The Seductions of Budapest

Rosalind Pepall

Rosalind Pepall Furniture & Decorative Arts

It is easy to succumb to the beauty of Budapest, Hungary’s capital city, which straddles the legendary Danube River flowing down from Germany out to the Black Sea. High on a hill on the Buda side stands the Buda Castle, erected on the ruins of former royal palaces going back to the thirteenth century. It is answered across the river in Pest by the Hungarian Houses of Parliament, an immense Gothic pile of pinnacles modeled after London’s Palace of Westminster (Fig. 2). Hungary’s Parliament is just one of the grand architectural monuments built during Budapest’s heyday at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries—a period of peace and economic prosperity after centuries of foreign rule. Emerging from domination by the Austrian Habsburg Empire, in 1867 Hungary forged a compromise “dual monarchy” with Austria in which Hungary controlled its internal affairs but shared foreign affairs, the military, and finance with Austria. It also shared Emperor Franz Josef I, who was crowned Hungary’s king the same year.

Figs. 1.  Ödön Lechner (1845-1914) designed the 1896 Iparmüvészeti Muzeum (Museum of Applied Arts) with its bell-shaped dome and roof covered with emerald green and bright yellow tiles from the Zsolnay factory in Pécs. Photographs by Virág Szabó/© Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest (Fig. 1) .

The towns of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest, joined together in 1873 to create the modern Budapest, which became the fastest growing capital city in Europe.1 It was a center of banking for Eastern Europe and a hub of transportation through its large port on the Danube and its network of railroads passing through the large Eastern (Keleti pályaudvar) and Western Railway Stations (Nyugati pályaudvar), the latter built by Gustave Eiffel’s firm in 1874-1877. Budapest’s population exploded, resulting in an unprecedented building boom from the 1880s to World War I. The city’s new architecture was grandiose in scale to reflect the city’s ambitions-the Opera House (Figs. 19-21), the Palace of Justice, Saint Stephen’s Basilica, the New York Life Insurance Company Building, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Bank, and the Gellért Hotel and Thermal Baths. Designed in various revival styles—neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neoclassical—with some in a uniquely Hungarian art nouveau or modern Secessionist style, these monumental buildings marking the high point in the city’s history are one of the reasons I am continually drawn to Budapest.

Fig. 2. The Hungarian Houses of Parliament, on the Pest side of the Danube River, was designed by Imre Steindl (1839-1902) and begun in 1885. An immense Gothic pile, it was loosely modeled after London’s Palace of Westminster. © Hungarian National Tourist Office.

Indeed, a visit to the city still takes you back to the turn of the previous century, when cafés were centers of political, literary, and social debate; the first underground subway in Europe was completed (in 1896) along the length of Andrássy Avenue, Budapest’s Champs Élysées; Béla Bartók taught at the Academy of Music; and tramway cars rattled along the riverside from one end of Pest to the other, passing the Great Market Hall, unchanged today, where stalls display tier upon tier of assorted salamis and red paprika clusters.

Fig. 3. Vase designed by Lajos Mack (1876-1963), Zsolnay factory, 1900. Eosin-glazed earthenware; height 21 ⅛ inches. The objects illustrated are in the Iparmüvészeti Muzeum, Budapest.

An obligatory stop for anyone interested in decorative arts and architecture is the Iparmüvészeti Muzeum, or Museum of Applied Arts (Figs. 1). Whichever way you walk along Üllőli Street, the museum’s bell-shaped dome comes into view, especially if the sun is shining on its emerald green and bright yellow tiles. The masterwork of Ödön Lechner, one of Budapest’s most important and inventive architects of the late nineteenth century,2  the museum was completed in 1896. Though the Lechner family originally came from Bavaria, Ödön Lechner was at least a third generation Budapest resident. His architectural training had included two years of study at the Bauakademie in Berlin (c. 1866-1867), and a sojourn in Paris from 1875 to 1878, where he worked for architect Clément Parent, a specialist in the restoration of early French Gothic and Renaissance châteaux. Lechner then spent a year traveling in Italy and made trips to England in 1879 and 1889. In Budapest he brought these experiences to bear on his architecture, reworking Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Moorish sources together with references to Hungarian folk culture to create highly individual designs that set him apart from his contemporaries working in conventional historicist modes. His search for a Hungarian national character in architecture and his fertile imagination may be seen in his grand apartment houses, commercial buildings (Thonet House, Post Office Savings Bank), and cultural and scientific institutions (Geological Institute) in Budapest, as well as in notable city halls, hotels, and churches in other smaller Hungarian cities, such as Szeged and Kecskemét. After visiting Hungary in 1965, the celebrated English architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner praised Lechner for his original, “independent style” and compared him favorably to Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí.3

Fig. 4. View of the Buda Castle and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which links the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube. Photograph by László Balkányi. 


