Josef Franz Maria Hoffmann was born December 15, 1870 in the Moravian village of Pirnitz (Brtnice), to Josef Franz Karl Hoffmann and Leopoldine Tuppy. Hoffmann grew up with three sisters and was nicknamed Pepo. His father was the town mayor and also a successful businessman. He built a sizable fortune through the local cotton industry, ensuring the family’s well-being. Hoffmann was strongly influenced by the local Moravian folk-traditions. His family’s interest in the Biedermeier style would influence his development as an architect and designer.
School was a challenge for Hoffmann. At the age of nine, he transferred to the local gymnasium in Iglau (Jihlava), where Adolf Loos was also a student. Hoffmann found the instruction strict. He failed his fifth year twice, an experience that left him full of “shame and agony.” By contrast, he enjoyed the time spent with the son of an architect working on local building sites. This is how he discovered his calling. Although Hoffmann’s father had wanted him to pursue a career in law, he was permitted to enroll in 1887 at the Architecture Department at Brünn’s Höhere Staatsgewerbeschule (Senior State Commercial and Technical School). Loos was also enrolled at the school at the same time. In 1891, Hoffmann passed his final exam and enrolled in a practical course at the Militärbauamt (Military Building Office) in Würzburg, Germany.
Hoffmann and Loos did not agree on matters of artistic style. Their dispute was over the use of ornament, particularly after the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte. Loos nonetheless admitted that Hoffmann’s style was successful. In an article from 1898, he wrote: “I find it difficult to write about Josef Hoffmann, for I am utterly opposed to the direction being taken today by young artists, and not only in Vienna. For me tradition is everything – the free reign of the imagination takes second place. Here we have an artist with an exuberant imagination who can successfully attack the old traditions, and even I have to admit that it works.”
In 1892 Hoffmann applied to Vienna’s Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts). He was accepted and moved to Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life. In October, he enrolled in an elite class of architecture led by Karl von Hasenauer, one of the leading proponents of the historicist style in Vienna at that time. After Hasenauer’s death in 1894, Otto Wagner took over his class. Throughout the course of his lifetime, Hoffmann would repeatedly give credit to the influence of Wagner on his work. Along with Koloman Moser and others, Hoffmann was a founding member of the Siebner Club in 1895 (Club of Seven). The members discussed current trends in architecture and art. Also in 1895, Hoffmann received a fellowship, the so-called Rome Prize, and spent time traveling in Italy the following year.
When he returned to Vienna in 1897, Hoffmann became one of the founding members of the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs (Vienna Secession). He was an instrumental figure within the group. He contributed to its publication Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), and frequently designed exhibitions for the Secession.
In 1899, Hoffmann was appointed a professor at Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), a position he held until his retirement in 1936. He taught in the departments of architecture, metalwork, enameling, and applied art. Many artists who collaborated with Hoffmann over the coming years were either fellow professors or distinguished students from the school.
For the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, Hoffmann designed the rooms for the Kunstgewerbeschule and the Secession. This same year, he visited England. He met the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and also visited the workshops of the C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft. This direct contact with leading proponents of the arts and crafts movement would influence him when the Wiener Werkstätte was established three years later.
In 1900, Hoffmann began designing homes for a planned artists’ colony in the Hohe Warte suburb of Vienna. Two of the first built were a double house for Moser and Moll. With these commissions, Hoffmann began to pursue his ideal of a unified integration between architecture and interior elements, which is termed a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.
The Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) was founded in May 1903. Hoffmann and Moser served as co-artistic directors and the textile industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer provided financial support. The Wiener Werkstätte was established as a collaborative association between the public, designers, and craftsmen. Hoffmann and Moser placed an emphasis on quality and focused on goods for the home. Their goal was two-pronged: to elevate the role of the craftsman, and to give full worth to artistic inspiration. They wanted the decorative arts to be given the same value as the fine arts.
One of the important architectural projects received by Hoffmann came through art critic Berta Zuckerkandl, who he met through the Secession. She recommended him to her brother-in-law Viktor Zuckerkandl who wanted a modern design for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium. Built in 1904, it became one of the highlights of Hoffmann’s architectural achievements and represented a true Gesamtkunstwerk. A well-designed rest spa for the wealthy, its patients could take baths, treat nervous ailments, and receive physical therapy. The furnishings were all created by the Wiener Werkstätte. Geometric elements were favored as a decorative motif, particularly the square, used in black and white contrasting patterns. This was softened by the use of subtle greens, plants, and mirrors to eliminate a feeling of sterility.
