A DESIGN FOR LIVING By Lillian Langseth-Christensen Viking. 214 pp. $18.95
WHAT A rare occasion it is when an artistic style is hailed as a classic, let alone the kind that inspires other artists and then continues to be imitated by later generations. Throughout the history of Western art, there have been few such genuinely classic styles. And when one has emerged, it has usually taken a while to reach the public consciousness.
Most often these landmark styles have presented themselves in architecture or sculpture -- monumental arts that are created to last, art forms that are susceptible to specific canons of proportion that can be a creative catalyst for future generations. But rarely have the decorative or applied arts -- the worlds of furniture, fabric and fashion, of jewelry, metalwork, ceramics and glass -- provided inspiration for major artistic revivals. And even more rarely has all this taken place in less than a century.
That is precisely what has happened, however, with the bewitching designs created by an avant-garde group of artists who lived and worked in Vienna during the first quarter of the 20th century.
In recent years the artists of that period -- primarily the architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, but also the painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the entire group of master craftsmen known as the Wiener Werksta tte -- have been virtually canonized. Major museums have mounted exhibitions of their work. Furniture and fabric designers have not only reproduced line for line copies of some of their original groundbreaking designs but have also sought out these originals for inspiration, approaching them with a near-iconic fervor.
As a result, at least partially, of today's reverential attitude, the artists of that relatively recent time somehow seem hard to grasp hold of. And despite the attention given them and their work, they are too new to be part of the common currency of traditional art history. Lillian Langseth-Christensen's lively memoir of her days as a student of design in Vienna in the 1920s under the awe-inspiring tutelage of Josef Hoffmann redresses that problem with gusto.
A precocious and passionate student of design, Lillian, the daughter of Austrian parents who more or less inadvertently emigrated to New York in 1904, got it into her head when she was 10 and in the third grade that her only acceptable destiny was to go to Vienna to study with Hoffmann. By the time she was 14, she was ensconced there and would have stayed for who knows how long, had her only brother's untimely death from typhoid not required her return to New York three years later.
Her parents, a seemingly traditional upper middle-class European couple determined to maintain their cultural standards in the middle of Manhattan, had already set an unwittingly nonconformist example. Her mother, while awaiting approval of a wedding date from her future mother-in-law, had simply taken off from Austria in 1904 and impulsively sailed to visit a friend in New York. Her father took the next steamer. Described by Christensen as a "millionaire manque'," he began his life in America in the years just before World War I, but turbulent politics did not prevent him from continuing to make yearly trips to Europe to purchase clothes for his wife (to his taste, not necessarily hers), to see his mother and to place orders for his beloved Hungarian Tokays.
Once established in New York, the family created a home interior that was equally daring. For example, "I was proud of our library," Christensen recalls. "It contained no stained glass, no paintings on easels draped with Spanish shawls, no fur pillows and no accessories to show where we had been, such as Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa Lamps, bronze Eiffel Towers, or Lions of Lucerne bookends. It was, to my mind, all in the best of taste . . . "
Christensen's interest in Josef Hoffman and the renowned Wiener Werksta tte was stimulated by hours poring over the illustrations in her favorite magazine, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration ("German Art and Decoration") -- not customary reading for a 10-year-old girl but somehow predictable for her. (A high-toned couple, her parents were active subscribers to things cultural -- several symphonies, the opera, and art publications from all over the world.)
It was there that she discovered the calm, orderly almost entirely black and white interiors ascribed to one J. Hoffman, and as she stared at the photographs and imagined their inhabitants, and their creator, she decided upon her future.
CHRISTENSEN'S memoir guides the reader with amazing visual precision from her childhood in Europe and New York through her design training in Vienna. What gives her story its vitality is her astonishing ability to recall detail -- about her studies, the cultural life and architecture of the period, and of course the people whose talents had drawn her to Vienna in the first place.
She also manages to portray her own experience within the framework of a handy summary of Vienna's artistic milieu from the middle of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th, in itself no easy task. A great deal was brewing in Vienna over that time, from the young Kaiser Franz Joseph I's authorization in 1857 to demolish the old city walls (he realized that the burgeoning Vienna needed room in which to grow) to the eventual demise in 1931 of the Wiener Werksta tte. Along the way, the reader has been introduced to important historical developments, like the building of the Ringstrasse (the Beltway-like ring of streets that replaced the city walls) and the Secession movement (the renegade group of more than 50 of the Kunstlerhaus' most talented young artists) and to the leading figures of the day as well.
But for Christensen, it is the -- to his students -- distant, elusive, immensely far-sighted Hoffman who remains the magnet that drew her to Vienna and the emotional center of her recollections. Her evocative portrait of him and his world is compelling reading for any student of contemporary design.
Judith Weinraub is editor of the Home and Travel sections of The Washington Post.