Joseph Maria Olbrich – Architect, Designer and Graphic Artist – (1867-1908)

Joseph Maria Olbrich was a leading architect of the Austrian Art Nouveau and one of the founders of the Vienna Secession.

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Born in Opava, in Austrian Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic), Olbrich studied architecture at the Wiener Staatsgewerbeschule and afterwards at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under Otto Wagner.

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Along with Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner and Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich was a founding member of the “Viennese Secession” (1897), a group of dissenting artists who split off in protest against the academy art scene as other late 19th-century secessionist artists had already done in Berlin (1892) and Munich (1893).

Olbrich was involved in designing the Viennese Secession periodical, “Ver Sacrum“. Wanting a building of their own in which to show their work, the Viennese Secessionists asked Joseph Maria Olbrich to plan and design it: his first large-scale commission, “The Secession Building“.

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Secession Building
The Secession Building, 1897, J. M. Olbrich

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What is the artistic style of Olbrich?

Influenced by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918), Olbrich was also associated with Art Nouveau, known in Austria as Sezessionstil or by its German name of Jugendstil, and was involved in the decorative design which it promoted. But he succeeded in overcoming the weaknesses and limitations of Art Nouveau architecture by combining its fantasy appearance with spatial and distributive functionality.

Thus, like Victor Horta (1861-1947) in Belgium, Hector Guimard (1867-1942) in France, and Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in Spain, Olbrich acted as a bridge between 19th century architecture and the advent of full-blooded modernism in the hands of Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and the Bauhaus design school (1919-33).

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What are the major works of Olbrich?

Olbrich designed the building in Vienna to house the exhibitions of the Sezession (1898–99). It has a blocklike simplicity, but floral Art Nouveau decoration was used on the metal cupola.

In 1899 Olbrich was invited to join the artists’ colony at Darmstadt established by Grand Duke Ernest Louis. He designed six of the houses there, as well as a central hall for meetings and studios, which shows the influence of the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

He also designed the Hochzeitsturm (1907; Marriage Tower) at Darmstadt, which had rounded, fingerlike projections on its roof suggestive of Art Nouveau but also had bands of windows denoting a distinctly modern trend.

Mathildenhoehe, Darmstadt, J. M. Olbrich

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Among Olbrich’s last works were a house at Cologne-Marienburg (1908–09) and a department store in Düsseldorf (designed in 1906 and completed after his death).

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