Fig. 5. The portico of the Museum of Applied Arts is a tour-de-force of red and blue tiles, cusped arches, stair railings in yellow serpentine coils, and a ceiling emblazoned with floral patterns echoing the decorative tiles on the facade. Bódis photograph. Fig. 6. The “modern” iron structure of the museum is evident in the vast glass-covered exhibition court surrounded by a two-story gallery with wide Moorish arches, seen here in a photograph of c. 1896. Museum archives/©Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest.

In 1891 Lechner and his partner from 1871 to 1896, Gyula Pártos, won the competition for a building for the Museum of Applied Arts, which had been established in 1872. Construction began in 1893, and the museum was officially opened in October 1896, as part of Hungary’s millennial celebrations to commemorate the Magyar (Hungarian peoples) conquest of the Danube Basin.


Clockwise from top left: Fig. 7. Pendant by René Lalique (1860-1945), c. 1900. Gold, enamel, glass, and diamonds; height 3 ¾ inches. Fig. 8. Clutha vase designed by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), made by James Couper and Sons, Glasgow, c. 1889.Glass; height 17 inches. Fig. 9. Detail of Peacock Garden wallpaper designed by Walter Crane (1845-1915), English, 1898-1900.


Clockwise from top left: Fig. 10. Pentecost Choir tapestry by Frida Hansen (1855-1931),Oslo, 1897. Wool tapestry, 143 by 47 ¼ inches. Fig. 11. Palm urn designed by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse(1824-1887) for Minton and Company, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, 1872. Glazed earthenware; height 32  7/8  inches. Fig. 12. Bas-relief designed by Paul Jouve (1878-1973), manufactured by Alexandre Bigot and Company, Paris, c. 1900. Glazed stoneware, 19 ¼ by 41 ª inches. The panel was part of a decorative frieze Bigot was commissioned to create for the entrance gates to the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle.

The front elevation stretches the length of a city block, with wings extending down the flanking side streets to form a horseshoe plan. The walls are clad with blocks of pyrogranite, a nonporous, weather-resistant, and flameproof ceramic invention of the Zsolnay factory in Pécs, the largest ceramic manufacturer in Hungary at the time. What immediately draws the eye, however, is the Zsolnay green and yellow tile roof. Although Lechner was not the first Hungarian architect to use ceramic tiles for facades and interiors, his imagination ran riot with the possibilities of the inexpensive, easily cleaned, sculptural medium. The plasticity of the bright yellow biomorphic shapes of ceramic finials and crockets perched along the crest of the roof and up the ribs to the crowning lantern bespeak his love of the medium, also expressed in the ceramic panels of multicolor floral sprays inspired by Hungarian peasant embroidery that enliven the facade.

Fig. 13. Sideboard by the Bath Cabinet Makers Company, Bath, England, c. 1899. Oak and metal; height 83 ½, width 69 ¼, depth 31 ½ inches.

At the main entrance, wrought-iron gates with zoomorphic shapes and giant, ceramic-clad columns sporting Hungarian folkloric motifs (even crescent-roll designs) hint at the playful forms still to come. The portico, inspired by Indian and Persian sources, is a tour-de-force of red and blue tiles, cusped arches, stair railings in yellow serpentine coils, and a ceiling emblazoned with floral patterns echoing the decorative tiles on the facade (Fig. 5).


Fig. 14. The Hungarian Parliament building stretches more than 879 feet along the Danube River. Bódis photograph. Figs. 15, 16. The Dome Hall, located in the center and rising to nearly 315 feet, was designed for joint sessions.

