To be "Vienese by experience" around 1900 was to be advanced, knowledgeable, sophisticated, witty, elegant and, perhaps, a bit mad.

Vienna was called by wits of the day "Kakania " (a play on Kaiserlich und Koniglich -- imperial and kingly). It was the center of an empire of 51 million. Eleven percent of the population of Europe -- more than 12 nationalities -- paid allegience, honor (and taxes) to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Kaiser Franz Josef.

In every era there is a city that seems to be at the center of times. At the turn of the 19th century, that city was Vienna. Music, architecture, art, theater, all blossomed in a final flowering of creativity called Ver Sacrum -- the Sacred Spring -- by its artists/gardeners.

People from all over the empire and the world came to Vienna. If you couldn't be to the manner born, you could be "Viennese by experience." They listened to Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Opera, rode the Ferris wheel in the Prater, gaped at Otto Wagner's Stadtbahn stations, heard Richard Strauss's music, watched Arthur Schnitzler's plays, admired Gustav Klimt's paintings of naked ladies and told their dreams to Sigmund Freud.

It was a time when people wrote plays in coffee house mit Schlag (whipped cream). The newspapers were full of indignant letters arguing about the revolutionary art movement called "Secession ." People would come to blows on the length of a line or the shade of a color. Klimt and his dress designer mistress Emilie Floege (both rather plump) had caftans made to match an interior design.

One Belgium industrialist, Adolphe Stoclet, came to Vienna in 1904 for a design for his entire new Brussels house, designed by Josef Hoffmann. Everything was custom, from bathtubs of marble with gold-washed fixtures to a dining room with a Klimt mosaic mural.

In Vienna, even cocktail lounges and cabarets (the Kabarett Fledermaus is the most famous), were what we'd now call complete art "environments." Furniture, fittings and art were all designed as a harmonious whole.

The time was very short. It began toward the end of the 19th century, when the city's large Jewish population was allowed more participation in the life of the city, though not at court.

The Jewish intelligentsia of Vienna had money, leisure, taste and nothing to lose by being avant-garde. They financed much of the artistic fervor of the period. They spent lavishly. It is said there was hardly such a thing as a starving artist, thanks to Jewish patronage. The era ended on the battlefields of World War I and in the deathbeds of the flu epidemic of 1918.

For some years the importance of the era has been overlooked, except on the musical comedy stage, perhaps because of the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the strong Austrian Nazi movement of the 1930s, the almost total execution or exportation of the Viennese Jewish community, the World War II destruction and the strong rejection by the Viennese themselves of the period.

Today, with the great interest in art nouveau and art deco (and with sales prices up 300 percent on those two styles in two or three years) the Viennese era which stands between the two is being reexamined and exulted.

"Vienna Moderne 1898-1918 -- An Early Encounter Between Taste and Utility" is on view through Feb. 4 in New York at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum. The show, as fascinating as it is, must be viewed as but a Vorspeise , an appetizer, for a full menu of other shows soon to come.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is planning a mammoth show on Viennese costumes of the period next year. And for 1980 the Museum of Modern Art here is working on an enormous retrospective of the period, encompassing all Viennese art of the time, from Egon Schiele's tortured drawings and paintings to the architecture of Otto Wagner, Josef Olbrich and Adolf Loos -- and, of course, the era's greatest successes, the masterful decorative arts of the period.

Last summer, a splendid show, "Fruhes Industriedesign, Wien 1900-1908" (Early Industrial Design, Vienna), a much more comprehensive show than the Cooper-Hewitt's with many of the same objects, was held at the Galerie Nachst St. Stephan in Vienna. In the mid-'60s there were shows on the period in both Vienna and Munich.

Against such big guns, the Cooper-Hwitt show is much more modest. Guest curator Jan Ernst Adlmann concentrates on 300 pieces of decorative arts: Klimt's painting chest, silver and glass serving trays, a silver 15-piece table setting, pewter candlesticks, iridescent glass, black and white pottery, mother of pearl boxes and some things best described as art objects.

The title of the Cooper-Hewitt show is unfortunate, a miscegenation of languages. It is even worse because there are excellent names correct to the period which could have been used.

In Vienna, the style is called "Secession," after the artists group organized by Klimt in 1897. The 1898 building by Josef Olbrich where the artists exhibited is called the Secession Building. The magazine of the Secession artists was called "Ver Sacrum ." And the organization which accepted commissions and marketed the decorative arts of the group was called the Weiner Werkstaette. There was, by the way, briefly a New York showroom.

The Secession in Vienna is often equated with what the French call art nouveau or the Germans Jugendstil or the Italians Stile Liberte -- the romantic, flowing style that swept Europe 1890-1918. It is none of the above. Actually it is a child of the British arts and crafts movement. And it went on to be mother of modern.

The Viennese had had a worse dose than most of the late 19th century eclecticism -- the Ringstrasse in Vienna is almost a Busch Gardens "Old Country" reproduction of every style you ever heard of from classic (the Parliment Building to Gothic (the Rathaus or townhall).

On the other hand, stripped-down, clean-edged, less is more co-existed with the lavishness of the eclectic period. Bentwood chairs, often called Viennese cafe chairs, are now almost as popular in our day as theirs. This early example of knockdown mass-manufactured furniture dates from the 1830s. Not long after came the exquisite Viennese wine glasses of Lobmeyr. Fredrich Poppenberg might have been thinking of the glasses when he wrote in Berlin in 1910: Not ornamented but themselves an ornament. The Viennese and German Biedermier style, a simplification of the Grench empire, was popular and handsome.

