Viennese Modern

Two brothers are reviving the art—and legendary craftsmanship—of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Paul and Gunther Stefan Asenbaum, two of the world's foremost experts in Wiener Werkstätte silver and jewelry, remember when business at their grandparents' Vienna antiques shop got so bad in the thirties and forties that they were sometimes reduced to melting down precious pieces for cash. In a bombed-out city divided by the cold war, with rampant black markets and rubble in the streets (as portrayed in Orson Welles's The Third Man), it was perhaps understandable that these early 20th-century forms, with their very particular Viennese blend of sex and austerity, had little appeal. They had become unfashionable echoes of an embarrassing past.

By the time Ronald Lauder opened the Neue Galerie in New York five years ago, Wiener Werkstätte silver had long since become highly sought-after, capable of fetching six figures at auction. Inside the museum's lustrous Fifth Avenue galleries, Gustav Klimt's decadent Dancer and Egon Schiele's roiling landscape Stein on the Danube hang beside sophisticated domestic objects that Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Dagobert Peche, and Otto Wagner designed for the Wiener Werkstätte. At the museum's opening, Lauder was asked if a teapot could be the equal of a great painting. His answer was an unequivocal yes. "Part of the magic of fin de siècle Vienna," he explained, "is that one can see the zeitgeist even in a teapot. The aesthetic of the era was conveyed through every means available, from the exalted to the everyday."

Much of the silver on view at the Neue Galerie is Lauder's own, a collection he largely assembled with the guidance of the Asenbaums. In turn, Neue Galerie director Renée Price suggested the brothers use their expertise to start First Edition, a business they launched with partner Nikolaus Prachensky, producing exquisite replicas of classic Wiener Werkstätte pieces that are now sold in the museum's shop.

For each piece that First Edition makes, contemporary craftsmen create prototypes, consulting documents on the original designs in Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts and from the Asenbaums' own archive. "We wanted to be sure that we used exactly the same production methods and the right materials," Paul Asenbaum says. "It can take more than two years to get it right." In fact, he notes, there is one important difference between his company and the Wiener Werkstätte: "The craftsmen of the past could work faster. It takes us much longer."

In their day, Wiener Werkstätte silver coffeepots, inkstands, and picture frames were remarkably expensive and produced in tiny quantities. Hoffmann and Moser—who founded the Werkstätte in 1903 with their wealthy patron, Fritz Wärndorfer—each did hundreds of designs, but most were never made into finished pieces more than once or twice. And almost a quarter of the Werkstätte's entire output was purchased by just two families, the Wärndorfers and the Wittgensteins.

Fritz Wärndorfer spent as lavishly on himself as he did on the company, equipping his Vienna home with a music room by the great Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a dining room by Hoffmann, and a picture gallery by Moser to display his collection of Aubrey Beardsley prints and Klimt paintings.

Wiener Werkstätte products were cult objects. Owning them was a kind of badge that signified one's status in the cultural elite—the Prada nylon satchel or the Porsche watch of their time. If you wanted to be like Gustav Mahler, the King of Bulgaria, or the Stoclet family in Brussels, you had to own a set of Wiener Werkstätte napkin rings. Even the Hotel Bristol in Vienna bought 13 silver Werkstätte flower baskets for its banquet tables just to show how up to date it was.

The simplicity and startling originality of the workshop's approach helped to define domestic design of the period. The business, however, was never a financial success. The perfectionism of Hoffmann didn't help. He was notorious for taking a hammer to objects that did not meet his exacting standards and sending them back to the unfortunate craftsmen responsible for remaking them. Naturally, this pushed up costs. Many of the pieces made on consignment failed to sell. As a result, Wärndorfer lost a fortune and the Wiener Werkstätte flirted with bankruptcy on a couple of different occasions before it finally collapsed in 1932.

The Asenbaum brothers grew up surrounded by the tradition of the Wiener Werkstätte. "My parents bought a studio that had belonged to one of the Viennese Secessionist painters," Paul recounts. "It was in an artist's colony just opposite the house that Koloman Moser lived in." Their father was a dealer specializing in Renaissance and Baroque silver, and their mother was among the first serious collectors of Wiener Werkstätte silver, in the early sixties. "I can remember being fascinated hearing stories about Hoffmann and Moser when members of the Wittgenstein family came for coffee and cake," Paul says. "My brother and I did think of starting a handcraft workshop ourselves, but it didn't work out. We entered the family business instead."

The brothers continue to run a Vienna antiques shop that carries their name, with a focus on Austria's extraordinary early modern period. Their obsession has coincided with a vertiginous rise in prices for original pieces by Hoffmann and Moser. With First Edition they are making Wiener Werkstätte designs accessible to enthusiasts who want to actually use them rather than consign them to museum cases.