Lechner carried the floral motifs into the painted ceilings of the museum’s interior. Today the vestibule space is painted a uniform white, but vintage photographs reveal that the architect used color to set off the decorative plasterwork. The modern iron structure of Lechner’s building is evident in a vast, glass-covered exhibition court surrounded by a two-story gallery with wide Moorish arches (see Fig. 6). The exposed supporting steel ribs are decorated with pierced rosette motifs, in keeping with the Orientalist idiom seen throughout the museum, which was probably a reflection of Lechner’s belief in an historical affinity between the ancient Magyar culture and the cultures of the East.4 His visits to London and Paris at a time when painters and architects were drawn to the exoticism of Indian and Persian design would have also spurred his interest in Orientalist architecture and decoration.


Figs. 17, 18. The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, designed by Frigyes Feszl (1821-1884) in a Moorish revival style, was completed in 1859. © Hungarian National Tourist Office (Fig. 17) and Bódis photograph (Fig. 18).

The opening of the new museum in 1896 confirmed a commitment to developing a collection of contemporary international design and raising the standard of manufactured goods by displaying models of good design. This article will focus on the works in the collection from the fin-de-siècle period, when Budapest was in its prime andartists, architects, and designers were regarding the decorative arts with renewed interest.


Figs. 19-21. The Hungarian State Opera House (1876-1884)was designed by Miklós Ybl (1814-1891), who was renowned for his public buildings. The interior, with its grand staircase, is richly ornamented with murals by Hungary’s most noted artists. Photographs by Attila Juhasz (Figs. 19, 21) and Attila Nagy (Fig. 20).

From the beginning, the national government had set aside funds to buy works by the most recognized contemporary designers at major international exhibitions. Some of the first were acquired at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873, including Venetian glass by Salviati and Company, French earthenware by Théodore Deck, and an impressive majolica palm urn designed by the French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse for Minton and Company (Fig. 11). From the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 came an unusually large vase in blown and twisted glass by Christopher Dresser, England’s most progressive designer of the period (Fig. 8). It was donated by Louis Delamarre-Didot, who served as the museum’s official agent in Paris for many years and was a longtime friend of Jenő Radisics, the museum’s dynamic curator from 1881 and then its director from 1896 until 1917.


Figs. 22-24. The Franz Liszt Academy of Music, built between 1904 and 1907, was designed by Flóris Korb (1860-1930) and Kálmán Giergl (1863-1954).Hungarian art nouveau design ornaments the entrance hall and first floor hall, both clad in Zsolnay tiles and decorated with stained glass and murals by the artists of the Gödöllő arts and crafts colony. Photographs © Liszt Academy by György Darabos (Fig. 22), Judit Marjai (Fig. 23), and Rudolf Klein (Fig. 24).

Ever conscious of the museum’s role in educating the Hungarian public, Radisics presented an exhibition entitled Modern Art in 1898 that demonstrated the range of the museum’s purchases in every medium, along with his recent acquisitions from a trip to the General Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1897 in Stockholm, among them works by Danish designer Thorvald Bindesböll, the Rörstrand porcelain manufactory of Sweden, and the Norwegian tapestry artist Frida Hansen (Fig. 10). The exhibition highlighted many recent French acquisitions in the latest art nouveau style with its emphasis on expressive, swirling lines drawn from nature. Some of these had been purchased from the leading proponent of this new artistic current, Parisian dealer Siegfried Bing, among them pieces by Paul Ranson, ceramist Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, and even early glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany (Fig. 30), for whom Bing had become the special agent in Europe.

Below: Figs. 25, 26. The Széchenyi Baths in the City Park, designed by Gyözö Czigler (1850-1905), 1909-1913, expanded by Imre Francsek (1864-1920), and completed in 1927, is one of several major thermal and medicinal baths in Budapest. © Hungarian National Tourist Office (Fig. 26).

