In this episode, Isabella discusses the embroideries and lace designs of Austria's Wiener Werkstätte, one of the longest-lived design movements of the twentieth century.
As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast.
Whatsup stitches!! Isabella Rosner here, your hostess with hopefully some of the mostest. It’s episode 10 of season 2 of Sew What? Can you believe we’re already on episode 10??!!? That’s wild. I think this season will have 20 episodes instead of 25, so that means we’re already halfway through the season. Where does time go? Time doesn’t seem to exist anymore because the pandemic so who even knows!! Anyhoo, in today’s episode, we’re heading to the 20th century.
And while we’re there, we’re going to get into the lace and embroidery of the Wiener Werkstatte. Wiener Werkstatte literally translates to Vienna Workshop and it was, to put it simply, a cooperative of artists and artisans who worked together to create things like jewellery, ceramics, furniture, textiles, etc etc. I will explain it in more detail once we actually get into the episode. And before I get into the episode and attempt to say a lot of German words, let me just apologise in advance for how I will pronounce and no doubt butcher German. I’ve never learnt German and trying to sound out words or copy how words sound from like Youtube videos only gets me so far. But somewhere in my past my family was German, hence my I think pretty German last name, so maybe in my time of need my ancestors will pity me and magically help me say these German words well.
So, before I get into the Wiener Werkstatte lace and embroidery pieces, I gotta do the thing I do every episode and say go check out the images and sources I discuss in today’s episode on the Sew What? Social media pages. It’s at sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You know, you love it, you follow it, and all that good stuff. But if you don’t follow the pod on one or all of those social media pages, what are you doing?? Go follow because this podcast does the difficult thing of taking visual things and trying to turn them into something verbal so being able to actually see what I’m talking about will help you and make this whole thing more fun. So go to sewwhatpodcast on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or wherever else to see the objects and get a list of sources I used! Or go to sewwhatpodcast.com. That works, too. Anyway!!! Onto the actual historic needlework now.
So, the Wiener Werkstatte. The Wiener Werkstatte grew out of the Vienna Secession, which was an art movement pretty closely related to Art Nouveau that was founded in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists. The Vienna Secession was part of a larger trend in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century, when the decorative arts became increasingly important. The founder you’re probably most familiar with is Gustav Klimt, who was also the group’s first president. The Secession was really into the international exchange of artistic ideas and invited people like the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to come to Vienna and exhibit.
In 1903, two members of the Vienna Secession, architect Josef Hoffman and designer Koloman Moser, broke off and formed an even more specific organisation, the Wiener Werkstatte. The group was dedicated to the artistic production of a whole variety of utilitarian stuff. They made things like leather goods, books, wooden items, ceramics, postcards, jewellery, and graphic art like posters. They became a really fashionable house with a lot of different fancy clients. The Werkstatte was financially backed by a dude named Fritz Waerndorfer, a wealthy textile industrialist who was a big fan of the Vienna Secession. So, clearly, the connection between the Wiener Werkstatte and textiles was alive and well from the very beginning.
To make a long story short, over the next few years the Werkstatte expanded and got into fashion and textiles in a big way. In 1910, the Werkstatte established a fashion department and in 1911 it opened showrooms just for fashion and textiles in a fashionable part of Vienne called Kartnerstrasse. And after that it opened shops in places like Zurich and New York and Berlin. So international!!
Textiles became hugely important to the Wiener Werkstatte. The Werkstatte shut down in 1932 and in the last 15 years of the group’s existence, when other areas of the Werkstatte’s design program were declining, textiles were some of the most important parts of the group’s endeavours. 80 members of the Werkstatte produced about 1,800 textile designs, mainly printed fabrics for home furnishings and clothing. According to the V&A, “The textiles were characterised by simplified forms and vivid colours. These were derived from Eastern European peasant art and geometric motifs in contemporary painting. They were an important influence on Art Deco ornamentation.” Nowadays, Wiener Werkstatte printed textiles are in many museum collections and are a hot commodity on the auction and private antique dealer market.
Right, so there we are with the Werkstatte printed textiles, but where does the lace and embroidery come in? That’s what we’re all here for, after all. I mentioned that in 1910 the Wiener Werkstatte established a fashion department. Well that department was actually accompanied by the founding of textile and artistic crafts departments. The textile department started designing embroidery for upholstery, dresses, cushions, and accessories. And then later they also sold tulle embroidery, bobbin lace, beadwork, and small tapestries. The first Wiener Werkstatte embroideries were designed by Carl Otto Czeschka, who probably was a member of the Wiener Werkstatte from the beginning and who left the group in 1914.
