WOMEN OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching
and Maria Likarz, artists of the Weiner Werkstätte.

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.

Mathilde Flögl, Invitation to the artists’ costume party, 1924.

The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)

Dress made from WW fabric designed by Hilda Jesser, 1921/2.
Hilda Jesser, Poster for the WW, 1919.
The WW store in Kärntner Strasse.

The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.

The Austrian pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo, designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Women of the Wiener Werkstätte setting up the Austrian Pavilion in Paris, 1925.

The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.

Vally Wieselthier, ‘Flora’, 1928, glazed ceramic.

Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.

Vally Wieselthier, Fireplace, c.1925, glazed ceramic.

This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.

Maria Likarz, Postcards of fashionable hats, 1912.
Hilda Jesser, Jardiniere, 1921, glazed ceramic.

WIENER WERKSTÄTTE IN NEW YORK

Valli Wieselthier’s hope (mentioned here) that people would get as much pleasure from one of her “silly little glazed pots” in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room gives a slightly misleading impression of the Wiener Werkstätte, with which she was associated for many years.

I’ve been looking at Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs’ well-illustrated account of the Weiner Werkstätte 1902-1932 and reading Janis Staggs’ description of their New York showroom. Many of their Viennese customers were the higher bourgeoisie and the New York branch sought a similar clientele.

It was backed and directed by Joseph Urban, an Austrian émigré architect who had had a successful career designing sets for Hollywood and the Metropolitan Opera. Ziegfeld hired him for set designs on his Follies. The New York store was a cross between a stage set and an art gallery. Customers had to wait until the end of the season to take away their purchases and Urban sometimes refused to sell items he particularly liked. At the centre of the window display on Fifth Avenue was Victor Lurje’s life-size gilt sculpture of a male nude, for which Urban was reputedly offered thousands of dollars, which he turned down.

The picture (above) shows the store’s reception room. The chairs were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The flanking tables held silverware by Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The large painting (top) was by Klimt (now in the Neue Galerie, NY).

The Palais Stoclet, the Werkstätte’s most famous work, was similarly sumptuous, every detail designed by Hoffman at horrendous cost, which almost bankrupted the company. Hoffmann however later became interested in modern, convenient working-class housing, and there are several rather anonymous blocks in Vienna that he designed – perhaps containing some of Wieselthier’s “silly little glazed pots.”

THE BIRMINGHAM GUILD

SELFRIGES LIFT

Selfridge’s lift, 1928, designed and made by the Birmingham Guild. Now in the Museum of London.

The latest edition of the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society has an article by Tony Peart about the Birmingham Guild, which I knew nothing about. The Guild were successful architectural metalworkers, founded in 1890 and modeled on C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, but unlike Ashbee’s company they prospered. Ashbee’s firm was wound up in 1907 after a trade recession which also did for William de Morgan in the same year, but the Birmingham Guild survived.

Ashbee complained of unfair competition between the factory and the craftsman and thought the crafts should be subsidised because of the benefits they brought to society. (Similar pleas were made in the 1940s by the furniture-maker Harry Norris and the potter Bernard Leach.) Graham Wallas (one of the founders of the LSE) calculated, à propos Morris & Co., that if society were to be run on arts-and-crafts principles, the cost of labour would exceed the value of outputs. The Birmingham Guild, however, found a way of combining art and business, as indeed, did Morris & Co. Employing skilled artisans from the Birmingham metal industries, they show that, even at the end of the 19th century, quality hand-production had been far from obliterated by the advancement of mass production, as the arts-and-crafts narrative asserted.

The company’s success was built on a good product, strong artistic input, originality, active marketing – and presumably sound accounting. During the First World War they turned to aircraft production, forming a relationship with De Havilland that they were able to revive during the Second World War. Their business was stable enough to be unaffected by the 1929 crash. They managed to combine profitability with idealism: one of their founders, Arthur Dix, said in 1895 that, “The Guild does not minimise the importance of this commercial aspect of its industry, but seeks only to make as much profit as is necessary to cover the expenses of its work, and to provide its designers and craftsmen with a sufficient remuneration.” They steadily innovated, introducing enameled inlays to lettering, which gave them a profitable new line. Enameling was one of their specialisms and they recruited the Japanese master enameler Shozo Kato in the 1920s, who somehow managed to keep his technique secret from everyone else in the company.

