Walter Sobotka (1888-1972)
This collection contains architectural records, student work, correspondence and professional writings related to the academic and architectural practice of Austrian–American architect and designer Walter Sobotka. The documents date between 1897 and 1971, with the bulk being created between 1922 and 1954. Although the exact donor of the collection is unknown, it was likely a gift from Sobotka himself to Avery Library in 1971.
The largest group of materials relates to his architectural practice and contains drawings, files, and a scrapbook of photographs and articles pertaining to his work in Europe and America. The majority of his projects consist of residential buildings and interiors in Austria along with furniture designs. However, there is also a selection of theater interiors that Sobotka designed for RKO across the United States. There is also a small grouping of Sobotka’s lectures and writings, correspondence, and material relating to two of his unpublished writings, including copies of the manuscripts, correspondence with publishers, and research materials. A bound version of Sobotka's Principles of Design is catalogued separately and contains an appendix in which Sobotka translated into English excerpts of his correspondence with the Viennese architect Josef Frank. Lastly, the collection includes some artwork, student drawings, and a very few personal letters.
Walter S. Sobotka was born on July 1, 1888, in Vienna and attended the Franz-Josef-Gymnasium there, graduating in 1907. He then enrolled at the Technische Hochschule Wien and completed his degree in 1912 with the title of Engineer-Architect. Sobotka served as an officer in the Austrian army during World War I and after the war, from 1919 to 1923, he worked for the Viennese firm of Karl Korn while also producing furniture and grave monuments for his family in Vienna and Czechoslovakia.
After leaving Korn’s firm, Sobotka began receiving commissions for larger and more prominent residential projects, eventually designing the interiors for architect Peter Behrens’s house at the Weissenhof Siedlung, built for the German Werkbund in Stuttgart in 1927. He also designed two large housing projects for the city of Vienna and two houses for the 1932 Österreichischer Werkbund Siedlung. Sobotka was closely involved with the Austrian Werkbund and served as vice-chairman of the board of directors for two years. Exhibitions, mostly of furniture, constituted another important part of Sobotka’s practice, and in 1937 he designed the Austrian Pavilion for the World Exposition in Paris.
When the political situation in Austria became too tenuous for those of Jewish descent, Sobotka emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1938. In 1941, he began to teach at the University of Pittsburgh in the Research Bureau for Retail Training, becoming an Assistant Professor of Textiles and Applied Arts five years later. He also taught architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1941 to 1948, the last two years as Assistant Professor for Interior Decoration.
Sobotka’s professional practice in the United States focused mostly upon residential interiors and furniture design, for Thonet Brothers (1938-1939) and Russel Wright among others. He also designed numerous theater interiors for RKO. His architecture can be classified as modernist but he never fully embraced functionalism and his interiors reveal the decorative and ornamental influences of his training in early twentieth century Vienna. Sobotka maintained lifelong friendships with other Viennese architects, most notably Josef Frank. Two unpublished manuscripts in the collection are important for understanding Sobotka’s approach to design: The Prefabricated House and his theoretical treatise, Principles of Design, in which he broke the complex process of design into its various components including color and proportion. Sobotka retired from the University of Pittsburgh in 1958, receiving the title of Professor Emeritus of Textiles and Applied Arts (Retailing). He died at his home in New York City on May 8th, 1972.