Koloman Moser
Side table

For Stonborough-Wittgenstein

1905
White lacquered wood
Executed by the Wiener Werkstätte
H. 78 x W. 65,5 x D. 65,5 cm
 
 
Christian Witt-Dorring, curator at the Neue Galerie, New York, wrote:

On the marriage of his daughter Margaret (* 1882 Neuwaldegg near Vienna) with Dr. phil. Jerome Stonborough (* 1873 New York) and their prospective removal to Berlin, Karl Wittgenstein commissioned Hoffmann and Moser to design their future apartment in the city, and the Wiener Werkstätte to execute the designs. The rented property was situated in one of the best Berlin residential areas on Zelten 21a near the Tiergarten. The house itself was designed in 1887/88 in Renaissance style by the Berlin architect Paul Ferdinand. The apartment consisted of six rooms (Herrenzimmer – a combination of study and smoking-room, Damenzimmer – parlour; dining room, bedroom, guest room and nursery), a vestibule with connected hallway, a servant’s room, a kitchen , a pantry and a bathroom. The furnishings presented here come from the vestibule, the nursery, the guest room and the servant’s room.

The apartment must have been ready to move into by April 1905, since Margaret wrote to her mother in Vienna on 18 April: “Moser – who was again utterly charming – and I have been moving furniture around for three whole days, hanging up pictures and painting frames. Now the flat is in order, at least outwardly, and Jerome and I are delighted and sing your praises and those of the Wiener Werkstätte every day.” To complete the household, Margaret Stonborough bought a number of silver utensils at the Wiener Werkstätte exhibition of autumn 1904 in the Hohenzollern Kunstgewerbehaus in Berlin. The apartment existed only until and including 1907, for no corresponding entry can be found after this year in the Berlin municipal address register. During this period her son Thomas was born in Berlin on 6 January 1906.

The double-door cupboard, which reiterates the forms of the washstand of the room furnishings, comes from his nursery. It and its counterpart originally stood before the head, respectively foot, of his nanny’s bed, who was accommodated in the same room. It is one of Hoffmann’s most fascinating and earliest designs as regards his ambivalent treatment of space and surface. His aesthetic method shows him attempting to reconcile space and material in terms of a modern approach to interior space: in other words, to block up the room as little as possible with matter. This is put into practice in Hoffmann’s placement of the cupboard, not primarily as enclosed volume in the room, but interpreted as a room compartment, open at the front, in which stands a double-door cupboard. He achieves this by means of a sophisticated use of frame structures, employed to describe the opposition of space and surface. The lockable, double-door cupboard element is shrunk in height in comparison with the totality of the furnishings. It is framed by a narrow, rounded, moulding on its front. The room compartment is a fifth higher and surrounds the cupboard element on five sides. It is likewise finished off at the front with the same framing, and in addition set in broader, also rounded profiles, though only on the two sides and at the bottom. This produces a visual effect of a double anchoring of the cupboard in the room, and not an obtrusive blocking of the space through material. Its outside framing is open towards the top, enabling the cupboard to communicate vertically with the room. The compartment above the closed cupboard element is open at the front and allows the furniture to enter into a horizontal relationship with the room. The cupboard base is set pronouncedly rearwards, helping it in the end to attain an optical lightness, which because of its very function it is unable to achieve on its own.


The two double-door cupboards and the single-door cupboard come from the apartment guest room designed by Koloman Moser. The two double-door cupboards were originally placed separated by a narrow mirror of the same height on the longer wall of the guest room, while the single-door cupboard was likewise flanked with a second example of the room washstand. The same model but with silver relief inlays was also placed in the bedroom of Jerome and Margaret Stonborough and in the patient rooms of the Purkersdorf Sanatorium. In the latter, Moser designed the cupboards on ball feet with integrated castors. The design of the cupboards manifests the aesthetic approach typical of Moser, based on the fact that Moser was trained as a painter and not as an architect. His treatment of tectonics is much freer than is evident in Hoffmann’s furniture designs. The cupboard doors seem to be clamped between two posts. They find no counter bearing whatever in them. The different dimensioning of the broad, vertical posts and of the much narrower horizontal frieze banishes any thought of frame construction. Since the vertical posts run through uninterrupted from bottom to top, there are no optical hints whatever of a base that could support the cupboard. Nor is there a clear horizontal finish towards the top that could assume the tectonic role of a cornice. The cupboard doors appear as if they are able to slide to and from between the posts. Seen from the front, the cupboard has no depth at all. It consists solely of planar surface. On the side walls, Moser turns planarity into its exact opposite and creates space through a kind of chamfering. The different dimensioning of the vertical and horizontal framing elements is maintained here, as at the front, which means that the frame cannot act as a tectonic element here either. It takes effect at top and bottom more like a stuck-on decorative element, which could be extended at will in both directions. All in all, the cupboards testify unambiguously to one of the major characteristic features of Viennese design practice around 1906 – ambiguity. It is directly related to the search for individual aesthetic expression, which also encourages the active role of the viewer. Ambiguity opens up possibilities of interpretation and thus participation.

