The Furniture Designers of Hungarian Art Nouveau

As Anna Lesznai writes in her book The Garden of Eden (1918),

Where we stood, time was not passing,
Thus our encounter became everlasting.

At that time György Lukács considered the artist, decorator and writer Anna Lesznai someone who lived as one with the universe, in an eternal garden, in Paradise itself. The foundations for this grand feminine sentiment of unity were already present, and the “age of aestheticism” created the opportunity for its expression and for the realization of the unity. During the decades immediately preceding Art Nouveau (the 1880s), women authors investigated the problems of the home (which practically meant interior design), and their writings have been discussed in detail by Géza Buzinkay. However, dismissing the few exceptions and taking into consideration the nature of the furniture and wood industries as spheres that demanded a male workforce, it is a fact that towards the end of the 19th century Baroness Ilona Huszár (whose identity remains shrouded in mystery) came forward only once with a surpassingly beautiful collection of furniture, and it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that Mária Undi instructed herself in design and became the first and at the time only female designer. We have not a single piece of furniture of their design. At that time the world, the homes and the women’s boudoirs in them were designed by men. For example, the Wohl sisters, who were fighting for the emancipation of women, considered it right to have ladies’ saloons in middle-class homes with gentlemen’s saloons, but their attempts were in vain, for there are no documents whatsoever suggesting that even a single such saloon was completed (that is, one that later would have become a social construct) at the turn of the century, the culture of which otherwise put women and the feminine personality on a pedestal. What remained for them was the boudoir, “the real sanctum” of women, where they could “write and work” and on which they wasted “the most original ideas of their caprice.” Originality? Ideas? Caprice? Feminine sentiments were locked into “a sanctum” and thereby excluded (or excluded themselves) from the practice of composing the world.

Thus, approaching the idea of unity and the history of furniture design from the point of view of the role played by gender in contemporary society, we encounter a small contradiction that indicates that one of the three elements of the aforementioned trinity, the absence of the deliberate formation of society, has been forgotten.

Nevertheless, there were some feminine features in the interior designs conceived and executed by the male designers of the age. The descriptions (the critiques of the work of Ede Toroczkai Wigand) enable one to visualize the chairs upholstered with white deerskin in parlours covered with varnished mahogany panelling, the mirror and glass cabinets tinged on the inside with shades of blue and green, and the white bedrooms and maidens’ chambers with the harmonious refined hues of the textiles and wall paintings. Count Miklós Bánffy describes the interior of a villa in Buda in his novel, “You Have Been Counted,” which depicts the era with all its social and political problems (many of which linger today): “The parlour consists of ashen grey silk, modern, comfortable divans and armchairs, on them here and there […] a rose-coloured cushion […]. Various pieces of furniture. But each of them has been selected with exquisite taste. The parlour is very comfortable. The wall of the long gallery is covered with wood, which has also been painted ashen grey above divans several fathoms long. The divans are covered with ivy green brocade sheets and are laden with a multitude of lemon-coloured and ebony cushions, from where the guests may listen in comfort to the lady of the house singing – as it functions as the music room as well – or simply admire her beauty. The woman’s reddish-blond hair gleams in front of the dove-coloured background like a flame.” The description is captivating. The woman in it is like a songbird in a gilded cage: one of the objects of delectation.

“Perhaps the most perfect is the dining room, which is outstanding psychologically as well. Very dark panelling up to the similar ceiling. The only bright thing in the room is the table, because alongside its whole length electric lamps (my emphasis) hang down: huge, covered sources of light, which are entirely closed on their sides so that they cast all their beams on the table, leaving the room in pitch-black darkness. On the tablecloth there are two big, many-branched chandeliers, the candles of which dissolve every shadow on the faces of the people dining, the flower-basket, and the other works of the silversmith. Everything gleams glaringly here: the crystal glasses, the snowy china sprinkled with gold, the saltcellars and fruit dishes and the cutlery. It was, however, not the beauty of the objects, neither the china, the glass nor the flowers, that capped the rare perfection of the lunch, and not even the well-chosen dishes and wines, but rather the contrast (my emphasis) between the slightly cold, pitch-black room and the luxurious brightness of the table.” Before following in Bánffy’s wake (who with this description became something of an interior designer as well) and raising the question of the historical contradictions of the period, I bring up some of the present-day problems of designating these phenomena.

How should we refer to this art of interior design, and how should we characterize it?

