Loos Vs. Hoffmann And The Battle For The Soul Of Modernism

A new exhibit examines the dichotomous work of rivals Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, leaders of Vienna’s turn-of-the-century design scene.

Modernist pioneers Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos are very similar on paper. Born only a few days apart in 1870, only a few miles apart in what was then Moravia (the Czech Republic now), the two architects were crucial members of the Vienna design scene around 1900, and significant forefathers of the modern movement.


However, the rivals took very different approaches to modernism, as a new exhibit at Austria’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna explores. Ways to Modernism: Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and Their Impact compares the two turn-of-the-century design legends. Hoffmann and his artistic peers in the Vienna Secession strove for an aesthetic approach to modern design, while Loos considered modernism a way of thinking about and approaching design. Both designers had a major impact on the design world, but as the exhibit’s cocurator, Christian Witt Dörring, points out, Loos’s vision ultimately won out and continues to influence the industry today.

Adolf Loos table lamp from the Turnowsky residence, ca. 1900 © MAK/Georg Mayer

“It’s a very revolutionary step Hoffmann takes, because he uses very simple geometric forms and shapes, but it’s about formal aspects and not an attitude, how to live,” Witt Dörring says. “The path that Loos designed really leads to international modernism, attitude-wise.” The designer and critic was famous for lectures like his 1908 diatribe Ornament and Crime. Loos would go on to influence modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Mies van der Rohe’s approach to space parallels that of Loos, experts say.

Josef Hoffmann espresso service, 1904 © MAK/Georg Mayer

Nothing showcases the designers’ dichotomous approaches to their trade better than two bedrooms on display in the exhibit. One, which Loos designed for his wife, is an all-white, ethereal mash-up of gauzy curtains and thick carpeting that create a kind of angelic dreamscape, sans most furniture except a bed. The other, Hoffmann’s design for the Salzer apartment, is a crisp, regimented design filled with neat squared furniture and tile.

Per the MAK’s description of the exhibit:

Hoffmann interpreted architecture and design as artistic projects, while Loos saw art as an autonomous area far removed from the manufacturing of everyday buildings and household items. Hoffmann sought to produce modern art, while Loos aimed to create modern culture.

“The white one [by Loos], where you don’t see any real details, it’s just about space. The Hoffmann room has this brown furniture, very square and geometric,” Dörring says. “In the Hoffmann bedroom, everything talks to you, while in the Loos room, you’re left alone.” These days, you can see his influence in minimalism and the notion that good design should be invisible. Rather than about decoration, modern design became more about absence: design as a backdrop for life, rather than a centerpiece.


Ways to Modernism runs until April 19 at the MAK in Vienna.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.