Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Schonau, a Textile Design by Gustav Kalhammer

Illustration: Gustav Kalhammer. Schonau textile design, c1910.

Schonau is a textile fabric that was produced by the Wiener Werkstatte designer Gustav Kalhammer at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. This seemingly wild and chaotic pattern might at first appear to be at odds with the more familiar geometrically rigid tone of the Werkstatte. However, the Austrian movement was a broad organization that not only had working members from all corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond, working in a range of disciplines and styles, but also produced active work over a three decade period.

Although the Wiener Werkstatte's geometrically rigid trademark style seems to have originated largely from its co-founder and organiser Josef Hoffmann, individual styles were adapted to the Werkstatte, so much so that the range of workmanship and direction of individual designers was to give the Austrian movement a constant and vibrant portfolio of work throughout its lifetime. Even Hoffmann changed and adapted styles over the decades that he was associated with the Werkstatte, with his work ranging from a form of extreme though highly defined decorative and design work, to a period that gave his work the appearance of a much more fluid and approachable aspect, some would even say retrogressive, with its dependence on the more classically inspired Austrian versions of the decorative movements of the Baroque and Rococo.

Kalhammer himself produced a range of graphic and illustrative work that ranged from the experimental to the more conventional format. He therefore had a particular penchant for surface pattern as many of those involved in graphics and illustration did and still do. Schonau in particular seems to have taken the idea of surface pattern to a near extreme. Kalhammer has allowed little if any room for quiet introspection as there is movement all over the textile piece, whether that be colour, shape or style. However, it cannot be said that the pattern is confusing or jumbled. There is a large proportion of harmony and balance and the eye is intrigued by the seeming confusion, picking out colour tones, shapes and motifs that both partner each other and indeed reflect off of each other.

Kalhammer's textile design would have been a feast for the eye and would have been instantly contrasted with much of the sober work produced during this period outside of the Wiener Werkstatte. Although perhaps too strong for many tastes during this very early period of the twentieth century, there was still a considerable market for this exuberant style, particularly amongst those who wished to flaunt a Bohemian, or at least some form of alternative style to that which was largely considered the norm, that of a classical style using ranges of pastel. Interestingly, this particular vibrant and exuberant decorative style shown through Kalhammer's textile design, was to continue to gain in popularity so that although considerably more defined, it was to become mainstream a decade later and take on the guise of early Art Deco.

Illustration: Gustav Kalhammer. Textile design, c1916.

Just to show that nothing is ever as simplistic as we would wish, a second illustration of a textile design by Kalhammer is included. This one, produced a few years later than Schonau, has a rigid framework and a repetitive motif stamp, that is so far removed from the burst of colour and pattern of the first illustration that it seems as if it could have been produced by a different individual altogether. If anything, the two extremes go to show two points about a surface pattern designer. One is that a designer can be flexible and adaptable within their own creativity, producing work that is often original but over a wide spectrum. The other of course, is that a surface pattern designer has to be adaptable in order to serve the market. In this respect their creativity can be harnessed, when necessary, to produce work that is called for, rather than desired. There lies the conundrum of the textile designer, one that has troubled individuals from William Morris onwards and is still with us today, the balancing of the often mutually exclusive and hostile worlds of creativity and the market.

Creativity, by its very nature tends towards a form of complex polymorphic journeying, often taking in introspective and observational analysis, while the market often searches for wide-scaling simplistic answers based on the aspect of the monoculture, a form of one size fits all. Neither world should be seen as necessarily entire or absolute. However, finding a harmonious balance between creativity and the market seems as far away as ever.

Reference links:
Wiener Werkstatte: 1903-1932 (Special Edition)
Wiener Werkstatte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932
Textiles of the Wiener Werkstatte: 1910-1932
Postcards of the Wiener Werkstatte
Viennese Design and the Wiener Werkstatte
Wiener Werkstatte Jewelry
Wiener Werkstatte: Avantgarde, Art Deco, Industrial Design (German Edition)
Art Nouveau and Early Art Deco Type and Design, from the Roman Scherer Catalogue. (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Early Modern Textiles from Arts and Crafts to Art Deco
Art Deco Textiles: The French Designers
Art Deco Textiles (Va)
Art Deco Textile Designs (Schiffer Design Book)

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