MAK MUSEM VIENNA- Wiener Werkstätte

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) was founded in 1864, resembling the renowned Victoria and Albert Museum in London. When exploring the Austrian history of textiles, fashion, and garments, MAK is definitely a starting point, especially in respect of the gorgeous collection of textiles and tapestries that are being carefully preserved within its walls. Until today, the unique character of this collection is reflected in the unusual historical and geographical origin of objects that came to the museum in different ways: as a targeted collector strategy, via priceless donations and the symbiosis of the two. The hidden jewel inside the museum is an almost complete collection of textiles from the Wiener Werkstätte movement - the "Vienna Workshop".


The artists whose names are almost synonymous with this movement are painter Koloman Moser and architect Josef Hoffman, who founded Wiener Werkstätte in 1903 and became pioneers in the production of innovative fabrics and textile patterns. Although originally intended for interior decoration, Wiener Werkstätte textiles quickly became an inseparable part of fashion design. MAK Museum now owns over 16,000 textile samples and several ready-made garments from this unique period. The Wiener Werkstätte movement meant practicality and comfort, fineness of performance and simplicity. We witness it in floral and geometric variants. Whether it is textile, painting, architecture, sculpture, or fashion as applied art, it is characterized by wavy lines, stylized plants, floral and geometric shapes, and emphasized decorative and asymmetrical elements. Looking from today's perspective, Moser and Koloman aimed at restoring artistic crafts, while the movement itself, along with the development of the Vienna Secession, meant philosophy and even the ideology of new thought.

In conversation with dr. Silke Geppert, curator of the textile and tapestry collection of the MAK Museum, I find out that the Wiener Werkstätte movement has laid the groundwork for contemporary design thinking. She points out that Koloman Moser designed some of the most beautiful textiles of the last century, and that textile designers from this period revived the fashion between the two world wars. Together with his wife Ditha Moser, a graphic designer, Koloman Moser started a separate fashion department within the Wiener Werkstätte movement in 1910. "The fashion department was headed by Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill. He was a student of Koloman Moser and a man who had a fine taste for fashion, jewelry, and design in general. Until 1922, Eduard managed the fashion department and definitely marked a fashion era in a way that made the contemporary fashion design more accessible, but not at the cost of quality. The workshop did not produce much, as graphic patterns on textiles were transmitted manually. Almost every garment was unique. Also, the intention was to free women from narrow and uncomfortable corsets. Creations that came out of this department made it easier for women to move. Consequently, they were revolutionary both in terms of design and functionality."


However, Dr. Geppert emphasizes that Wiener Werkstätte fashion was almost exclusively accessible to women from a higher class of society. "You know, these dresses were worn by rich women, most commonly of Jewish descent. Whether they were close to artists and designers from the movement, or to their wives, Wiener Werkstätte fashion was considered exclusive. As it was new and fresh, it attracted customers not only from Vienna but also from around the world. You have the world-famous names from the fashion world that came to Vienna and purchased these materials. When I think about it, it is clear that Wiener Werkstätte textiles were more celebrated by French designers, like Paul Poiret, whose collections traveled extensively and were noticed more outside Austria. In the Western world, especially the United States, many today do not know that some of the most important French fashion collections from that period were produced with the use of Wiener Werkstätte textiles. The French did not invent this specific floral and herbal print. Each of the textiles was marked with the "WW" logo that guaranteed the authenticity of the material. I believe that all these creations still contain the logo of the Wiener Werkstätte movement and it is easy to determine where they really come from. "

Initially, textiles were produced in Austria. In smaller workshops, the worked with the highest quality cotton and silk. Along with the strengthening of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the situation was changing. "It is less known that during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy Wiener Werkstätte textiles were almost completely produced outside Austria, most often in Slovenia and Slovakia. If you ask me, this has significantly affected the quality of textile production, but also the whole sense of the ideology of the movement. The production itself and production of details specific to the Wiener Werkstätte were lost. Textiles in these countries were made in large factories, which significantly affected the uniqueness, but also the quality of the product. However, there were exceptions. In this period, the Neubau district of Vienna was known for producing silk. In several factories, the manual production of textiles continued to grow, and these textiles are still in the form of gorgeous dresses.“ Although for most dresses the origin is unknown, there are photographs and artistic images through which one can explore their history, such as the famous blue dress of Johanna Staude portrayed by Gustav Klimt in 1917. „Also, Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill had the habit of photographing his clients. There are many photos from the period before and after the First World War that testify to the specificity of these textiles, but the final products. ", dr. Geppert adds.

Wiener Werkstätte textiles had a wide use-value. In addition to textile and fashion design, they were used for the production of stylized furniture and lamps, theater costumes, decorative pillows, and bedding, while graphic patterns were used to illustrate magazines, books, promotional posters, and even postcards. Today, they oftentimes fall into oblivion. However, incomparable heritage of the Wiener Werkstätte movement continues to serve as an inspiration, but outside Austria. "Yes, unfortunately, we are beginning to cultivate the culture of forgetting such a significant movement. Our museum deals with a very significant volume of material, which includes much more than textile samples. Our collection follows the beginnings of this movement, its development, its peak, and ultimately the end. From this material, it is easy to conclude that this movement had the potential to become much more than it is today. Whether the First World War or the instability between the two world wars, contributed to the end of the Wiener Werkstätte movement in 1932, can not be said with certainty. What is certain is that this movement left an invaluable mark on the Austrian, but also the world designer scene. Representatives of large world fashion brands often come to our museum, who are looking for an archive in order to rip the spirit of Wiener Werkstätte time into their collections. It is a special feeling when you see the inspiration and homage to the Vienna workshop in the showcase of one of the five most important fashion brands in the world. Of course, besides fashion brands, interior designers, costume designers, and scenographers come to us, as well. Although most of the collection is closed to the public, we try to reach all interested parties and provide unrestricted access to all objects.“

The heritage of the Wiener Werkstätte movement continues to live through the work of interior designers and designers who, from time to time, especially in the lower Austria, design separate, limited collections of chandeliers, lamps, decorative furniture and tapestries with motifs typical for this artistic movement. At the University of Applied Arts of Vienna continues to study the specificities of the Wiener Werkstätte movement, as well as its unique segment. The last few graduate collections of the Hetzendorf fashion school students in Vienna, it is evident that Secession, Jugendstil, and Wiener Werkstätte served as an inspiration for creating a new wave of "young" art that certainly has the potential to develop into a specific Austrian style that can capture the fashion world. It remains hoped that the younger generations will recognize the historic nature of the Wiener Werkstätte movement, as well as other artistic movements that can serve as a guideline for the future. Dr. Silke Geeppert, through long years of work with students, acts as a guardian of tradition. "Yes, I feel that working with students is very important and that education is the only way to preserve history, but also to build a strong future for art. Looking at textiles from the Wiener Werkstätte movement, and the strength of the geometric form, I often tell my students that these patterns are all around us, in our bodies even! If you look at the structure of our muscles, our cells, it is evident that the morphic and amorphous structures are deeply entrenched in ourselves. They will never disappear, and eternally someone will search for the way to transfer them to our everyday life. Although I greatly appreciate the art of handcraft, I am aware that technologic development is on the rise today. However, new technologies allow us new ways of artistic expression. Who knows, maybe for a hundred years, some new generations will sit here at the MAK Museum to discuss the rich heritage of a new, technologically advanced Vienna workshop (laughter!) "

(Story was originally published in Ladies In magazine, December 2018.)