The exhibition, Ways to Modernism: Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and their Impact at the MAK brings together the work of these two architects and places them in a historical context of the rise of mass production in the 19th century, work of Otto Wagner as their predecessor, and the urban transformation of Vienna. The exhibition also situates the works of Loos and Hoffmann as trajectories within modern and contemporary architecture culture, tracing their design strategies to the present in the works of artists, architects, and designers. In this respect, the exhibition treats history as a living process, making connections throughout two centuries. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the MAK and of the Ringstrasse, an important institution and an important urban artifact in the history of modern architecture, design, and urbanism.
The exhibition places the work of these designers within a milieu of things, goods, and objects, which were designed for mass production and consumption. Hence viewers can see the new materials that came about, such as plastics and meerschaum, furniture and fabric catalogues, and manufactured porcelain and textile products. With these artifacts the story of the rise of mass production is placed within the context of Austria and Central Europe. The work of Otto Wagner, from his urban plan for Vienna to his furniture designs for the Postal Savings Bank, is placed within this culture of things as the predecessor of the two figures. Loos and Hoffman, then, become the figures who both worked within and against that culture, looking for ways to redirect it.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is two bedrooms: one by Adolf Loos for his wife, Lina (1903) and one by Hoffmann for the Salzer family (1902). Where Loos provided a structure and rails along the walls both holding different kinds of fabric, Hoffmann designed every item in the bedroom with the same geometric pattern. Here are two different ideas of surface, ornament, and materiality. Loos’ bedroom is an all-over surface, a cladding with the furry fabric covering over horizontal surfaces (floor, bed frame) and the curtains along the rails covering the vertical surfaces. Hoffmann’s bedroom on the other hand consists of scaling and playing with the same geometric pattern in different materials, on different objects, from the carpet and the bedsheets to the night table and the bed. The contrast of the sensous fabric of Loos to the abstract geometric pattern of Hoffmann also corresponded to contrasting views on the designer’s role: minimal intervention versus total control.
There are other one-to-one scale reconstructions of rooms and spaces in the exhibition: Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky’s design for an apartment for a working single woman (1928) and Hoffmann’s design for a boudoir of a movie star (designed for an exhibition in Paris in 1937). These one-to-one reconstructions well display the sense of the relationship between things and objects of modernism and the spaces and the lives that had to be crafted, designed, and accommodated at the same time. In an attempt to recreate the intimacy of these worlds, the exhibition also presents some of the different forms and spaces of privacy in modernism. One of the goals of modern design, as the exhibition reminds us, was to organize, protect, or enhance that world.
Yet there is also information on how these private lives would become public, in the example of several public statements by architects, public housing projects in and around Vienna as well as the history of urbanism in Vienna.
The exhibition concludes by tracing Hoffmann and Loos’ positions into the contemporary world of architecture. Following figures like Hans Hollein and Donald Judd, Lacaton & Vassal, Werner Neuwirth and Anna Heringer are presented as employing Loos’ different design strategies of ready-made, raumplan, and Do-It-Yourself. In this respect, the exhibition has a bias toward Loos, and this is Loos read as an architect who developed different strategies in different contexts. Yet one thing the exhibition and the history it portrays shows is that so much of Loos and Hoffmann’s work have something to do with carving out a space for privacy and finding ways of public appearance, where Loos presents clear cut boundaries between public and private. Perhaps in tracing the trajectory of these two figures, the question that remains is what are the new private worlds, and how does architecture articulate these worlds? Perhaps this question could also expand the final positions presented in the exhibition.
In presenting a historical context through things and objects and placing architecture within that context, the exhibition brings forth a fresh history of an important moment in the history of modernism. In further emphasizing the role of design in the society, in positing that there are different ways that design can be social, the exhibition puts forward important questions.