Ursula Prokop and Shmuel Groag — Book Presentation Remarks
Jacques and Jacqueline Groag, Architect and Designer
Book Presentation by Ursula Prokop at The Isokon Gallery on Lawn Road, Hampstead, London, November 21, 2019
Following remarks by Shmuel Groag
Like Jacques Groag, my family and I have our roots in Olomouc, and contact between the two families goes back to the interwar period. Therefore, it is no coincidence that I – an architecture historian living in Vienna – dealt with Groag. I began researching him as early as the mid-nineties, empowered after viewing a small exhibition at London’s Heinz Galerie titled “A different world – émigré architects in Britain” in 1995. Any further inquiry turned out to be extraordinarily onerous and complicated due to Groag’s biography – after all, he was a Jew from Moravia, assimilated to German-language culture, who was active in Vienna, escaping to Britain to spend the later chapters of his life there.
Financed through a small stipend, I had the opportunity to seek out British archives in places such as London and Brighton – as well as the Olomouc municipal archive in the Czech Republic – multiple times in parallel to my research back in Vienna. For this, I owe special gratitude to Margaret Timmers of the V&A’s archive, and Pavel Zatloukal of the Muzeum Olomouc. Along with my correspondence spanning many years with Jan Groag, a nephew of Jacques who lived in New York, I embarked on a trip to Israel. There, I got to meet surviving members of his family, namely Willi Groag – another nephew –, who aided my project greatly and at last, Shmuel Groag.
Thus, I was able to publish the German version of my work on Groag and his wife Jacqueline in 2005. Seven years later on the occasion of a 2012 exhibition on the Vienna Werkbundsiedlung, at the Wien Museum, I got to know descendants of the family of Stefan Schanzer, who was the owner of a house in the Werkbundsiedlung designed by Groag. This, in turn, led Schanzer’s granddaughter, the publisher Carrie Paterson, to advocate for an English version. After years of collaboration, the book, this child of ours, is finally seeing the light of day now. But enough about the history of the book; I now want to introduce you to the artists themselves, Jacques and Jacqueline Groag …
The architect Jacques Groag has all but disappeared from our collective field of vision because of his expulsion during the Nazi period, even though he was intimately involved in the construction of several icons of Austria’s architectural heritage. Born in Olomouc, he was part of a Jewish family that had assimilated early on and whose members, owing to their wealth, were counted among the dignitaries of the city’s community. These bourgeois surroundings shaped Jacques Groag, who moved to Vienna after concluding his secondary education in 1910 and started to read structural engineering at the university, then called the Technische Hochschule.
In all probability through his friend and fellow son of Olomouc, the architect Paul Engelmann, who was an ardent admirer of Adolf Loos and in contact with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Groag became acquainted with this circle of artists and intellectuals. Another role was played by his brother-in-law, Heinrich Jalowetz, who was an assistant to Arnold Schönberg and introduced Groag to the current vanguard circles.
Groag then went on to attend Adolf Loos’s architecture school. Due to the intervening First World War, he only finished his degree in 1919, afterwards working for numerous building firms along to complement his activity as a painter and illustrator. In the mid-twenties, he made the leap into self-employment and opened an architecture firm in Döbling, Vienna’s 19th district. At the same time, he took on his first engagement: construction supervision at the so-called Haus Wittgenstein. Originally, his friend Paul Engelmann had been charged with the project by Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but he left more and more of the drafting to L. Wittgenstein himself. However – because a competent civil engineer was needed who could carry out the blueprints and exact calculation, Groag was contacted. There is quite a bit of evidence, too, for the speculation that the widely circulated colored sketch is done in Groag’s hand as well.
While the Wittgenstein house was still a work in progress, Groag was also drawn in as the site agent of Adolf Loos for the Villa Moller in Währing, Vienna’s 18th district. Since Loos lived in Paris at the time and only sent the direly needed plans hesitantly, or even failed to do so completely in spite of intense pleas, Groag himself got involved in the planning. This is particularly evident in the design of the front facing the garden, which is formally reminiscent of Groag’s later works.