In 1905, Hoffmann was one among the group around Klimt that left the Vienna Secession. Also in 1905 he received the commission to design the Palais Stoclet in Brussels which was completed in 1911. It was the pinnacle of an architectural career which spanned over fifty years. Hoffmann was responsible for all exterior structures. The interiors were designed with a collaborative team that included Gustav Klimt, George Minne, Carl Otto Czeschka, Michael Powolny, Leopold Forstner, and Franz Metzner. It was one of the most complete examples of the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal ever created. The furnishings were made by the Wiener Werkstätte.
Hoffmann undertook other significant architectural projects concurrent or just after his work on the Palais Stoclet. A partial list would include residences for these families: the Brauner (1905-06), Beer-Hoffmann (1905-06), Wittgenstein (1906), Ast (1909-11), and Primavesi (1913-15). In addition to complete architectural projects, Hoffmann also received commissions to design interiors for domestic and commercial spaces. One of the most significant projects was for the Kabarett Fledermaus, which opened in 1907. Hoffmann provided the architectural backdrop. The interiors were a collaborative effort with various artists, many of whom worked for the Wiener Werkstätte.
In 1908, Hoffmann designed the temporary exhibition building for the Kunstschau (Art Show). Around this time, he met the banker and industrialist Otto Primavesi. In 1912, Primavesi commissioned Hoffmann to build a country home for him in Winkelsdorf, Czechoslovakia. The house was completed in 1914 and was one of Hoffmann’s most important commissions. This contact proved vital when the first financier of the Wiener Werkstätte, Waerndorfer, went bankrupt in 1914. Otto and his wife Mäda Primavesi took financial control of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1915. The Primavesis remained the chief financial supporters of the firm until 1930 (Otto died in 1926). Hoffmann was the director until the firm went bankrupt in 1932.
Throughout his career, Hoffmann was actively involved in exhibition design with the Secession, museums, and for international fairs. Among the most important include: the Austrian Pavilion for the International Art Exhibition in Rome in 1911, the Austrian Pavilion for the 1914 Deutsche Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, Austrian Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and the Austrian Pavilion for the Biennale in Venice built in 1934.
Later in life Hoffmann concerned himself mainly with housing projects. He celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday at the Palais Stoclet and died soon after of a stroke in Vienna in May 1956.
Although he considered himself first and foremost an architect, it is his design legacy that is most often celebrated today. His formal inventiveness was endless. This is borne out by his artistic record. While the Hoffmann catalogue raisonné of his architectural work by Eduard Sekler documents approximately 500 commissions, by comparison the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK) alone has over 5,000 Hoffmann drawings in its collection. This disparity is a testament to his prolific inventiveness as a designer and the degree to which his outpouring in this area exceeded his as role an architect.
Yet, when thinking of Hoffmann as a designer, it is important to bear in mind these aspects of his work. He designed both for mass-production and for handcrafted work. Some objects have remained in continuous production and others are extremely rare or unique. Over the course of his career, he designed for these firms among others: Jacob & Josef Kohn (furniture), Johann Lötz (glass), Joseph and Ludwig Lobmeyr (glass), Johann Backhausen & Söhn (textiles), Johann Jonasch (furniture), Jakob Soulek (furniture), Wiener Porzellanmanufakture Augarten (porcelain), Alexander Sturm (metalwork), and Würbel & Czokally (metalwork). Although he was most prolific in the area of metalwork design, he also turned his attention to textile and fashion design. Regardless, he considered everything he created a work of art. He brought a new level of elegance and simplicity to the domestic and built environment.
Hoffmann as a person is harder to quantify, and a shroud of mystery remained even for family and close associates. People who knew him called him taciturn. His former assistant Leopold Kleiner wrote that “he never showed any stirrings of emotion.” It was impossible to come closer to him humanly. He always kept secret anything personal.” A detail that is perhaps revealing: he placed a high value on people with good hands.
In a lecture entitled “My Work,” given in February 1911, he concluded by stating “Our time should at last recall that art alone preserves the value of its colossal epoch-making works as an inspiration for the future, and that we will vanish from the earth with all the things of our civilization if a vigorous art will not transmit them by its inner value.”
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