Two of Czeschka’s first big embroidery designs for the Werkstatte were for the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, designed by Werkstatte founder Josef Hoffmann for the financier Adolphe Stoclet, and the Hochreith hunting lodge built for Karl Wittgenstein, a German-born Austrian steel tycoon. Czeschka’s design for the Stoclet Palace was an embroidered frieze for a lady’s bedroom that featured deer, flowers, and trees in blue, black, and white tones, but the embroidery was never actually made. It probably didn’t appeal to the client for some reason which is SAD because I personally think the design is delightful. Czeschka’s designs for Hochreith were actually made, though, which I love to see.
For Hochreith Czeschka designed embroidery for upholstered chairs. There’s a good description of his designs in the book called The Unknown Wiener Werkstatte: Embroidery and Lace 1906 to 1930 by Christoph Thun-Hohenstein and Angela Volker, which is my main source for this episode. They write of the Hochreith embroidery, “Czeschka’s repertoire of ornamental forms influenced by Central European folk art integrated his decorative inspiration into the modern style of ornamentalizing organic forms in continuous lines and used forms and motifs that seems especially fitting for a country villa….The strictly symmetrical compositions formed of plant-like main lines on the chair rest and seat are interrupted by an equally fanciful yet orderly arrangement of rosettes and circles.” You’ll be able to see that all for yourself if you check out the images of the Hochreith embroideries I posted on the Sew What? Social media pages.
And as the Wiener Werkstatte was designing and making embroideries for home furnishings, they were also integrating embroidery onto the clothes they designed and produced. The embroidered dresses, blouses, and clothing accessories that came out of the Weiner Werkstatte were actually designed by two architects, Josef Hoffmann and Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill. Hoffmann was one of the founders of the group and I’ve already mentioned his name several times. Hoffmann was the first “couturier” of the Werkstatte. His earliest designs are from 1904 and he was designing embroidered clothing until at least 1910. We know this not only because a lot of photographs of his dresses survive, but also because an actual dress from approximately that year survives, too.
Hoffmann’s embroidery designs are very Art Nouveau-y, with undulating lines and geometric shapes and floral patterns and lots of stripes. The Unknown Wiener Werkstatte book describes the dresses as having “curvilinear, vegetal motifs,” which I love. A lot of the dresses have a very similar shape – they’re basically long tunics with scooped necklines and sleeves that reach the elbow. Some of them have a vague kinda empire waistline and some don’t have a waistline at all. Hoffmann basically simplified the Edwardian silhouette and focused on verticality, which is further emphasised by many of the dress’s vertical stripes and vertically-oriented embroidery.
The surviving dress I mentioned a second ago was designed for a pair of sisters, which like, one dress for two sisters? Well, Hoffmann designed it for two cousins from the Wittgenstein family who wanted to attend a masked ball and enjoy the confusion their identical dresses would cause. The dress is essentially a tunic in shape, one that’s ankle-length and has elbow-length sleeves. At first glance it looks like the dress has a black ground with white applique, but it’s actually a white dress with a huge amount of black applique and embroidery going on. The resulting design features swirling vines and leaves and very fun kinda teardrop shaped bubble motifs? It’s hard to describe, clearly, so just check out the image of it on the Sew What? Social media pages. I don’t know about all of you but I would ABSOLUTELY wear this dress even though it’s possibly the least flattering thing I could put on my body.
Okay, so in autumn 1907 Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill comes along and starts designing embroidered clothing for the Wiener Werkstatte, too. By 1909 or 1910 he’s the head of the fashion department. He designed dresses and costumes and his embroidery motifs were used on blouses, shawls, dresses, caps, and children’s clothing. Wimmer-Wisgrill’s embroidery designs were clearly influenced by Central European embroidery. Although his surviving embroidered clothing, a bonnet and a blouse, both consist of white embroidery on black ground fabrics, it looks like a lot of his other designs were super colourful. A few postcards from the Wiener Werkstatte survive that show his clothing designs and they are pink and blue and bright green and orange and just super colourful and vibrant and DELIGHTFUL.