The Birmingham Guild successfully combined art and industry but stood slightly apart from others seeking to raise design standards, such as The Design and Industries Association, a proto-modernist breakaway from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that tended to disapprove of ornamentation. It was only after the Second World War that the company’s decorative style lost favour with architects, despite a partnership with the Crittall window company and a history of corporate contracts. Problems finding skilled labour in Birmingham after the war and the greater appeal of the motor industry exacerbated their problems and contributed to the company’s decline

WILLIAM STAITE MURRAY

staite-murray

I have been reading Julian Stair’s thesis on critical writing about English studio pottery, 1910 – 1940, which foregrounds Roger Fry’s formative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, something that was not mentioned in 20th-century accounts of studio pottery and which is only now being realised, largely due to Stair’s research. In the early years of the studio pottery movement there was a wary rivalry between William Staite Murray, who was the star of studio pottery in the 1920s, and Bernard Leach, who until 1920 worked in Japan. What I didn’t realise, and what Stair explains, is there was a change of gear in the 1930s when Leach’s reputation rose and studio pottery turned from exhibition pieces towards utility, inspired by a late resurgence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Leach followed.  In the 1930s, Stair discovered, reviews of Staite Murry’s exhibitions became more critical and eventually petered out completely.

Although Staite Murray is still recognised as a major pioneer, auction values of his pots (above) are not as high as might be thought. In MAAK’s latest online sale, expected prices range between £250 and £800, while recent work by living potters is expected to raise much more, for example, Daniel Reynolds: £800 – £1200, Sarah Scampton: £1,200 – £1,500, Tanya Gomez: £800 – £1,100, Sarah Flynn: £1,200 – £1,800, and Edmund de Waal: £2,500 – £3,500

LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

moholy-nagy
I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.

The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions). 

Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design.  Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.

bauhaus lamp
The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).

Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN IN MERTON

Given the popularity of de Morgan’s pottery for the last two generations, it’s surprising that the first modern biography wasn’t published until 1997, Mark Hamilton’s Rare Spirit.

Hamilton, a literary agent, is unusually interested in de Morgan’s novels and takes them seriously. (In a review of the book, Fiona MacCarthy declared herself unconvinced.)

There is a delightful account of de Morgan moving his workshop from Chelsea to Merton, written by one of his decorators Mr Bale:

When Mr. De Morgan was clearing out to go to Merton, it was a strange sight. He was always slapdash in those days, and couldn’t stand the thought of packing. He just sat on a chair and put a hammer through dishes worth £2.10s and £3.00, at the same time saying, ‘Go on boys help yourselves!’ which you may be quite sure we did.

This is a staggering thought, bearing in mind that the best de Morgan pots now fetch around £10,000.

MODERNISM IN ART SCHOOLS

art_schools001

I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.

Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War.

The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.

2014_CKS_10051_0204_000(reco_capey_two_covered_boxes_circa_1930)

These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.

capey rsa 2

William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.

Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although its formal properties are easily described in modernist terms – plain, simple, functional, uncluttered, honest, direct – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.

The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.

CHERYL BUCKLEY

gloria lustre
“Gloria Lustre” designed by Gordon Forsyth, c.1925.

Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain advances the persuasive idea, now well established in design history, that there were several modernisms and not merely the modernism of the International Style and the Bauhaus. Among these modernisms were the Georgian revival and the modern labour-saving home with its Tudorbethan exterior. But Buckley, I think, overstates the degree to which the different strands of design moved in parallel and in the same direction, especially in the art schools.

She describes the Stoke-on-Trent schools, which were led in the 1930s by the successful designer Gordon Forsyth, as one of the strands of this diverse modernism, and also Alfred and Louise Powell’s designs for Wedgwood. But unless you apply the term “modernism” to every contemporary happening, and minimise differences of style and appearance, these trends were far from of modernist.

The Powells were in the long tail of the Arts and Crafts movement, which continued until 1945, and they were connected to it both through their designs and their social philosophy. Describing their work for Wedgwood as “mass-produced”, as Buckley does, is wide of the mark. Their designs were traditional, they revived the dying craft techniques of hand-decoration and they shunned the mass-produced method of transfer printing that was used by the makers of cheap pottery like A & G Meakin.