Relying on Endre Ady and his monographer, István Király, basically we can claim that at the turn of the century the arts were called upon to create men of inner sensitivity and refined sensibility, and their primary purpose became the formation of the soul. This explains in part why artists painted so many interior designs and, moreover, undertook so-called decorative work as well in the interests of refining the inner space, which is both a real and mental one. József Rippl-Rónai, who, along with his contemporaries, referred to himself as an intimist, was one of the artists who embarked on designing pieces of furniture, carpets, glass and ceramics separately or as a whole. In the intimate world of the interior designs, however, there is a strong presence of rich natural (garden and floral) ornamentations, a good example of which is Rippl-Rónai’s Andrássy Dining Hall executed in 1897. At the turn of the century the garden as “cultivated” nature also became associated with the soul and was regarded as a form of interior design itself, though not entirely, since it handled the significance of physical and biological existence as well (I would refer here to the biologism of contemporary philosophy and the works of the scholar Raoul Francé, who was Hungarian by origin and whose books exerted an enduring influence). Furthermore, the spiritual and biological aspects of art were also expressive of questions of social existence, which included both individualism and an organically intertwined, mutual existence. Although this might seem a contradiction, at the time there was an aspiration towards unity. In addition to the establishment of new common spaces, such as public halls for the arts and culture (among them the Museum of Applied Arts) and thousands of schools and community houses, people were devoted to the creation of private homes as well. As András Ferkai has demonstrated, during the first few years of the 20th century nineteen housing estates were built in Budapest, to a great extent comprising self-standing homes with gardens. Thus the (architectural) arts had a social function. But does this also apply to the applied arts?

Approaching this question from the perspective of the history of furniture design, the pieces of furniture that were on display in the national exhibition of 1885 represented the wood industry in the spirit of a system of concepts in which the various applied arts were arranged according to the materials out of which they had been constructed. A radically different approach was discernible in 1889, when the Applied Arts Society intended to organize an exhibition of interior design, albeit as a series of historical interiors, the aim of which was to consider the special field in accordance with its functions and interrelationships. This exhibition, however, did not materialize in this way. In 1896 there was a furniture and applied arts exhibition in which the compositions were displayed in 95 small, partitioned spaces. The changing concepts raise various problems, one of which is whether a piece of furniture should be seen as a separate entity or part of a coherent interior design along with the objects that comprise the immediate surroundings. This question was partly answered by the sensitivity of the age towards interior design (which today might be called interior decoration). Another question still to be answered is whether a piece of furniture is the product of technical or artistic labour. This problem, however, demands the discussion of further concepts.

The first Christmas exhibitions were organized at the end of the 1890s and took place in the Museum of Applied Arts. Among the exhibitors one finds not only craftsmen, as had been the case in previous exhibitions, but designers as well, some of whom were also artists. They acted as sorts of midwives in the birth in Hungary of interiors (dwellings) as planned ensembles (this practice was common in other countries in Europe as well). This process, however, raises some further questions: who was the designer and who realized the plans? How should we refer to this complex creative process?

Two different terms were used at the time: industrial arts and applied arts. The term industrial arts postulates an artist who designs as a trade, and the word industry implies factories. As the research of József Vadas has already demonstrated, there were indeed big factories in Hungary, such as those of Endre Thék, the furniture factories of the Thonet brothers and others, and the workshops of Károly Lingel and his sons, which produced pieces of furniture awaiting assembly that could be slid into each other and where at times as many as 500 workers were employed. In the latter workshops the pieces of furniture were designed by employees who were skilled in the use of the materials and the technology. They were not artists, but rather designers in the present-day meaning of the word, who, like the factories themselves, specialized in only one type of furniture.

In contrast, Thék and the joiners and carpenters, such as József Mócsay and Lajos Simay, worked by hand. They composed complete interior designs and sometimes entire sets of furniture. Approximately half of the joiners and the craftsmen in general worked alone or employed only a few apprentices in the 12,000 joineries that existed in Hungary in 1906. The joiners often used designs made by artists that complemented their own ideas, all the more so, since various patterns had always been at their disposal (until the appearance of the first Hungarian patterns in 1883 the joiners had used primarily German designs, while a new series of patterns was launched in the early 20th century). Some designers working with joiners published the selection of their own designs with the intention of popularizing various aesthetic features (Ede Toroczkai Wigand published his designs in 1902, followed later by Ödön Faragó). At that time the question of copyright was not yet a crucial problem.