So, thus far, we’ve shifted from embroidery designed for Wiener-Werkstatte designed homes to clothing designed for both individual patrons and just normal shoppers and now we’re moving into embroidered clothing and home accessories that were sold at the Wiener Werkstatte storefronts. And we’re moving forward in time from the first years of the 1900s to late 1910s and into the 1920s. Cool? Cool. By approximately 1916, Wiener Werkstatte artists were designing bags, pouches, ties, cravats, shawls, pictures, and cushions, all of which were to be embroidered. The embroidery itself was done by workers at home, who I’m sure were by and large women. The best sellers were handbags and pouches, and the best sellers amongst those, were the ones that were embroidered, knitted, or crocheted with glass beads. The artists who designed these bags were Maria Likarz-Strauss, Felice Rix-Ueno, and Dagobert Peche. Each of the bags and pouches was given a name and the names are fun things like “Traumland” (which means Dreamland) and “Liebes-paar und Dame on Chaiselongue” (which translates to “Lovers and Lady on Chaise Longue”).
The other best sellers were cushions. People in the early 20th century frickin loved cushions!!! They were essential to domestic interior design at the time. The Wiener Werkstatte had been selling cushions from its early years. The cushions were made with Wiener Werkstatte silks, either completely monochrome or with a few different silks sewn together. All Wiener Werkstatte branded everything, evidently. The cushions came in a whole variety of shapes, including pyramids, rolls, flat and round beret shaped things, fans, houses, pentagons, zigzags, hearts, plants, animals, fruits, and barrels. Literally SO many shapes!!! In a lot of instances, the cushions were made of fabric that was embroidered with flowers and swirls and vines and all that good stuff. Love to not only have a super fun house-shaped cushion, but also a house-shaped cushion that has EMBROIDERY ON IT!!! The dream!!
So, as you can see, lots of embroidery going on at the Wiener Werkstatte. Delight! There’s just a bit more embroidery I wanna talk about and then I’ll get into the good good lace. Dagobert Peche, with his great name, was likely the guy who ushered in the creation of tulle embroidery and bobbin lace at the Wiener Werkstatte. He joined the group in 1915 and became a co-director in 1916. And, as you just learned, he also was one of the leading cushion and bag designers for the group. This man did it ALL. And he and I share a birthdate so that’s fun! Anyway, tulle embroidery. What am I talking about? Weeeeell there were borders, mats, doilies, curtains, and counterpanes that involved tulle embroidery. They started being produced around 1916. Curtains and counterpanes were usually entirely tulle embroidery but were sometimes made of linen decorated with insets of bobbin lace. And in case you don’t know what a counterpane is, it’s a bedspread. Yes. Surviving pieces of tulle embroidery include a like length of very fine, sheer tulle of indeterminate use that has four nude figures embroidered in thin white thread on it. I couldn’t tell you what it was made for, but it is intriguing. Another surviving tulle embroidered thing is a counterpane designed by Peche around 1920 that features a tulle ground with tulle applique and very fine embroidery. The piece mixes undulating vines and flowers with a geometric design made up of curving, thick lines, has a charming lil winged cupid or angel figure in its centre. Tulle feels like a weird bedspread fabric but HEY not my life! No matter what, the embroidery and applique is very fine and the design really encapsulates that shift from Art Nouveau to more Art Deco aesthetics.
The book I keep referring to in this episode, The Unknown Wiener Werkstatte: Embroidery and Lace 1906 to 1930, has a good description of how this tulle embroidery was actually made. Here it is: “The tulle embroidery consists of a transparent cotton tulle (originally made of bobbin lace) adorned with a net pattern, embroidered either by hand or machine usually with white, rarely polychrome, cotton or silk threads. As in embroidery, the motif is transferred to the ground cloth using the inscribed blueprint. The so-called tulle lace with its white color, its transparency and delicacy, and its patterns has the appearance of lace; the objects made out of it usually correspond to the repertoire of bobbin lace items: mats and doilies, flounces and collars in the fashion sector, and curtains and net curtains with large-format patterns and motifs.” This passage leads well into a discussion of bobbin lace, so let’s get into it.
The Wiener Werkstatte started designing bobbin lace around 1917 or 18. In the teens, the lace designs were sent from the workshop in Zurich to makers in Nejdek in the Czech Republic who produced the lace at home. Catalogues from the early 1920s also list Stribrna, now Silberbach in the Czech Republic, as another site of Wiener Werkstatte lace production. The Werkstatte archive has a lot of unused lace patterns, which indicate that although a lot of bobbin lace was produced by Czech women for sale by the workshop, many pieces were not made and so the designs were sent back.