Director Radisics actively searched for acquisitions in England as well. Fluent in English, he was well aware of the ideals of the English arts and crafts movement, so it is not surprising to find that under his tenure glass by James Powell and Sons, textiles designed by William Morris, furniture by Glasgow designer Ernest A. Taylor, and book designs and a hand-painted vase by Walter Crane (Fig. 29) entered the collection. The museum had a special rapport with Crane, who was known for his designs for everything from stained glass to wallpaper. The Budapest museum presented an exhibition of his work in 1900, and Radisics had the hall of his personal apartment in the museum decorated with Crane’s Peacock Garden wallpaper (see Fig. 9).5  After visiting Budapest to see the exhibition, Crane wrote in his memoirs that it was “the most up-to-date city I have ever seen. It is as modern as possible…. the newer buildings of a more daring type of architectural design than one has ever seen.”6 While there he also made a trip to the Zsolnay ceramics factory in Pécs, where he experimented with their iridescent glazes.

One of the most impressive examples of English arts and crafts furniture is a large sideboard by the Bath Cabinet Makers Company (Fig. 13), a firm founded in 1892 by cabinetmaker and designer Charles Richter.7 Hand-carved oak, metal strapwork on the cupboard doors, and wrought-metal lamp finials on the upright posts bespeak the salient characteristics of the arts and crafts movement. The sideboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, which Radisics himself attended, purchasing the sideboard and many other pieces for the museum, including silver from Christofle and Cardeilhac of Paris; furniture by Edward Colonna, Eugène Gaillard, Théodore Lambert, Louis Majorelle, and the Paris exhibition’s chief architect, Charles Plumet; Raoul François Larche’s gilt-bronze Loïe Fuller lamp; and a necklace clasp by René Lalique. (Three years later the museum purchased directly from the Lalique studio the impressive glass and enamel pendant in Figure 7, featuring a nude suspended from a gold chain by her long tresses coiled in art nouveau fashion).

Fig. 27. The Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), housed in Buda Castle, holds Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque works of art as well as nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings and sculptures by Hungary’s foremost artists of the period, such as Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), Károly Ferenczy (1862-1917), and József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927). Photograph by Tamás Kőrösi.

Perhaps the most fascinating acquisition from the Paris exhibition was the complete display of the French ceramist Alexandre Bigot, who had gained a reputation for his glazed stoneware architectural elements produced in collaboration with French architects such as Henri Sauvage, Hector Guimard, and the brothers Auguste and Gustave Perret.8 Photographs of the 1900 pavilion, designed by architect Jules Lavirotte, show that it was comprised of all types of decorative architectural stoneware: a columned portico surmounted by an elaborate cornice; a life-size window facade for a house, complete with columns supporting a balustrade; lintels, floor and wall tiles, and a staircase railing. After the close of the Paris exposition, all these ceramic elements were numbered, packed up, and sent by train to Budapest, where they were put into storage at the Museum of Applied Arts. Though Radisics exhibited some of them in 1901, they were rarely seen again. Bigot’s masterwork survived in the museum’s basement through two world wars, political upheavals, and changes of administration until 2013, when the individual elements of the pavilion were finally exhibited at the museum in their entirety (see Fig. 12).

During his tenure as director, Radisics was also active in promoting contemporary Hungarian design at world’s fairs, often in collaboration with the Hungarian Applied Arts Society—in Turin (1902), St. Louis (1904), Venice (1905), Milan (1906), and London (1908). Among the notable Hungarian artists whose work was added to the museum’s collection were Pál Horti, a leading figure of Hungarian art nouveau, especially in furniture and interior design; Miksa Róth, the foremost Hungarian artist in stained glass; and Gyula Háry, a painter and versatile designer (Fig. 31). The Zsolnay ceramics manufactory, which gained worldwide recognition for its highly decorative wares with motifs derived from Persian, Turkish, Japanese, Romanesque, and Renaissance design, is also well represented in the museum.9 Zsolnay exhibited more than three thousand works at the Paris 1900 exposition, promoting its art nouveau designs with their original “eosin” metallic luster glazing and iridescent colors (Fig. 3).


Fig. 28. Lady in Red, wall hanging designed by Rippl-Rónai, worked by Lazarine Baudrion (1865-1947), Paris, 1898. Wool and canvas 90 ½ by 49 ¼ inches. Fig. 29. Skoal vessel designed by Walter Crane, made by Maw and Company, Benthall Works, Shropshire, England, c. 1885. Earthenware with metallic luster glaze; height 9 ¼ inches.

