People, Places, Object History

Beyond Mere Function:
The Carl Auböck Workshop

Nestled in a neighborhood of doctor’s offices, private homes, and shops, the townhouse at Bernardgasse 23, in Vienna’s 7th district, is bustling with decidedly industrial pursuits—machining, metalwork, assembly, finishing—all dedicated to the craft of strangely alluring domestic objects. It has been this way for more than a century and always under the leadership of a designer named Carl Auböck.

The workshop and its staff of white-coated craftsmen have been passed down through four generations, and a fifth Carl, born in 1987 and now completing his architecture studies, waits in the wings. The legacy began in 1912 with Karl Heinrich Auböck, a bronzesmith who saw an entrepreneurial opportunity in the “Vienna Bronzes” movement of the time. His son, Carl Auböck II, returned from studies at the Bauhaus to take the metal workshop from bronze animal statues to abstracted, functional art objects such as paperweights, bottle stoppers, and ashtrays. The workshop was passed from father to son in 1926.

“The very early pieces, made just after Carl Auböck II came home from his Bauhaus experience in Weimar speak a language of reduction and ‘poor’ materials,” says his grandson, Carl Auböck IV, who now oversees the workshop with his sister and fellow architect, Maria. “But the use of these materials and the formal quality speak for themselves.”

“There was always this ambition in the family to create something new and beautiful out of nothing, out of some material that was seemingly substandard. The term objét trouvé doesn’t quite cover it; however, it is the same process of stripping an object of its original destiny and giving it an entirely new purpose.”

Carl Auböck IV
Carl Auböck III and Carl Auböck II (pictured above) worked together intensely for nearly two decades. “Common to both men was certainly their powerful use of form and proportion,” says Carl Aubock IV. “This probably runs in the family—I see it when I look at my sister’s and my son’s work—and is perhaps the outcome of our upbringing, where ‘die gute form’ or ‘good design’ was part of our education and our life ethic.”
A painter and illustrator as well as a designer, Carl Auböck II (1900-1957) attended the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Bauhaus, where he gained a mentor in Walter Gropius. The two kept in touch when Auböck returned to Vienna. “Gropius I think admired what we all do: there is science and art both embodied in Auböck’s work that cannot be reduced further,” says designer and collector Michael Boyd in Carl Auböck: The Workshop (powerHouse Books).

Often they whisper. For all of their bold forms and lustrous finishes, the objects retain a timeless, mysterious quality. The effect stems in part from the reductive approach with which Carl Auböck II began each new design. “He asked ‘What do we really need? When do things lead to a superfluous character?’” explains Auböck IV. “Every line creating space or form was thought thrice.”

“We don’t distinguish between old and new pieces at the workshop, except to say that the old ones are old. Such artifacts develop a soul over time, a certain patina. Our family never intended to produce limited editions of any of our pieces. We were never interested in marketing gimmicks. Indeed, we are convinced that continuing the production of historic models in addition to developing new objects for the collection is right for the world.”

Carl Auböck IV

Carl Auböck II later joined forces with his son, who got an early start at the workshop: he designed the key-shaped corkscrew bottle opener at the age of 14. An architect and designer, Carl Auböck III got to know the likes of Charles Eames and George Nelson during his post-graduate studies at MIT in 1951. For Auböck IV, he set an example of “someone creating living space as well as working as an industrial designer—writing, teaching, and lecturing, seeking contact with the public in different ways.”

The enduring nature of Auböck designs can be attributed to “simplicity and high quality—no fashionable tricks,” says Auböck IV, who is responsible for selecting which of the workshop’s archive of 4,500 objects will be retired or reintroduced. “The relaunching is mostly impulsed by conversation about fitting the collection to new customers’ needs,” he says. “At the moment, we are working on a table clock that will be launched with wallpaper and then become part of the collection. It’s a new piece I wanted to have, and now it’s there.”

“For me, there is only such a thing as one art. When it appeals to, touches, or even irritates me, then I don’t care which of these art categories [the art of craftsmanship or fine art] it falls into. It’s a question of spirituality and the permeation of culture. It goes without saying that, to some degree, we are always aspiring to create something more than just design, to give the spirit a form, so to speak. With good design, one can always distinguish the spirit in that design. It’s just something that goes beyond mere function.”

Carl Auböck IV
Designed in the 1950s by Carl Auböck II, this brass-plated cast iron paperweight was inspired by the anchor chain used in maritime rituals of burial at sea.