But in the 1890s, a group of Viennese artists was offendedenough by the flourishes of the historicism of the period, that they seceded from the establishment art organization of the time. They worked in a freer, more advanced style, stripping away some of the fripperies of the period. They rid themselves of the nothing-succeeds-like-excess (as Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen says) of the prevailing eclecticism. They also quickly cut themselves free of the entangling tendrils of the romantic art noveau period with its limp ladies and its entwining whiplash line -- though Klimt's glittering girls are romantic in an oriental but geometric manner.

The Viennese artists were avid followers of the British art magazine, The Studio. Especially strong was the influence of architect Charles Rennie Machintosh. The innovator of the Glasgow arts and crafts movement, his work was published in The Studio. He exhibited a room setting of furniture in 1900 in the Secession. He was thereafter commissioned to design a music room for Fritz Waerdorfer, a Viennese art patron. Mackintosh might be said to have fathered the Viennese movement, though, as Adlmann puts it, without so much of Mackintosh's "Holy Grail" aura.

Objects in the Cooper-Hewitt show show a range in the amount of ornamentation.

Architect Adolf Loos scoffed at the Secession because he believed that it tried to create an artificial style. But he himself designed a brass and crystal clock in 1902, one of the most handsome objects in thw show. The clock is wide at the base, slanting toward the top. The feet are also angular. Inside you see nothing but the handsome brass pendulum and the cross supports and the easily readable face. It is a triumph of beauty and utility.

At the other end of the diversity that was Vienna is the chest made about 1905-06 by Koloman Moser. The silver chest is so beautiful you can't imagine anything important enough to be put in it. Two nude enameled youths stand guard on each side. The base and back frame are alive with curving tendrils blossomed with semiprecious stones. A ditt-dot-do border outlines the face.

Moser's abstract book ornament for "Ver Sacrum" is a simple combination of uneven lines and broken squares, yet it is sophisticated and enticing. His glass and silverplate serving tray -- a simple silver frame with glass handles and oval glass bottom, his silver and lapis lazuli serving dish with ivory handles, and the silver vase, set with amber are among the msot beautiful objects I have ever seen.

Josef Hoffmann is best represented in the exhibit by silver flatware, designed in 1904 for the family of Fritz Waerndorfer, a wealthy Jew who had put up the money to found the Wiener Werkstaette. There are 15 pieces for each place setting. The only ornamentation are the block monogram and the small bowls at the end. The knives and the spoons are particularly nicely shaped.

Hoffmann's tea kettle with ivory fittings, also 1905, is another prize. The kettle stands on architectural columns, set in its own attached tray. The burner and the kettle handle are both sensibly of wood so you won't burn your hands.

Hoffmann's furniture is geometric, usually executed in black and white. Shown here are a bentwood easy chair, an adaptation of the Morris; a wood and leather chair for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, and the cunning "Kabarett Fledermaus chair" (now available in Washington in a reproduction at DBI designers). In the show as well are some pieces he made for Klimt: a painting cabinet and a high-back neo-Mackintosh chair.

A silver coffee service and a candlestick is by Josef Maria Olbrich, architect of the Secession Building and one of the best designers of the period. The fine, elongated shapes, ornamented with circles, are a prime example of the elegance and sophistication of the period.

In the end, those attributes -- elegance and sophistication -- are the reason some of us find the Viennese Secession movement far more pleasing than the harsher, more masculine Bauhaus School. Bauhaus in Germany of the '20s and '30s took up where the Secession left off.

The Viennese influence lingered longer in the Scandinavian desing. Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero designed Dulles Airport) brought this modern-without-tears, softer style to the United States. Saarinen had visited and exhibited in Vienna.

In the 1930s, he established the Cranbrook Art School and Museum just outside of Detroit. Cranbrook, though its graduates, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese and Charles Eames, is responsible for much of the worth-while American furniture and decorative objects of the past 40 years. Roy Slade, now director of the Cranbrook art school and museum and formerly of the Corcoran Gallery of Art here, has recently started an exhibition policy which points up the importance of the Saarinen influence.

These are the rings within rings which make up the history of 20th-century design. Who knows what fascinating effect the current Secession revival will have on the designers of today?

Curator Adlmann put the show together with funding from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery of the University of Houston. The show will be there March 2 through April 29; in the Portland, Ore., Art Museum, June-July; and at the Chicago Art Institute, September through November.

Adlmann had originally hoped to have a Viennese show -- complete with paintings -- open a museum in Long Beach, Calif., but the museum closed before it opened. The Museum of Modern Art's plans made many loans, especially of paintings, impossible.

Adlmann, himself "Viennese by experience" and the son of a Viennese immigrant, was fortunate to have the funding of the Houston University and the support of the Cooper-Hewitt. The show cost $200,000 to put together and three times that in freight and crating.

The catalog is notable for its time-line, showing what was happening in Vienna and elsewhere, and its useful collection of Wiener Werkstaette trademarks and signatures. But real fans of the period should read "The Sacred Spring" by Nicholas Powell (the New York Graphic Society) and "Art in Vienna, 1898-1918" (Phaidon).