The Zsolnay firm collaborated with many Hungarian designers, among them the painter József Rippl-Rónai, who lived in Paris from 1894 to 1900 and was a close friend of sculptor Aristide Maillol. Like many artists of his day, Rippl-Rónai also turned his attention to decorative design and in 1897 was commissioned to design the furnishings for the dining room of Count Tivadar Andrássy’s house in Buda. The museum owns prototypes for the dinnerware produced by the Zsolnay firm as well as an embroidered wall-hanging, Lady in Red (Fig. 28), all after Rippl-Rónai’s designs.


Fig. 30. Vase, Tiffany Studios, New York, c. 1895. Glass; height 14 ⅛ inches. Fig. 31. Coat clasp designed by Gyula Háry (1864-1946), Budapest, c. 1904. Silver, enamel, diamonds, and pearls; 5 ⅛ by 8 ¼ inches.

With the arrival of World War I, many ambitious projects came to a halt. In the ensuing years, the museum relied more heavily on private donations; for example, in 1948 the arrival of five thousand works from the collection of Ottó Fettick, a veterinary surgeon and bacteriologist, gave the turn-of-the century collection a boost with delicate, long-stemmed Tiffany floral vases, lava glass, and marbled millefiori glass as well as impressive works by Gallé, the Daum brothers, and Lalique. Austrian furniture by Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann was part of a legacy from Budapest furniture manufacturer Miksa Schmidt in 1961, enlarging the museum’s holdings of early twentieth-century Viennese design (including pieces by the Wiener Werkstätte), which had been an important influence on Hungarian designers of the period.

Fig. 32. Gong designed by Frigyes Spiegel (1866-1933), made by Gyula Jungfer (1841-1908), Budapest, c. 1900. Wrought iron, bronze, and copper; height 68 ⅛ inches.

The Museum of Applied Arts has many treasures from earlier periods and other cultures, notably the Islamic artworks from the Miklós Esterhazy collection.10 This article has concentrated on the fin-de-siècle collection and the Hungarian response to European design developments at a time when Budapest was in its prime. Thus it seems appropriate to close with one of the most art nouveau of the Hungarian works in the museum—a gong suspended from a wrought-iron tripod with sinuous tendrils of crafted metal curving around and up from the base (Fig. 32). Designed by Frigyes Spiegel and executed by Gyula Jungfer, it stands in the entrance hall before the great court, where it greets visitors upon arrival and, when sounded at the end of the day, bids them farewell.

1 John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1988; 1990 ed.), p. 64. 2 For more, see József Sisa, Lechner: A Creative Genius (Museum of Applied Arts/Institute of Art History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, 2014). 3 József Sisa, “Nikolaus Pevsner’s Thoughts on Hungarian Architecture,” in Britain and Hungary: Contacts in Architecture, Design, Art and Theory during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries…, ed. Gyula Ernyey (Hungarian University of Craft and Design, Budapest, 2003), vol.2, pp. 78-79. 4 These theories, which were supported by Lechner’s friend and teacher József Huszka, a specialist in Hungarian folk art, have since been proven inaccurate. However, at the time, the search for the roots of Hungarian culture in the Eastern countries was a topic of discussion. See Sisa, Lechner, pp. 12-13. 5 Hilda Horváth, “Walter Crane in Hungary,” in Britain and Hungary: Contacts, pp. 153-162. 6 Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences (Methuen, London, 1907), p. 472. 7 For more about the firm, see Sally Festing, “Charles Richter and Bath Cabinet Makers: The Early Years,” Bath History, vol. 7 (1998), pp. 146-166. 8 Hilda Horváth, “Le Pavillon Bigot-Lavirotte: L’Histoire de l’acquisition d’un objet d’art,” in Ars Decorativa 29, Yearbook of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts and its Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts (2013), pp. 71-82. 9 The Zsolnay firm began shipments to New York in 1880, and they exhibited at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. See Éva Hárs, “Zsolnay in the World Market,” in Hungarian Ceramics from the Zsolnay Manufactory, 1853-2001, ed. Éva Csenkey and Ágota Steinert (Yale University Press, New Haven, for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, 2002), pp. 59-60. 10 The museum’s collection of furniture from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is on view in Nagytétény Castle on the outskirts of Budapest.