ART MARKET / The modern age of old Vienna: Furniture that still looks up to date was made in Vienna in 1900. Choice pieces, thought to have been lost, are now up for auction, reports Geraldine Norman

MODERNISM was born in Vienna at the turn of the century. On Friday Sotheby's are selling a private collection of furniture and accessories illustrating the idealistic infancy of the movement whose angular geometric lines and flat painted surfaces have dominated the best and worst designs of the 20th century, from showpiece office buildings to high-rise slums and institutional furnishings. The 'Vienna 1900' sale, of a single collection formed over the last 15 years by a 'private, low profile European', contains the best pieces to be seen on the auction market since the 1980s.

Vienna, the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a hotbed of innovation in the years around the turn of the century. Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt were all at work, as were the architects and designers who clubbed together in 1903 to found the famous Viennese craft workshop known as the Wiener Werkstatte.

While the rejection of Victorian clutter in favour of the clear, clean lines associated with modernism was an international trend, the Wiener Werkstatte represents the first full flowering of the style.

The architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918) is regarded as the father figure of the movement. He began his career designing buildings in the conventional revivalist styles of the period, but had a blinding conversion. His building for Vienna's central post office is often hailed as a key forerunner of modernist design. Sotheby's sold one of the desks he designed for the post office in September 1993 for pounds 40,700 - a wild price; they have another in next week's sale estimated at pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000. It is made from stained and polished beechwood with aluminium trimmings and dates from 1904.

The sensation of the sale, from a scholarly point of view, is the furniture that Wagner designed two years earlier for the offices of Die Zeit newspaper. This was the first fully fledged explosion of functional modernist design and, until this sale, was not thought to be still in existence. The sale includes bentwood chairs (pounds 20,000-pounds 30,000 the pair) and stools (pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000 a pair), the arms strengthened with aluminium strips and the feet with aluminium sabots. There is a table with a functional oak top and nickel-plated tubular metal legs (pounds 30,000-pounds 40,000). There is a wooden reception desk (pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000) - which looks like hundreds of other reception desks in rather old-fashioned offices all over the world but is, of course, the prototype.

The Wiener Werkstatte proper was founded by one of Wagner's pupils, Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), and the designer Koloman Moser (1868-1918), who taught at the Vienna craft college (Kunstgewerbeschule). They were bankrolled by Fritz Waerndorfer (1867-1939), a wealthy connoisseur who travelled widely for his family's textile business. The first workshop in place was for metalworking and was followed by cabinet making, book binding and other crafts. It was organised on socialist principles, with designers and craftsmen working as equals.

In their 1905 'working programme' Hoffmann and Moser said the aim of the workshop was 'to give comfort to all those who accept the message of Ruskin and Morris . . . We wish to establish intimate contact between public, designer and craftsman and to produce good, simple domestic requisites. We start from the purpose in hand, usefulness is our first requirement, and our strength has to lie in good proportions and materials well handled.'

They were in close touch with Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, who had exhibited with the avant-garde Vienna Secession group in 1900 and designed a music room for Waerendorfer. 'I have the greatest possible sympathy for your latest idea and regard it as simply brilliant,' he wrote to Waerendorfer, urging him on to tackle 'the greatest task which can be accomplished in this century: namely the production of all objects of daily use in such a marvellous form and at such a price that they lie within the reach of the poorest, and in such quantities that the ordinary man in the street is forced to buy them, because he cannot get anything else, and because he will soon not wish to buy anything else'.

In Vienna as in Britain, these ideals came to nothing. The man in the street preferred conventional styles and the workshop was supported by a few big commissions, mostly from the rich but enlightened Jewish bourgeoisie. The star turn of next week's sale is the bedroom suite Koloman Moser designed for a Dr Holzl - the Victoria and Albert Museum has a writing desk and chair from the same source. The suite comprises a wardrobe, bed, bedside tables, dressing table, carpet and cabinets; they are exquisitely veneered with geometric marquetry in exotic woods, heightened with metal and mother-of-pearl inlay.

Sotheby's have, understandably, singled out the wardrobe as the most desirable piece; it is estimated at pounds 200,000-pounds 250,000 while valuations on the other pieces range from pounds 6,000 to pounds 25,000.

Besides geometric marquetry, the wardrobe doors are inlaid with two sinuous fin de siecle ladies, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, with ivory bobbles in their yew wood hair.

Philippe Garner, Sotheby's expert, points out the parallels with a Moser desk sold in Monaco in 1982 for Fr1.5m (pounds 150,000) and a cabinet sold in 1984 for Fr2.1m, both also inlaid with sinuous ladies, a motif which Moser copied from Mackintosh. 'We haven't had anything of that quality since the early 1980s,' Garner says.

Another of the Werkstatte's most famous commissions was the Purkersdorf Sanatorium; the building was designed by Hoffmann and the interiors by Hoffmann and Moser around 1901-1904. The black-and-white slatted chairs that Moser designed for the entrance hall hit a financial high last year when a Japanese collector carried off a repainted example at pounds 83,600.

Another, with its original paint, is on sale next week at an estimated pounds 50,000- pounds 70,000. There are also two of the bentwood chairs that Hoffmann designed for the dining room, estimated at pounds 7,000 to pounds 10,000 each.

The 80-lot sale contains a supporting cast of lesser furniture, mostly identified as designed for specific houses or clients, and a few cheaper oddities - two black leather purses stamped with gold, designed by Hoffmann and estimated at pounds 400 to pounds 600, for instance. A Hoffmann table lamp, circa 1905, with its original red silk shade, can be had for pounds 5,000 to pounds 7,000.

It's possible that Sotheby's will have some difficulty shifting the lesser items. The Vienna 1900 look became very fashionable in the 1980s but seems to have lost its popularity in the 1990s. The prize pieces remain sought after, however, and there should be strong competition for them.- (Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?