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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)