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Contrasting modernist architects in Vienna show

Exhibit demonstrates how the reputations of Adolf Loos and his rival Josef Hoffmann have risen in recent years

Posted on 02-Jan-2015

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Contrasting modernist architects in Vienna show


TAKE two bedrooms, each designed in the early 1900s by a different ambitious young architect for an apartment here. Both are modestly sized and furnished with a bed, dressing table, wardrobe and night tables. But the similarities end there.

One room was the work of the architect Josef Hoffmann, who designed it in 1902 for his clients Johannes and Johanna Salzer in warm shades of brown, with beautifully made wooden furniture sharing the geometric motifs of the carpet and curtains.

The other was devised as a dreamy spectacle by Mr Hoffmann's arch-rival, Adolf Loos, in 1903 for himself and his wife, Lina. The bed, draped with a white silk sheet, appears to float over an opulent white fur rug, and white linen curtains mask the walls. The only colour that is not white is the azure blue of the carpet.

Despite their differences, both rooms would have been recognised at the time as looking unmistakably Modern. They have now been reconstructed as the centrepieces of "Ways to Modernism: Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Their Impact", an exhibition that runs through April 19 at MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in Vienna, and illustrates their designers' conflicting visions of modernity at a time of renewed interest in their work.

The exhibition, which was organised by Christian Witt-Dorring and Matthias Boeckl, begins by charting the birth of consumerism in Austria from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, as manufacturers vied to appeal to the new middle classes.

Many of those companies used recently invented materials and techniques, including pressed glass and varnished papier-mache, to produce furniture, wallpaper and ornaments in a dazzling array of historic styles, sometimes combining them in, say, a table with a Baroque top and a Gothic base.

By the late 19th century, the architect Otto Wagner had mounted an assault against what he and fellow progressives regarded as pointless kitsch by developing a Modern style of designing buildings and their contents, distinguished by efficiency and clarity. "Something impractical can never be beautiful", as he put it.

The stunning aluminium and glass facade devised by Mr Wagner in 1902 for an office of the newspaper Die Zeit in Vienna is reconstructed at full size in the show. Humbler works, such as his exquisitely simple aluminium lights, are equally eloquent expressions of his beliefs.

Mr Wagner's success paved the way for Mr Hoffmann and Mr Loos to emerge as leaders of the next generation of Viennese designers in the early 20th century.

Both men were born in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, in December 1870, and both moved to Vienna in the 1890s, when it was one of the world's biggest cities and the heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Each embraced the city's dynamic cultural life and shared Mr Wagner's determination to define a new design style, but with contrasting results.

Having moved to Vienna to study under Mr Wagner at the Academy of Fine Arts, Mr Hoffmann rooted himself in its artistic community. Working with friends, including the designer Koloman Moser and the artist Gustav Klimt, he was a founder of the Vienna Secession in 1897 as an alliance of like-minded artists and designers.

He and Mr Moser subsequently opened the Wiener Werkstatte, where artisans produced meticulously fabricated objects in the discreetly decorative Modern style of the Salzer bedroom. Mr Hoffmann refined that style in increasingly imposing architectural projects, including the Palais Stoclet, a private mansion in Brussels.

Mr Loos arrived in Vienna after completing his education in Germany and travelling in the United States for three years. Immersing himself in an eclectic circle that included the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, he developed his approach to design not only as a practitioner but also as a writer.

Mr Loos believed architects and designers should empower people to express themselves by creating neutral settings for their lives, instead of designers imposing their own aesthetic choices on them, and that there was no need to create objects if suitable ones existed.

Mr Loos often attacked Mr Hoffmann, condemning his work as unnecessarily ornate and materialistic. The reticent Mr Hoffmann, who would hide in a specially designated room if anyone he disliked approached his office, tried to ignore him. The exhibition illustrates the gulf between them by displaying Mr Hoffmann's luxurious furniture and his architectural drawings of sumptuous mansions on one side of a gallery, and the anonymously made antique chairs favoured by Mr Loos on the other, with the two bedrooms facing each other in the middle.

Another elegant touch is the choice of paintings of the designers' respective clients: Klimt's flattering portraits of Mr Hoffmann's patrons, and Oskar Kokoschka's brutal depictions of Mr Loos'.

Their differences became even more marked from 1910 onward . Yet the exhibition ends by redressing the balance and demonstrating how the reputations of both adversaries have risen in recent years, showing work by other designers that bears their influence.

Having been feted in the 1980s by postmodernist architects and designers, including Hans Hollein and Ettore Sottsass, Mr Hoffmann is now benefiting from the revival of interest in craftsmanship. As for Mr Loos, he continues to inspire latter-day radicals, from the architect Rem Koolhaas to young design activists. NYT


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