In terms of cultural history, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that Hoffmann also designed the furnishing of the servant’s room, a room that would justify neither artistic nor financial investment within a background formed by traditional ideas of official prestige. It is only understandable from a rethinking based on the ideology of the Arts and Crafts movement, which concedes to artistic expression the option of possessing a moral, social dimension. In infusing everyday life with beauty, the power is endowed to create a better world. This conviction requires that this ideal be consciously sustained in all areas of life, even including ancillary rooms like kitchen and servants’ quarters. It shows the start of a development quite naturally pointing to the apotheosis of the designer kitchen. Among other things, Hoffmann designed this washstand and the bedside table for the servant’s room. Made of plain soft wood and painted blue and white, they restrict their forms to the absolutely essential and breathe practicality. They do not pretend to be anything other than what they are and thus radiate integrity and dignity. But besides this, Hoffmann lends them individual expression. He achieves this with the contrasting use of the colours blue and white. However, he doesn’t deploy the colours merely as a decorative medium, but as a tectonically defining element. Both pieces of furniture are shaped as purely geometric bodies. Hoffmann’s use of dual colouring manages to give them a certain measure of transparency, despite their exterior expression as self-enclosed blocks. They can therefore fuse spatially with the rather small dimensions of the servant’s room. Hoffmann counteracts the confinement of the room with his aesthetic means. He emphasises the bearing frame structure of the furniture by painting it blue and the intermediate surfaces white. This is consistently sustained so that for instance the vertical side areas of the washstand, which are not treated as frame and filling but appear as an integral surface, are also painted blue. An exceptionally pleasing constructional detail is the way Hoffmann deepens the front in a kind of coffering effect, echoing the cupboard and the coal box in the room. Neither is this the result of a one-sided decorative idea, but primarily conditioned by the coincidence of two spatial structures, that of the carcass and that of the drawers compartment.

The suite of seating furniture of the vestibule in the Stonborough apartment is again designed by Koloman Moser. It consists of a bench, three chairs and a table. Their original arrangement was not as an integrated group but the bench and table were placed together, while the three chairs were put in front of single wall segments. Bench and table are also the only pieces of furniture that are given a consistently rectangular construction. Similar to the two guest-room pieces described above, both demonstrate as well a sophisticated interplay of surface and space. If you look at the bench straight on at the front, the backrest and armrests look like perforated boards, because their slat and board inserts end level with the frame structure. But if you change the view to the side and rear of the bench, you get a completely different impression. Here the outer contours of the bench emerge as autonomous spatial structure. The thicknesses of the wood for the side- and backrest fillings are in fact thinner than those of the outer frame structure, determined by the leg strength of the bench. As consistent as ever, Moser deals with the seat top rail in exactly the same way. It ends level with the legs at the front. On the outsides and back it leans backwards and also ends level with the rest inserts. The result is utterly dynamic. The top rail is suddenly no longer part of the bearing structure in visual terms and thus defined horizontally, but becomes a part of the vertical inserts of the back- and armrests. The top rail doesn’t support any more but, together with the filling of the rests, evokes the association of a guillotine threatening to fall down any moment. Moser handles the table similarly by making the table top rail finish level with the legs and the table top. You get the impression that four sawn-off boards have been joined to make a table. Legs and top rail form one area; only after combining with the table top do they become a cube and then take spatial shape. To give this tectonically fragile configuration structural solidity, Moser places a diagonal cruciform foot strut at the bottom end of the legs. He adds a small square plate in its centre, which functions as optical connection to the table top and is able to create a harmonious balance between horizontal and vertical elements.
The chairs match the bench in form and therefore use the same geometric arm-and backrest inserts. The only difference to the bench is the trapezoid seat and an H-shaped foot cross.

References:
Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration; 1905-06, vol. 17, pp. 149-163;
Christian Witt-Dörring (Ed.); Josef Hoffmann. Interiors 1902-1913; Munich 2006, pp. 186-209
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Side table