When Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser established the design firm Wiener Werkstätte in 1903, jewelry was among its first products. Even though the workshop later became known for its floor-to-ceiling approach to design—tableware, textiles, ceramics, graphics, furniture—those initial creations have long been neglected. “Because jewelry is a more personal form of adornment, it often gets relegated to fashion,” says Janis Staggs, assistant curator at the Neue Galerie, in New York. “And it’s only been in recent years that fashion has become appreciated along the lines of architecture and the decorative arts.” This shift is evident at the Neue, where more than 40 designs by the likes of Hoffmann, Moser, and Dagobert Peche are on display through June as part of the first major exhibition devoted to the workshop’s jewelry.
The Wiener Werkstätte grew out of the reformist atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Hoffmann and Moser had both been founding members of the Vienna Secession, an influential group of artists, Gustav Klimt chief among them, who promoted equality among art forms, often exhibiting decorative and fine-arts pieces side by side. Likewise, they believed that exquisitely handcrafted everyday objects should be regarded as artistic creations, as they stated in a brochure titled “Der Arbeitsprogram” (“The Working Program”): “The work of the art craftsman is to be measured by the same yardstick as that of the painter and the sculptor.” The designers experimented with overlooked and undervalued materials—silver and semiprecious stones—to create compositions with bold geometric patterns and restrained detailing. Taking a cue from Charles Robert Ashbee, a prime mover in the British Arts and Crafts movement, the workshop was structured as a cooperative in which craftsmen and designers shared credit for their work—a practice highly unusual at the time.
But there was a limit to the Wiener Werkstätte’s populism. Whereas Ashbee sought a wide audience for his message of the importance of handicraft in a rapidly industrializing society, Hoffmann and Moser catered to an elite clientele. The women who wore their jewelry aligned themselves with an avant-garde culture that, according to Staggs, “only a very inner sanctum of people would have appreciated or understood.” Ultimately, the patronage of that select circle wasn’t enough to sustain the workshop. Perpetually strapped for cash, the Wiener Werkstätte saw a sharp decline after World War I and closed shop in 1932.