Few architects today design everything from the building to the doorknobs to the silverware to the dining table. But some of the most important designers in history, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Arne Jacobsen, wanted their buildings to provide unified aesthetic experiences. This practice is known as Gesamtkunstwerk, the German word for "total work of art," meaning something where every aspect was created by one designer as part of a whole.
The term Gesamtkunstwerk (pronounced Geh-ZAHMPT-kunst-verk) was first popularized in 1849 by the composer Richard Wagner, who was describing a new kind of opera that synthesized music, drama and art to produce a unified 'artwork of the future.' In design, the concept was not a totally new one: many Renaissance artists like Michelangelo designed everything from buildings to tableware. But it made a comeback starting in the late-19th century, as some designers looked back to the collaborative workshop model of the Middle Ages, when artists and craftsmen worked side by side to produce cathedrals. Other designers were interested in Gesamtkunstwerk because it allowed them, like Wagner, to create a totally new, modern kind of artistic experience.
Here are 5 famous examples of Gesamtkunstwerk:
Victor Horta's Hotel Tassel, in Brussels (1893-4), was one of the first examples of Art Nouveau. Horta was interested in evoking the vital force of nature. Here, whiplash curves resembling vines literally overtake the house, and iron support columns are cast in the form of a stem or root that is bursting alive at the top. Horta designed every element of the interior, including the window frames and stained glass, the metal radiator covers and the floral light fixtures, floor tiles and stair rails.
The Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh collaborated with his wife Margaret McDonald on designing several interiors in their entirety, including their own home (1906). Each room presented a different, unified color scheme, with furniture, light fixtures and wall paintings conceived by the couple.
Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann built the Palais Stoclet between 1905-11, and he designed every aspect of the private home. His color scheme was incredibly modern — neutral and airy — matching the pale pink kid leather of the chairs to the pinkish veined marble cladding the walls. A black-and-white square motif in the floor parquet echoed the trim on the chairs. And so on. This Gesamtkunstwerk may have been an expression of Hoffmann's notoriously controlling nature; he wanted to dictate every aspect of the interior, even instructing the homeowners on what color fresh flowers they could buy. His rival architect Adolf Loos once sneered that he wouldn't even let his clients pick out their own bedroom slippers lest they not fit into his aesthetic scheme.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (1910) is just one example of the American architect's mastery of Gesamtkunstwerk. Wright took the concept even further than some of his peers by joining different interior elements into single pieces. You can see this in the Robie House's dining room, where the light fixtures were actually a part of the dining table. Wright also placed the sconces within the ceiling strapwork. Wright, like Hoffmann, was known as a controlling designer, perhaps one of the pitfalls of implementing this kind of singular vision.
In 1956, the Danish airline SAS commissioned Arne Jacobsen to build their Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Jacobsen not only designed the architecture of the building, but also the interiors, from the furniture to the flatware and the door hardware. It was for this project that he created the famous Egg and Swan sofas and chairs.
To be sure, the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk could seem like a fantasy of control for a caricatured egomaniacal architect-designer. But it also made the interior a kind of magnum opus that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Today, most of us like to be the ones who possess the singular vision for our own homes. And you can buy Jacobsen's SAS Royal flatware or Mackintosh's dining chair out of their original contexts. But one legacy of Gesamtkunstwerk was that the interior could be seen as an important aesthetic statement. Ultimately, in making each element of the interior a crucial part of the whole, Gesamtkunstwerk elevated all the aspects of domestic life to the status of art.
Images: 1 & 5 Arne Jacobsen's SAS Royal Hotel, Copenhagen, 1956, via Ultraswank; 2 Victor Horta's Hotel Tassel, Brussels, 1893-4, via Pixdaus; 3 Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald's dining room, 1906, reconstructed at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow University, via Victorian Web; 4 Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Chicago, 1910, digital reconstruction via the amazing GoWright.com.