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Vienna's Prolific Design Czar

Josef Hoffmann strongly influenced several generations of designers

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ALTHOUGH the IBM Gallery of Science and Art may not have intended it, the Josef Hoffmann exhibition on view here inadvertently provides a mighty push into the Year of American Craft 1993. The Viennese designer's influence on furniture, metal, textile, glass, and building designs in the early 1900s laid stepping stones for American artists of the 1990s. The exhibition should help fuel further public interest in arts and crafts and the movements surrounding it.

The Hoffmann show is varied and extensive: Hundreds of sketches for decorative wares, precise and detailed models of the architect's best-known buildings (the Purkersdorf Sanatorium in Vienna, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, and the Villa Skywa-Primavesi in Czechoslovakia), and cases full of ornate jewelry and glass stand as witness to his design abilities.

The excellent workmanship in these pieces proves the success of Hoffmann's efforts to raise the artistic competence of the craftsmen, and to improve on the production process. He broke down the division between artist and artisan.

Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshops) in 1903 with that mission in mind. In the collective's almost 30-year history, important artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Carl Moll were identified with the Werkstatte and its large- and small-scale projects.

Hoffmann's aim was to reform how decorative art was used in the homes and businesses of his upper- and middle-class clients. He expected functional items such as teacups to not only hold liquid, but also to be elegant, easily held works of art.

He worked closely to supervise both outside contractors and craftspeople in the workshops, and he expanded into new areas of specialization, such as fashion design and bookbinding.

Primarily trained as an architect, Hoffmann had an architect's love of total design integration: He wanted the outside of a building to correspond stylistically with the interior - right down to wall coverings, lighting fixtures, and knickknacks. As a result, he and his colleagues became design czars. Clients were forbidden to move anything in a Hoffmann-designed room from its specified place.

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