Thus, two different types of designers and two approaches to design emerged when the notion of the designer as such arose in relation to the mode of execution. The aforementioned designers later attended the school of applied arts, where the aim was to develop a design and a shape that followed the logic of the object (the departments of furniture design and interior design were opened in 1890 and 1901). The designers did work of an aesthetic quality expected from craftsmen. The designers employed by the Thonets or the Lingels, conversely, were familiar with the workings of industry and, albeit unintentionally, they laid the foundations of a new aesthetics that rested on the various forms of production, preceding the example, one might say, of the ideas of Herbert Read. In Hungary, however, the majority belonged to traditional crafts, which resulted in a lack of any extensive change of attitude in the field. Furthermore, as elements determining aesthetic qualities machinery and technology were not included as subjects of study in the curriculum of the students attending the school of applied arts, and thus a concept of “the arts” continued to prevail (in the applied arts as well) according to which the meaning of art lies in the transformation of the material by the individual for the sake of expressing sensual and/or intellectual meanings.

This school of thought is best exemplified by the works of art presented as part of the exhibition, either in pictures or as objects on display, that demonstrate that the artists or architects who created them (Ödön Lechner, Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch and József Rippl-Rónai) were innovators in their fields. These works of art are original: they are unique, like a work of fine art or architecture. Unlike the great public commissions, such as Lechner’s Post-office Savings Bank and the city halls in Subotica (Szabadka) and Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely) designed by Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, where the harmonious unity of edifice and its furnishings was attained by commissioning the same designer, those who ordered, bought, and owned these works of art were friends or aristocrats. The ornamental composition constructed by the architect Lajos Jámbor is especially remarkable for the harmonious sense of form and functionality (it was purchased by the Museum of Applied Arts). In addition to the works of these artists, the imaginative, richly ornamented and structurally innovative pieces of furniture designed by artist-craftsmen such as Ödön Faragó, Pál Horti, Lázár Nagy and Ede Toroczkai Wigand are also worthy of mention. These works were occasionally ordered from the artists or discovered and bought by prominent customers, but in general they were collected by contemporaries who were interested in the applied arts (such as the Györgyi family, Károly Lyka, György Ráth, the glass artist Miksa Róth and the furniture industrialist Miksa Schmidt) or by the Museum of Applied Arts itself.

The quality of the handiwork is breathtaking, and this is also true of the serial, machine-made pieces of furniture that were produced in the aforementioned large, family-owned enterprises. Interestingly, the latter also bear sensory or intellectual (i.e. artistic) meanings, but the forms in which these meanings materialize are playful and mocking, due to the impersonal aesthetics of the machines. There was an ever-growing need for such functional furniture, generated by the changing composition of the population, the transformation that was underway in Budapest, and the appearance of new types of homes and infrastructure. It is worth mentioning that while at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise there were scarcely any buildings in Pest of two or more stories, by 1910 half of the houses in Budapest were blocks of flats, supplied with functioning electricity and flowing water. If perhaps rarely, both a factory (in 1895) and the state itself (in 1904 and in 1909) held competitions for designing low-cost furniture to be used in public spaces (for example schools). These attempts, however, did not result in an essential turning point regarding the applied arts because the designers who took part visibly preferred handwork. In most cases the designs remained little more than designs, for no new factories specializing in serial production were founded, which was another great deficiency of the deliberate social policy of the period. Nevertheless, the government cannot be blamed for this, since designers, craftsmen and industrialists alike obtained subventions through various channels, yet they chose not to embark on a collective, great business together. Similarly, the factories that were already in use only slightly changed their profiles.

The exhibition organized by the Museum of Applied Arts attempted to depict an era marked by the problems of industry and the problems of the applied arts and their relationship to society. This is not an easy task. Following the grand exhibition on European Art Nouveau organized in 1996, this exhibition provides a more profound examination of the artistic and technical developments peculiar to the Hungarian furniture industry.

The question of style, for example, was very characteristic of the period, and it became a question pertaining to the arts precisely because in Hungary the industrial revolution had not yet left its mark, while by that time in many of the other countries of Europe culture as a whole had already undergone substantial change. I interpret this change as a process that began when the surroundings in which people lived and the objects they used to decorate their homes were inseparable parts of their lives and lead to a phase in which suddenly not people but technology determined where people lived. Hungary was not the only country where the culture of craftsmen lived on. In the 19th century William Morris set ethics and the demand for quality against machinery: “He did not even attempt to make people believe that he keeps up with the requirements of his age, since he regarded these requirements as entirely unwarranted.” In 1909 architect Adolf Loos, who was a citizen of Vienna, claimed that peasants had a certain kind of a culture, but wherever the bacteria of technology spread, this culture would vanish. In Great-Britain, Vienna and Germany, however, workshops were founded where designers and technicians worked together, thus continuing a dying tradition, and in Scandinavia the craftsmen themselves (including the designers) formed an alliance with one another. Following the wake of his predecessors, Lajos Kozma founded his Budapest Workshop in 1913, and although there are no remaining records whatsoever concerning the aims of the Hungarian workshop, the institution probably also preferred the idea of the creative human being to that of humans who had been transformed into consumers by technical civilization.