The Werkstatte’s lace designers were a mix of men and women, including but not limited to Dagobert Peche, who I mentioned earlier, Fritzi Low-Lazar, Hilda Jesser-Schmid, Anny Schroder-Ehrenfest, Vally Wieselthier, and Maria Likarz-Strauss. The lace designs included flowers, animals, and human figures in a variety of fun costumes and poses. A real favourite of mine when it comes to Wiener Werkstatte lace is a curtain made by Anny Schroder-Ehrenfest that is made up of 84 square lace inserts. Amongst these inserts were three designs by Peche, four by Wieseltheir, and five by Schroder-Ehrenfest herself. The whole thing is a mix of vases, human figures, and animals. I don’t have a huge amount to say about the Werkstatte’s bobbin lace offerings other than that they’re really delightful and quite whimsical and that I’d like to own about a billion pieces. And also lace is so crazy because you can make these intricately dressed figures and very kinetic and active animals all by pinning and twisting thread around itself. What the heck!! Lace is so cool! And I think the Werkstatte laces really do a good job of capturing the mood of the times – they sit quite comfortably in that transitional period between Art Nouveau aesthetics and Art Deco ones. And speaking of Art Deco, the Wiener Werkstatte’s textile offerings were displayed at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriel Modernes, an international exhibition that really got the Art Deco movement going and which literally gave the name to the movements. Arts Decoratifs from the exhibit title became Art Deco, the name we all know the artistic style by today.
But by the mid 1920s, around 1926 and 7 specifically, the Wiener Werkstatte’s decorative arts offerings, including its embroideries and lace, had gotten out of control – the range no longer really matched customers’ tastes and the high prices no longer really made sense. By the late 1920s, the artistic enterprise was suffering, and the stock market crash of 1929 finally did the Wiener Werkstatte in. The textile department operated until 1932, when it then collapsed and the remaining goods, including a heckin lot of embroidery and lace, were auctioned off. The Wiener Werkstatte lasted 29 years. After its liquidation, it quickly fell into oblivion and was largely forgotten about until the mid-1960s. Which, so sad, right?? I’m very happy that now, for 50 years and 100 years after the Wiener Werkstatte took the world by storm, we can celebrate it and love it and research it and share it with each other and see how it influenced design throughout the 20th and even the 21st century. A good example of that is that a few years ago, Zara came out with clothes in printed fabrics straight up copied from Wiener Werkstatte designs, which it turns out Prada copied first. What a ride.
So yeah, there’s the story of Wiener Werkstatte embroidery and lace! Researching this was an adventure for me, as I know a pretty small amount about 20th-century needlework in continental Europe. But it’s really important I know more about the Wiener Werkstatte story and that I share it with you, because the workshop was one of the longest lived design movements of the 20th century and it was hugely important for the development of modernism. It paired traditional manufacturing methods with an avant-garde aesthetic and total artistic freedom, which is awesome but extra sad when you consider the fact that its demise as a result of the economic crash basically shows that artistic movements can never totally free themselves from economic concerns. Oof!!
But let’s not end there, because the Wiener Werkstatte really gave us a lot. When it comes to needlework, they took these centuries old forms of stitchery and made them modern. They took traditional needlework methods and made them avant garde. They made them cool and trendy, so cool and trendy that even 100 years later, they’re still hip. And, in the midst of rapid mechanisation and industrialization, they still involved hand stitching. That hand is really clear – you can see and feel the hand of the maker, how they held their needle or their bobbins, in each item. I love that, that this needlework was made with modernity in mind still looked back to techniques of past centuries. Not that hand embroidery and lace wasn’t happening by the 1920s, it absolutely was. There’s just something about the Wiener Werkstatte embroideries and lace that make me think of long ago examples of those art forms instead of contemporaneous ones. When I look at Carl Otto Czeschka’s embroidery designs, I’m reminded of 18th-century crewelwork panels in colour and shape and design. And when I look at Dagobert Peche’s lace designs, I think of 17th-century lace panels made in Britain and throughout Europe that depict human figures amidst a net of warp and weft ground fabric threads. The Wiener Werkstatte needlework feels simultaneously new and old, fresh and pleasantly nostalgic.
So there we are, ending with a lil rumination about Wiener Werkstatte needlework. That’s all I’ve got for you this week! As always, thank you so much for listening and for supporting the pod! I am grateful for each and every one of you.
Now go out and stitch some stories and learn German if you don’t already know it so you can pronounce all of the German words in this podcast better than I can because I just really butchered that language. Bye!