The first project done completely on his own terms, a detached house for his brother Emo Groag was finally made reality in Olomouc in 1927/28. The three-story building had the outside appearance of a compact cube with a flat roof and smooth walls, conforming to the standards of formal purism Loos had stipulated. Similarly, the organization of the individual rooms around an exposed staircase closely leaned on the schema of the Loos layout. The well-actualized functionality and optimal use of space were so well-received in his hometown that, in the aftermath, he was tasked with numerous other projects for one-family dwellings and could, in this way, establish a second economical pillar.
Back in Vienna, Groag had to keep with assignments relating to interior design and refurbishments at first. His friendship with the well-known photographer, Trude Fleischmann, facilitated connections to Vienna’s actor circles. His first prominent celebrity client from this scene was Liane Haid, a film actress very popular at the time, whose old manor in Neuwaldegg was comprehensively adapted and furnished by Groag.
His best-known buyer, all in all, was Paula Wessely, a famous Austrian actress and film star whose Grinzing estate on the steep Himmelstraße street he renovated and refurnished during the mid-thirties. With a deft hand, he managed to connect an old winery and the adjacent historical villa into a single, homogenous complex. The architect also designed the entire interior and arranged the garden.
Concerning his architectonical work in Vienna, when the Werkbundsiedlung was designed by Josef Frank, Groag was among his co-planners from the very beginning. The duplex on Woinovichgasse 5-7 was conceived, in the image of the diversity of forms the Werkbund society strived for, as a three-story house to be erected on a sloping lot. Groag used the location to his advantage, situating the hall and kitchen – whose ceilings were lower – in the higher-up area towards the back, and setting up the high-ceiled living quarters, which can be reached using a few stairs, in the lowest part. On the second floor, three rooms with a bathroom each were situated. The uppermost story was laid out allowing for an eventual upgrade. The interior, too – including lighting and flooring – was designed by Groag in its entirety. Groag’s duplex was lauded by the press as being the most accomplished among the Werkbundsiedlung’s buildings.
During this time, Groag also got to know the fabric designer Hilde Blumberger, who had studied with Josef Hoffmann in art school and rubbed shoulders with the same circles. Extraordinarily gifted, she got ahead quickly and worked for international fashion houses like Schiaparelli, among others. What is more, the put-together woman was a popular model, both for the photographer Trude Fleischmann and painters Josef Dobrowsky and Sergius Pauser.
In parallel to the designing of several interiors, Groag conceived of a number of detached houses, among them a one-family dwelling built 1933 in Perchtoldsdorf and the Villa Seidler, which was erected in Olmouc in 1935. The climax of this occupation, finally, is constituted by the 1936 building of a manor for Dr. Otto Eisler, which sits in vast independence in a picturesque landscape in the Beskids.
Employing ever-more organic shapes, the architect adapted the house and garden, which he co-planned, to the rolling hills around it, establishing a single unit of nature and architecture. This building was especially well received in the press – as time went by even internationally (Gio Ponti, Domus) – and Groag ascended to the first cohort of leading architects.
Toward the end of the thirties, new assignments came Groag’s way. For a chemistry plant, Groag built a workers’ housing complex in a suburb of the Silesian town Ostrava. The planning of any further industrial projects, it seems, was stalled because of the rapid acceleration of political events.
Following Austria’s so-called Anschluss – its adoption into the German empire – Groag and his wife left Austria in March of 1938, fleeing to Prague at first, where the architect even opened another office for a short span of time. This was possible because Groag, like Loos, had taken on a Czech citizenship after World War One. After the remainder of Czechoslovakia was occupied, the couple was forced to flee once again during the fall of 1939, reaching England in rather adventurous circumstances by way of France and the Netherlands.
Exiled in Britain, Groag had sizable difficulties relating to his lack of language skills and the general wartime deflation in construction activity, to the point of only being able to work as an interior and furniture designer. Collaborating with his wife, he succeeded in fitting up several large English post-war exhibitions. At last the couple was well established and moved to Clifton Hill, were they refurbished an old Georgian house in a modern home.
But while Jacques had no orders as an architect – he only worked as a designer – Jacqueline Groag (a pseudonym she had only adopted as an émigré), in contrast, excelled in building up her career. Coming from a European modernist background, she breathed some fresh air into the British scene, becoming one of the leading fabric designers of the post-war years in Great Britain. Even Princess Elizabeth wore dresses featuring her patterns.
