Altmann & Kühne

by Alice Rawsthorn

One of the dreams shared by the architects, artists, and craftsmen who belonged to the Wiener Werkstätte craft workshops in early 20th-century Vienna was to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates loosely from German as a “complete work of art,” or one that includes lots of different art forms. From time to time, they succeeded, and among my favorites is the Altmann & Kühne chocolate store that opened on the Graben in the heart of Vienna during the early 1930s.

It was designed by Josef Hoffmann, one of the most influential Austrian architects of the time, who had co-founded the Werkstätte in 1903 with the sculptor Koloman Moser. A draconian character, Hoffmann only ever dressed in black, gray, or white, adhered to the same strict daily schedule, and was so persnickety about other people that he would disappear into a private room (specially reserved for the purpose) whenever anyone he disliked threatened to enter his office. Predictably, he frequented a few carefully chosen restaurants and coffee houses, once fleeing from a regular haunt, never to return, after spotting an artificial palm tree there. 

Equally fastidious in his choice of clients, Hoffmann had worked for Emile Altmann and Ernst Kühne before, having designed their first store in 1928. Their chocolates, which were made by hand to their own recipes, became so sought after in Vienna that they decided to open a second store on the Graben, and commissioned Hoffmann to design the façade and interior, including all of its contents, even the bags and boxes.

The result is typical of Hoffmann’s work in that period, being inspired both by the geometric simplicity of the architecture of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and other modern movement pioneers and by the ornate aesthetic of Vienna’s craft heritage. The exterior owed more to modernism, being divided between a wide window and a white screen bearing the owners’ names, but inside Hoffmann indulged the love of fantasy and folklore for which he was regularly lambasted by more ascetic contemporaries, notably his arch rival, Adolf Loos.

How Loos must have hated Altmann & Kühne. Hoffman conceived it as a fairy-tale candy store with exquisitely made chocolates perching neatly on paper doilies amid the gleaming wood, brass, and glass of the cabinets and shelves crafted at the Wiener Werkstätte. The packaging hailed from there too: dozens of boxes in different shapes and sizes, emblazoned with vividly colored castles, flowers, waltzing couples, toy soldiers, dogs, horses, candy stalls (no prizes for guessing whose), and fairground rides that could have come from the pages of beautifully illustrated children’s books.

The same images were printed in muted gold on the creamy white paper bags in which the chocolates were wrapped, and blown up as cameos on the walls. A Viennese chocolate lover walking into Altmann & Kühne in the 1930s would have been taken back to the city’s imperial glory as the capital of a global superpower before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. 

Sadly, the Wiener Werkstätte closed in 1932 following years of financial struggle, but the picturesque chocolate store, so lovingly crafted by its artisans, flourished. When Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, Mr. Altmann and Mr. Kühne, both Jewish, fled to the United States. They entrusted the Graben store to loyal employees, who continued to run it as their absent bosses had done, just as their successors do today. 

No matter how busy I am on visits to Vienna, I always find time to check in on Hoffmann’s Gesamtkunstwerk at Altmann & Kühne. The façade is a little faded, but the wood, brass, and glass is polished meticulously, and the boxes and bags look as playful as they must have done when the originals were rolling off the Wiener Werkstätte’s printing presses. The chocolates taste as delicious as ever, and there is not a palm tree to be seen, artificial or otherwise.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based design writer. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.