Cover stories: a new exhibition traces Wiener Werkstätte’s book designs

An exhibition at Vienna's MAK chronicles the book cover designs of the Wiener Werkstätte.
An exhibition at Vienna's MAK chronicles the book cover designs of the Wiener Werkstätte.
(Image credit: Georg Mayer)

Vienna’s MAK (Museum for Applied Arts) has launched an exhibition of book covers designed by the Wiener Werkstätte. Created between 1904 and 1927, the tomes celebrate the firm’s aesthetic prowess and form a perfect visual panorama of its artistic approach.

Founded in 1903 by Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser, Wiener Werkstätte brought together designers, architects and artists, creating objets d'art that combined ‘good materials and perfect technical execution’.

Carl Beitel joined them as in-house bookbinder; the city’s newspaper Wiener Sonn- und Montags-Zeitung wrote about the ‘struggle against the awful, red hard-covers with golden decorations used for our masterpieces’ and the Wiener Werkstätte came to the rescue. Moser and Hoffman looked at William Morris’ book designs for inspiration, even buying the same leather the English artist – sourced from a Parisian producer – for their creations.

Inside cover of a 1913 book by Josef Hoffman, featuring endpaper made of silk

Inside cover of a 1913 book by Josef Hoffman, featuring endpaper made of silk, printed with a decorative style called Maikäfer (meaning 'May beetle'), designed by Eduard J Wimmer-Wisgrill in 1910-11. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)


Wiener Werkstätte mastered a wide spectrum of techniques, including leather inlaying, embossing, hand-gilding, and leather weaving. Beitel and Moser also developed a series of marbled papers, while fabric and exotic skins and leathers – crocodile, snake, undulate ray, lizard and even frog – were among the materials used for the covers. Early designs were characterised by their stylised, geometric shapes and floral decorations, while later works (post-1918 and after Moser had left the group) had a more playful and opulent aesthetic.

The exhibition shows over 70 books from the private collections of Ernst Ploil, guest curator of the exhibition, and Richard Grubman, with additional drawings and approximately 500 leather stamps and select book covers taken from the MAK collection. Some of the book designs reference the contents, such as the Hoffman-designed cover for Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (three parallel lines nod to the story), or the cover for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1308-1320), commissioned by Max Morgenstein and bearing a gold star design inspired by the poem. 

Book featuring embossed leather , marbled paper.

Works on display include this book and slipcase designed by the group's co-founder Josef Hoffman in 1920, featuring embossed leather and marbled paper. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

The exhibition also features a series of book-binding tools from the museum's permanent collections.

The exhibition also features a series of book-binding tools from the museum's permanent collections. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

Book decorations come with elaborate flower designs

Book decorations come with elaborate flower designs, such as this 1920 piece by metalsmith Dagobert Peche. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

A marbled cover with gold embossing by Koloman Moser

A 1915 design by Hoffman, left, and a marbled cover with gold embossing by Koloman Moser from 1909, right. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

Sketch shows the design, featuring three parallel lines that nod to the story within

Hoffman designed a book cover for Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers in 1924. This early sketch shows the design, featuring three parallel lines that nod to the story within. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

A book cover leather works, gold embossing,marbled paper

A 1922 book cover and original slipcase by Hoffman, featuring several of the techniques the Wiener Werkstätte's covers were known for: leather works, gold embossing, and marbled paper. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

Hoffmann book cover, 1913, leather with gold embossing

Hoffmann book cover, 1913, leather with gold embossing. © Ernst Ploil Collection

(Image credit: press)

INFORMATION

‘Book Covers of the Wiener Werkstätte’ is on view until 18 May. For more information, visit the MAK website (opens in new tab)

ADDRESS

MAK
Stubenring 5
1010 Vienna

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Rosa Bertoli was born in Udine, Italy, and now lives in London. Since 2014, she has been the Design Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees design content for the print and online editions, as well as special editorial projects. Through her role at Wallpaper*, she has written extensively about all areas of design. Rosa has been speaker and moderator for various design talks and conferences including London Craft Week, Maison & Objet, The Italian Cultural Institute (London), Clippings, Zaha Hadid Design, Kartell and Frieze Art Fair. Rosa has been on judging panels for the Chart Architecture Award, the Dutch Design Awards and the DesignGuild Marks. She has written for numerous English and Italian language publications, and worked as a content and communication consultant for fashion and design brands.