As a furniture designer, Groag was particularly active for the Utility Furniture program, a project launched by the British government to serially produce good-value furniture for the English market in the face of huge demands due to bomb damage caused by the “Blitz.” As a side gig, he taught at the Hammersmith School for Arts and Crafts. Increasing levels of depression over his later years led him to take up painting once again. Completely unexpectedly, Jacques Groag died of a heart attack in January of 1962, sitting on a bus to the London opera.
Jacqueline, for her part, continued to be very successful in her work for British and international firms. She designed textiles for airlines, railway companies and other forms of transportation like the Sealink Ferry.
Already a very old woman, she was given the bestowed the title of RDI (Royal Designer to Industry) in 1984. Two years later, she succumbed to cancer.
I would like to add some personal remarks to Ursula’s great presentation.
The complaint I have nowadays in respect to my parents, especially as a teacher for architecture and conservation, regards the fact that I had to wait for this special book of Ursula and the English translation that Carrie produced to learn about Jacques and Hilde. In my family, the European past was generally hidden and denied until the last years, as part of the Zionist indoctrination that my parents willingly obeyed.
Neither my father nor my great-grandparents did tell me in detail about Jacques’ career, even though I decided already when I was nine to become an architect. In general, my father did not talk a lot and his deletion of the prewar cultural life in Czechoslovakia and Vienna was part of his silence.
The only person that overcame this process was my kibuznik uncle Willi, who wrote pieces of information on the back of each picture or magazine.
On the back of the picture of his mother’s bedroom that Jacques painted in 1918, I found a photocopy of a lost picture of a family dinner at Vila Nixe at the Klepaansee that my grandfather Emo bought during the German inflation. Here as my second cousin Marc Aronson described so nicely in the afterword in the book, you see the Groags and the Jalowetzs gathered. The Villa was sold to cover the expansion of the villa in Olomütz.
I was excited as an architect to find out about the last projects Jacques did in Czechoslovakia, especially the flying gas station in Brno and the Eisler country house — I agree with Ursula’s analysis that here Jacques was freed from the hardness and toughness of Loos and found his own voice which is much more colorful and has to do in my view with his passion for painting.
As a student of architecture I visited London in 1975 and managed to visit Hilde in the house at St Johns Wood. I remember her dressed totally in white, and what impressed me in the whitened interior of the house were the Breuer and the Le Corbusier chairs she had in the living rooms.
I did ask to see photo albums of Jacques’ projects but I can not recall if I saw any of his last projects.
Jacques as a painter
I want to finalize my short talk with a theory regarding Jacques as a painter. The family saying was, among other things, that he wanted to be a painter and chose architecture as his second alternative, maybe as Ursula points out, because of my grandfather, who pushed him to be realistic.
I remember Jacques vaguely as a very elegant man in his visit to Israel in the late 50s (I was about 7 years old then), but during all my childhood I was surrounded by his pictures, especially of the one called The Tree of Life, a Bruegel style history of a man from cradle to death that unfortunately now has gotten so dark that I could not even photograph it.
The great portraits he did for his father and his sister Johana that I own today with some great watercolors and the Hampstead Heath park are very important to me. Seeing all the pictures the portraits and the self-portraits reveals Jacques’ passion for painting, and I really do not know if painting was his therapy against the less fortunate architectural career in London or his real passion. I do not see so much depression in the paintings, but rather a lot of talent and humor.
Culture as a center of life
One of the main things I learned about this generation of Jacques and Jacqueline’s and of my great-grandparents is that culture was the center of their life. For me, especially living in Israel — which is a down-to-earth place— this seemed before bizarre and even decadent. As I learn more and more to appreciate this way of living, I regret its disappearance, especially when you see the low level of architecture that is produced nowadays.
The first time this idea of culture as a major life factor came to mind was in a lecture about Theresienstadt, the ghetto, to where all the Czech Jews, including my grandparents and other prominent Jews were deported.
The way the day-to-day life was described by its survivors, presented culture as an option that helped them to ignore the suffering and the hunger in Theresienstadt and to continue a major element of their lives from the pre-Nazi period that was so essential to this Jewish community. It is strange to say, but my grandfather Emo was so happy he could leave the troubles of running the family malt factory and to be able to focus on acting and caricature painting. This idea of culture as the major life factor was guiding Jacques and Jacqueline as well in the prewar period and also in their British period, and for me, this book helped me more deeply understand this lost way of life.