From Art Nouveau to Modernism

A Rare Hair Comb from Wiener Werkstätte

Josef Hoffmann is one of the most central figures in early twentieth century design and was part of the founding of both the Vienna Secession movement in 1897 and Wiener Werkstätte in 1903—effectively bridging the transition from late nineteenth century decorative movements to the rigors and clarity of modernism. The Secessionists advocated that the applied arts be put on equal footing as the fine arts and put forth the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—wherein the clothes and jewelry you wore, the house you lived in and the plate you ate from culminated in a total aesthetic perspective. 

Wiener Werkstätte shop in Vienna, designed by Josef Hoffmann

Wiener Werkstätte, formed from a rift in the Secessionist movement, created all matters of exquisitely crafted wares, with their jewelry being the most emblematic of the radical emerging sensibilities—instead of value being tied to materials, it was in the artisanship and uniqueness of each piece. The present lot is a superb record of this transitional era in design and in Hoffmann’s career; his most well-known jewelry is his colorful, structured brooches that recall ornamental façades and the paintings of his close friend and collaborator, Gustav Klimt.

This comb is exceptionally rare, as it does not use the square format Hoffmann preferred and instead is a sensuous, elegant free-form work that uses the flowing, organic design elements of Art Nouveau. At the same time, the restricted color palette of white and silver points to Hoffmann’s shift toward modernism, which also began appearing in his architecture—most notably in his greatest work, the Palais Stoclet (1905-1911). The present work, in both its lushness and refinement, embodies the aesthetic and ideological shifts in the studio jewelry and design movements at large in the twentieth century.

Sketch for the present work, held in the collection of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts
Palais Stoclet, Brussels

The work of the art craftsman is to be measured by the same yardstick as that of the painter and the sculptor…As long as our cities, our houses, our rooms, our cupboards, our everyday appliances, our clothes, our jewels, as long as our language and feelings do not represent the spirit of our age in a purer, simpler and more beautiful way, we shall remain infinitely backward compared to our ancestors.

Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, 1905

Modern Handmade Jewelry

Toni Greenbaum

Jewelry is one of the most graphic indicators of personal identity. In sync with the body, it helps to define the individuals who wear it. Jewelry is also among the most revealing examples of material culture. The necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and brooches worn by people throughout the ages contain powerful clues about the eras, traditions, habitations, and societies in which they lived.

To this day, jewelry continues to act as an important signifier. The twentieth century, along with the first two decades of the twenty-first, is particularly rich in what we refer to as “studio jewelry.” Studio jewelry, which is invariably handmade, can simply celebrate process and provide an alternative to fine or costume jewelry, but it can also harbor deeper meanings—concepts far beyond jewelry’s usual function as decoration, commemoration, or talisman. Studio jewelry exists at the nexus of art, craft, and design, often reflecting aesthetic concerns, theoretical doctrines, political agendas, or popular trends. Most studio jewelry is either unique or produced in limited edition. It can be fabricated from precious metals and gemstones, or created from materials outside the norm, or both. Studio jewelry may be easy to wear, or present tactical challenges. All in all, it is a most compelling adornment—whether we regard it technically, stylistically, artistically, or even existentially.

Work by Otto Künzli (left). His iconic Gold Makes You Blind bracelet, is featured in this sale. ES1 Ring by Ettore Sottsass (right).

Josef Hoffmann 1870–1956

Josef Hoffmann was first exposed to architecture as a child in his hometown of Brtnice in the Czech Republic. He would later enroll in the Architecture Department at Brünn’s Höhere Staatsgewerbeschule and apply to Vienna’s Akademie der bildenden Kunste in 1892. Upon acceptance, Hoffmann moved to Vienna to attend school under the tutelage of Otto Wagner. In 1895, he received the Rome Prize for his final project and was granted a fellowship, traveling to Italy to study and sketch. Returning to Vienna, Hoffmann was one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession and in 1899, began a long teaching career at Vienna’s Kunstegewerbeschule. Traveling to England in 1900, Hoffmann met Charles Rennie Mackintosh and visited the workshops of the C.R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft. This meeting would have a profound influence on the Wiener Werkstätte, founded in 1903, which Hoffmann was the director of until 1932. Hoffmann designed numerous exhibitions for the Secession, and in 1904 he completed one of his most important commissions, the Pukersdorf Sanatorium. A year later, after officially leaving the Secession, Hoffmann would complete what would be called the pinnacle of his architecture career, the Palais Stoclet. A tireless designer, Hoffmann created over 5,000 drawings through his lifetime and completed over 500 commissions. He died in 1956 at the age of 85.

Auction Results Josef Hoffmann