Forsyth is more difficult to classify. His designs for pottery were similar to the Powells, even down to the successful use of lustre (above), and they were very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition. But he was sympathetic to modern production methods. In his review of 20th Century Ceramics (1936) he asserted, “A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective ‘Art and Crafty’ productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success.” Nevertheless his survey is heavy on art pottery and and light on mass production.

Buckley says that there were art schools in Britain in the 1920s that were modernist in approach if not in name. This is an interesting assertion, but if there were such schools I haven’t come across them yet. The Arts and Crafts influence came to bear on the art schools from the 1880s and it wasn’t fully felt until the early 1900s. Charles Holmes’s illustrated review of art schools in 1916 showed them to be totally Arts and Crafts in their approach – the title of his book is actually Arts and Crafts. In the 1920s William Rothenstein at the RCA hired E. W. Tristram, a deep-dyed medievalist, to replace the Arts and Crafts practitioner Anning Bell as head of design. Admittedly he also hired William Staite Murray as pottery instructor, and Staite Murray’s ceramics were praised by arch-modernist Herbert Read; but Staite Murray was wedded to craft techniques and opposed the admission to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of designers for industry. The Stoke-on-Trent art schools were certainly, as Buckley says, keen to cement their links with modern manufacturers, but they were not modernist in outlook, and in 1919 government inspectors had judged their efforts to provide technical instruction to be “feeble and inadequate”.

In the 1920s and 1930s design was still broadly conceived as surface decoration, and the main focus of design reformers was improving the appearance and tastefulness of consumer goods. The design profession was in its infancy and it didn’t grow up until the 1950s. The recognition of “other modernisms” is a useful corrective to the self-serving narrative of modernists, but the art schools before the war were not modernist in any meaningful sense

WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN AND E.W.TRISTRAM

1951_Festival_of_Britain_Guide_as167a103b
Festival Titling typeface by Phillip Boydell

I misrepresented William Rothenstein’s views on design teaching in my last post, commenting on his association with the arts-and-crafts colony in the Cotswolds and his appointing E.W.Tristram, a medievalist, to the post of professor of design at the RCA. Rothenstein wanted to modernise design education at the College and was well aware of new developments on the continent.

After having been in post at the RCA for a while, Rothenstein recorded his impressions. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, he wrote in 1921:

I hope I have your support in looking on the College as a centre which serves, not so much to give a vocational training, as to give each student, whether he intends to be a simple designer of cotton fabrics or an ambitious painter or sculptor, the best general education through the arts. Some commercial men hold that an industrial designer does not require so complete an education as a more ambitious artist. But I feel sure that Board considers this to be a short sighted view, and that well educated designers will finally prove of greater service to British industry than less well educated men.

Much of the work in the Schools of Pottery, of Painting and Decorating and of Metalwork is too unexperimental and derivative. No consistent attempt has been made to deal with the interpretation of the contemporary world in design and execution. A wrong understanding of the spirit which made mediaeval art so vital persists at Kensington, and the research work towards the discovery of new subject matter and new treatment, so noticeable on the Continent, seems to have ben wanting. It is important that we do not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which s characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the college, in my opinion.

Rothenstein recommended E.W.Tristram, faute de mieux, for the post of professor of design on the resignation of Anning Bell.

For some time I thought it would be possible to find an artist as renowned as Professor Bell to undertake the direction of the most important school of the College. But the movement started by William Morris and his friends seems to have spent itself. I know of no younger men associated with the arts and crafts society endowed with the wide culture which was, and still is, characteristic of Morris’ immediate disciples. It is true that a new life Is stirring among the younger painters and craftsmen. But this movement, which had its origins in France, has not yet taken firm root in this country. Of the present men associated with traditional English craftmanship and design, I know of no-one more capable and scholarly than Mr Tristram. His patient and profound study of English wall painting – in fact of every kind of English painting – has at last won for him a unique position among his contemporaries.

dinkel
Ernest Dinkel poster for London Underground

Noting Tristram’s shyness, Rothenstein recommend the appointment of Paul Nash, Ernest Dinkel and Philip Boydell to work with him in the design department. Nash is well-known. Dinkel was a bold poster designer for the London Underground and Boydell designed the Festival Titling typeface used in Festival of Britain publications. Tristram’s main work was in medieval wall painting, and although Rothenstein referred to his work in modern textile design, it is still questionable whether he was the best representative of design education for the Gorell committee.