So much so that in 1966 Wilhelm Braun-Feldweg, who was dealing with the history of industrial design, still thought that the future of Europe would be determined by the endurance of the trade in manufactured handicrafts. However, he did not take into consideration the effects of globalization.

As was the case in other (Central) European countries, in Hungary the culture of the handicraftsman was idealized through the similar idealization of the peasantry and the culture of the Middle Ages. This became a stylistic tendency, the so-called national, folk-ish, or Magyar-ish style(s). The term vernacularism, now in relatively widespread use in the international secondary literature, is a partly acceptable substitute for these terms, though not entirely. Peasant culture was fond, after all, of plentiful (primarily floral) ornamentation, which contributed to the positive reassessment of folk culture in Secession, leading representatives of which were sensitive to ornamentation. However, the style that built on the decorative art of the peasantry, in which ornaments may constitute the form of the whole work of art (as in the case of the banisters in the vestibule of the Museum of Applied Arts) or may even become the determining elements of a space, is so closely connected to one person, Ödön Lechner, that despite its strong influence it cannot be called vernacular. In this style, ornament became a concept of art according to which the function of a work of art is to fill the otherwise practical objects with life and thus confer life on them. This binds the buildings and pieces of furniture of the Lechner circle the a philosophy of organicism and biologism that overwrites styles.

Conversely, designers who valued the traditions of furniture design discovered homely and at times easily reproducible forms of furniture in the tradition of the peasantry. Béla Lajta, Ede Toroczkai Wigand, and other young architects, inspired by the contemporary European art of furniture they had come to know through the British furniture that was purchased and put on exhibition by the Museum of Applied Arts or in Vienna, as well as the work of the German centres of applied arts, set off in search of these folk motifs. Their point of departure was the Arts and Crafts movement, which spread the spirit of the British workshops, as the brass-plated, functionalist wardrobes designed by Pál Horti and Ede Toroczkai Wigand in the exhibition demonstrate. Often the discovery of various local traditions gave an impetus to the development of their vernacularism. These designers, such as Lajta or Károly Kós, occasionally fashioned their furniture together with the edifice itself. At other times the pieces of furniture, such as the objects designed by Dénes Györgyi, which may well have regenerated the gurál type of furniture, served as furnishings of buildings with specific functions (for example in the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture, which resembles the Buda Castle). These designer-architects could have become the foundation of a new industry and an approach to design that always keeps the demands of the masses in mind.

Thus the Hungarian Secession art of furniture is manifold in style, in particular if one considers that most of the various European variants in style (such as Art Nouveau itself) also have prominent Hungarian representatives. The parallel existence of various forms suggests that at the turn of the century there were various and at times divergent artistic tastes and social demands. At the same time, one must keep in mind that, parallel with the Thonet-chairs and the Lingel-furniture, the notion of applied arts as the domain of artist and craftsmen continued to hold sway over scientific or technological working practices (i.e. design).

Hungarians can be rightly proud of the special forms of the objects, the clever furniture structures, the elegance of Secession as it turned into Art Deco, and the fine quality of execution that characterizes the works of art which, either permanently, since the 1996 exhibition, or temporarily, in the current exhibition, have been on display in the Museum of Applied Arts. One can only hope that there will come a time when the financial situation of the museum will allow the purchase of Hungarian works of art that have made an appearance on the European market, such as the reception room wardrobe presented by Toroczkai in 1907, which is for sale at the moment in England. We also look forward to a time when pieces of furniture piled up in deserted buildings in the Székely Lands, a region of Transylvania inhabited almost entirely by Hungarian speakers, will become parts of collections.

One can only nurture such hopes, both for the Museum and for museum goers. Finally, a debt of thanks is due to Zsolt Somogyi, who was not only the curator of the thought-provoking exhibition, but also the author of the accompanying book, a work of admirable thoroughness that merits an article of its own.

(Reflections on a late 2009 exhibition at the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts. Hungarian original published in Magyar Szemle, December 2009.)

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