The iconic silver inkstand created by Hoffmann in 1905 was made only once by the Werkstätte. Paul estimates that if the piece came up at auction, it would fetch as much as $150,000. A First Edition version, crafted using the same materials and techniques, sells for $5,800. A First Edition Moser silver vase with a glass insert is $2,000, whereas an original might bring eight times that amount at auction. "It's exactly the same," Paul explains. "Only it's not a Wiener Werkstätte vase."

First Edition isn't limiting itself to only Werkstätte silver. Among the 25 or so pieces the company is remaking are several Biedermeier designs from a century earlier that reflect Vienna's long-established taste for refined minimalism. These works from the early 19th century were strikingly forward-looking. "We have tried to show that modern design started in Vienna," Paul says.

Edition sizes are kept small—between five and 100 pieces per year for each design—not least because of the difficulty in finding craftsmen with the necessary skills. "It is getting harder and harder," Paul notes.

The Asenbaums never use the word copies to refer to their works, preferring to call them reeditions because they are so precise. Not that anyone will mistake them for originals. "Our hallmark is our name—First Edition," Paul explains. "We stamp nearly all the pieces with a number and the year, so you know exactly what it is."

Still, the brothers are confident their mark is in no way inferior to the Wiener Werkstätte's from a century ago. "Sooner or later," Paul asserts, "ours will be collector's objects, too."

First Edition pieces are available exclusively from the Neue Galerie in New York (212-994-9496; www.neuegalerie.org) and the J. & L. Lobmeyr glass shop in Vienna (43-1/512-0508; www.lobmeyr.com). For information, visit www.firstedition-vienna.com.


FIRST EDITION: REMAKING THE CLASSICS

COFFEEPOT, 1904
Design: Josef Hoffmann

An icon of Viennese modernism, this widely exhibited piece was made only once by the Wiener Werkstätte. The Asenbaums own the original. "It's one of Hoffmann's most characteristic pieces," says Paul Asenbaum. "The form is very elegant, but it's functional, too. The Bauhaus adopted the elongated handle." The Asenbaums have been working on a First Edition prototype for more than a year but still need a few months to get it perfect. Price upon request; 9 3/4 inches high; limited to an edition of five per year.

BROOCH, 1912
Design: Josef Hoffmann

Jewelry was part of the Wiener Werkstätte production right from the beginning, a reflection of Hoffmann and Moser's interest in creating much more than just furniture for their clients. Inspired by the designs of his Werkstätte colleague Carl Otto Czeschka, Hoffmann began blending floral and geometric motifs in his jewelry after 1908. This brooch, featuring a large malachite, was made just seven times by the workshop. $2,200; 2 inches square; onetime edition of 100.

CIGAR ASHTRAY, 1904
Design: Koloman Moser

Before this piece was found in 1990, it was assumed that all 19 examples made by the Wiener Werkstätte had been lost. Constructivist in composition, the ashtray features a hammered surface—a specialty of the workshop's—that lends it a distinctive shimmering look. $1,380; 4 1/4 inches square; edition of 40 per year.

SALT SHAKER, 1810
Design: Karl Sedelmayer

Stripped of ornamentation, this elegant shaker—a unique piece—is an exquisite example of Biedermeier silver's protomodernist aesthetic. For its time, this was a radical design; with its architectural form based on Cartesian geometry, it looks entirely contemporary. In fact, it looks a lot like Aldo Rossi's coffeepot for Alessi. "We are interested in Biedermeier because of its functionalism and simplicity," says Paul Asenbaum. "It shows that the Wiener Werkstätte didn't come from nowhere." $740; 4 inches high; edition of 30 per year.


THE WIENER WERKSTATTE: THE BIG PICTURE

The hothouse of creative cross-pollination that gave rise to the Wiener Werkstätte at the turn of the 20th century was marked by an obsession with the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which every element of an environment was conceived as one gloriously complete whole. Josef Hoffmann, the workshop's leader, wasn't content merely to build houses for clients. He wanted to arrange their entire way of life, from the chairs they sat on to the cutlery and glassware they used at the table to the vases on their specially made mantelpieces—even, as Adolf Loos, Hoffmann's acerbic contemporary, once sarcastically suggested, their carpet slippers. The greatest Wiener Werkstätte Gesamtkunstwerk was the Brussels mansion built between 1905 and 1911 for Adolf Stoclet, the Belgian industrialist and art collector. Hoffmann saw to every last detail of the project, and he hired Gustav Klimt to do murals for the dining room, characterized by the artist's unmistakable blend of abstract and figurative motifs. The result, an extraordinary achievement of aesthetic cohesion, is the subject of the exhibition "Yearning for Beauty," at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels through May 28.