Joseph Urban, Architecture's Set Designer

(1872-1933)

Austrian Architect Joseph Urban, c. 1922
Austrian Architect Joseph Urban, c. 1922. Photo by Imagno/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

Trained as an architect, Joseph Urban may be best known today for his elaborate theater designs. In 1912 he moved to the United States from Austria to create sets for the Boston Opera Company. By 1917, as a naturalized US citizen, he had shifted his attentions to New York and the Metropolitan Opera. Urban went on to become scenic designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. The extravagant theatricality of his scenic designs made Urban a perfect fit to create some of the opulent architecture in Palm Beach, Florida before America's Great Depression.

Born: May 26, 1872, Vienna, Austria

Died: July 10, 1933, New York City

Full Name: Carl Maria Georg Joseph Urban

Education: 1892: Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), Vienna

Selected Projects:

  • 1904: Austrian Pavilion, St. Louis World's Fair (received Gold Medal)
  • 1904-1914: Set designs throughout Europe
  • 1911-1914: Boston Opera Company, set designs
  • 1917-1933: Metropolitan Opera of New York, set designs
  • 1926: Bath and Tennis Club, Palm Beach, Florida
  • 1927: Mar-A-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, with Marion Sims Wyeth (1889-1982)
  • 1927: Paramount Theatre, Palm Beach, Florida
  • 1927: Ziegfeld Theatre, New York City (demolished in 1966)
  • 1928: Bedell Department Store, 19 West 34th Street, New York City
  • 1928: International Magazine Building (Hearst Building), New York City, with George B. Post—78 years later, in 2006, Norman Foster's Tower was built on top (view photo)
  • 1930: New School for Social Research, New York City

    Art and Architecture Together:

    Joseph Urban designed interiors like an architect, incorporating skyscraper-like setbacks and Classical Greek columns into theatrical scenic designs. For Urban, art and architecture were two pencils with one point.

    This "total work of art" is called Gesamtkunstwerk, and it's long been a working philosophy throughout central Europe.

    In the 18th Century, Bavarian stucco master Dominikus Zimmermann created Wieskirche as a total work of art; German architect Walter Gropius combined the Arts with Crafts in his Bauhaus School curriculum; and Joseph Urban turned theatre architecture inside out.

    Early Influences:

    Making Connections:

    Actress Marion Davies was a "Ziegfeld girl" while Urban, too, worked on sets for Florenz Ziegfeld. Davies also was the mistress of the powerful publisher, William Randolph Hearst. It's been widely reported that Davies introduced Hearst to Urban, who then designed the monumental International Magazine Building.

    Why is Urban Important?

    " Urban's importance lay in his virtually unprecedented use of color, his introduction to American theater of many of the techniques and principles of the New Stagecraft, and his architectural sensibility at a time when most stage designers came from a background or training in visual art."—Professor Arnold Aronson, Columbia University
    " Some of his buildings, like the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street in Manhattan, are good enough to be considered critical early works of modernism in America. Many others, like his extravagant house in Palm Beach for Marjorie Merriwether Post, Mar-a-Lago, if not as important theoretically, are spectacular visual triumphs....To look at Urban's work today is to be awed at the ease with which he worked in all kinds of styles, from the Vienna Secession of his early years to the International Style modernism and monumental classicism of his final years."—Paul Goldberger, 1987

    Learn More:

    Sources: "Joseph Urban" entry by Paul Louis Bentel, The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 31, Jane Turner, ed., Grove Macmillan, 1996, pp. 702-703; Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vision of Joseph Urban by Arnold Aronson, Columbia University, 2000; Joseph Urban Stage Design Models & Documents Stabilization & Access Project, Columbia University; Private Clubs, Palm Beach and Architects of the Boom & Bust, Historical Society of Palm Beach County; At the Cooper-Hewitt, Designs of Joseph Urban by Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, December 20, 1987; Hearst Magazine Building Designation Report by Janet Adams, Landmarks Preservation Commission, (PDF) [accessed May 16, 2015]