interior space. For the first time an art exhibition hall would have movable partitions that could be altered depending on the requirements of the exhibition.
By the end of 1898 Hoffmann had established himself as an important member of the Secession and its most gifted designer. His masterful staging of the first three of the Secessionist’s exhibitions was quite revolutionary and the concept of a “designed” exhibition is one of Josef Hoffmann’s many enduring legacies.
Hoffmann was quite interested in the English Arts and Crafts movement and made several study trips to England to meet the movement’s leaders including C.R. Ashbee. Through Ashbee he became acquainted with the “Glasgow Four” whose work he had seen in publications. Arrangements were soon made for The Four (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, Francis MacDonald McNair (Margaret’s sister) and Herbert McNair) to show at the 8th Secession Exhibit. Their installed tearoom drew much praise from the general public as well as most of the Viennese art critics. From this exhibition the myth of “Mackintosh in Vienna” had its roots. Today, since Vienna is considered by most to be the birthplace of European Modernism, it is argued by historians just how much influence Mackintosh really had in the development of the minimal hard edge, geometric style of Josef Hoffmann. Both designers had made use of the square grid in their work although their iconic pieces making use of the square grid and negative space were still several years away. I think that it safe to say that their work informed each other. After all, the Japanese had made use of the grid in design for centuries. Artists are the great appropriators!
In 1903 the Wiener Werkstätte was founded and this became the applied arts branch of the Secession. Josef Hoffmann and Kolomann Moser were responsible for the artistic direction while their good friend and patron Fritz Warendorfer was its financier. The mission of the Werkstätte was to mass produce the designs of Hoffmann, Moser and other artists in the group and to market them to the Viennese and hopefully, to the European middle class.
In 1904 Hoffmann designed Purkersdorf Sanitorium which became one of the highlights of his architectural career. It’s massing of volumes, simple cubic design, and innovative use of space earmarked it as one of the first modern buildings of the new century. In this building Hoffmann certainly realized the Gesamptkunstwerk (total work of art), as every aspect of the building and its interior was under his control.
The culmination of Hoffmann’s Gesamptkunstwerk was the Palais Stoclet built in Brussels, Belgium in 1906- 1907. Collaborating with many other members of the Werkstätte and with the Secession painter, Gustav Klimt, this mansion probably epitomizes the philosophy of the Secession artists and designers.
The years following Palais Stoclet were, for the Werkstätte, the beginning of the shift away from minimalism and purity. Also, the desire to make the workshops profitable through sales of work was proving to be very non-profitable and by 1912 Fritz Warendorfer was bankrupt. New financiers made attempts to attain profitability but with the coming of WW I this proved to be very difficult. Many original members of the Secession and Werkstätte had moved on to other endeavors including Klimt and Moser. Hoffmann had forsaken his modern style and embraced a more historic convention. He completed a home in 1915 that I think was his last great building. This was the Villa Skywa-Primavesi. In 1932 the Wiener Werkstätte declared bankruptcy and was dissolved. Hoffmann celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday at the Palais Stoclet in Brussels and shortly after, in 1956 died after suffering a stroke in Vienna.