Unlike most design heroes, Carl Auböck is not one person, but four people – each with the same name, together spanning a history that begins in pre-war Vienna and continues to the present day.
The first Auböck – often referred to as Karl I, his name spelt with a K in contrast to his descendants – was a bronzesmith who opened his workshop in 1912. He made collectable animal statues that tapped into the era’s craze for ‘Vienna Bronzes’.
The elegant townhouse his firm occupied is the same one where his great grandson, Carl IV, runs the family business and archive today.
For our purposes, however, the spotlight is on Carl Auböck II (1900-1957) and his son, Carl III (1924-1993), pictured above.
The former joined his father’s firm in 1919, while also studying drawing at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Here, he met Swiss painter Johannes Itten, following him to the Bauhaus soon after, when Itten was appointed art master at the famous design school. This modernist influence signalled a new direction at Werkstätte (Workshop) Carl Auböck, which gathered pace after Karl I’s death in 1925.
Carl II introduced materials like brass, cane, leather and wood to the Auböck catalogue and transformed its signature objets d’art into useful, contemporary household accessories.
He also turned his hand to furniture, making ‘Tree Tables’ out of rough wood offcuts rescued from an industrial yard, with old iron pipes for legs. His work was design’s answer to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ sculptures – humble objects, such as bookends, paperweights, magazine racks, wine stoppers and watering cans, imbued with wit and elevated to the status of art.
Auböck’s patinated brass pieces take playful forms – eggs, giant paperclips, waving hands and outstretched feet – yet they still have a workmanlike functionality. And, as Carl IV once told an interviewer: ‘All these objects could be held in one’s hand... They served a table culture and lifestyle that was communicative. They are conversation pieces.’
Carl III began working with his father in the early 1950s, having trained as an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he encountered a young Charles Eames and George Nelson. Back in Vienna, he steered the company towards a more industrial style – his ball-shaped clocks were influenced by Nelson’s timepieces for Vitra – and developed its global standing by collaborating with brands like Hermès, Christofle and Tiffany & Co. Father and son were always swapping ideas, and together produced over 4,500 objects.
Today, Auböck designs have a cult following. Fans include Paul Smith and Nina Hertig of London gallery Sigmar, which sells Carl III’s bookends and S-shaped brass hooks that clasp easily onto a rail so can be moved as needed. Each one is still cast from the original moulds by Carl IV and his son Carl V, another architect who’s taking his place in the family dynasty. werkstaette-carlauboeck.at matchesfashion.com sigmarlondon.com
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration December 2020
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