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Mela Koehler (18 November 1885 – 15 December 1960)

Melanie Leopoldina Koehler-Broman – or Mela Koehler – was a painter, illustrator, printmaker and applied artist who was closely associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops). She was born on 18 November 1885 in Vienna and she resided in the city for the majority of her life. Koehler studied first at a private painting school, and then at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) from 1905 to 1910. It was there that she met artists Koloman Moser (co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte) and Bertold Löffler who were teaching at the school at this time.

The Wiener Werkstätte began to produce postcards in 1907. Although they were amongst the least expensive items produced by the company, they were always considered as unique pieces of art in their own right, and came to be collector’s items, even during the time they were being produced. Koehler was invited to produce postcard designs for the workshops while she was still a student, and became their most prolific designer. During the years 1907 to 1912, Koehler produced over 150 postcards for the Wiener Werkstätte, alongside many more for other publishing houses.

Mela Koehler, Easter Card, 1911 (Wiener Werkstätte Postcard No. 556B)
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Mela Koehler, Black dog and a woman in a white fur-trimmed coat, c.1910 (Publisher Brüder Kohn)
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Koehler’s iconic postcards typically incorporated chic illustrations of fashion designs and holiday themes. The holiday-themed postcards were amusing and remain timeless. On the other hand, the fashion postcards informed women of what was popular to wear and sometimes even featured the latest fashion designs from the textile and fashion department of the Wiener Werkstätte, which opened 1910-1911. Her illustrations were produced from photographs of models in fashionable dresses but, unlike the photographs, her compositions were full of colour, elegance and style. Koehler had also contributed some of her own textile designs for the fashion house – her first pattern was entitled “Geisha” and was executed in 1910.

Beyond the workshops, Koehler was a freelance artist and an active member of various other artistic circles. She – as well as other female members of the workshops – was a member of the Wiener Frauenkunst (Association of Female Artists and Craftswomen) founded in 1910, and, as of 1916, she also became a member of the Austrian Werkbund (Austrian Artists Association) founded in 1912. These associations and collectives enabled her to participate in numerous exhibitions during her time in Austria.

In the twenties, she worked in conjunction with writers for children’s books, and most notably with an Australian author, Ruth Bedford whose book Fairies and Fancies (published 1929) was illustrated by Koehler and published by British publishing house A&C Black.

Mela Koehler, ‘Geisha’ textile design, 1910,
(image source: Angela Voelker, Textiles of the Wiener Werkstätte: 1910-1932,  London: Thames & Hudson, 2004)

Austrian and German book publishers that employed Koehler as a children’s book illustrator include Konegen, Scholz, and Schreiber, and in the 1920s she also worked for Rosenbaum and Bahlsen as a graphic designer; designed ceramics for Augarten, and continued to produce postcard designs for Munk and Brüder Kohn.

Mela Koehler-Broman, Illustration from Ruth Bedford’s Fairies & Fancies
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Mela Koehler, Easter Card, c.1920 (Publisher Marcus Munk)
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Due to the political changes in Austria in the thirties, Koehler decided to emigrate to Stockholm, Sweden and she lived there until her death on 15 December 1960. She was married in 1932, working from then on as Mela Koehler-Broman. In Stockholm, she designed theatre costumes for the Swedish Royal Academy, held exhibitions, and continued to design postcards and illustrate children’s books. However, her designs for the Wiener Werkstätte were possibly the most outstanding of her career and are treasures of museum collections today. The short video below introduces an exhibition, Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte, held at the Wolfsonian Museum in 2013 – see for yourself Mela Koehler’s significance in this fascinating collection.

This post continues our mini series on Women of the Wiener Wekstätte. To read more, please click on the ‘wiener werkstätte’ tag in the tag cloud in our sidebar.

Selected Recommended Reading:

Elisabeth Schmuttermeier and Christian Witt-Dörring, Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte: a Catalogue Raisonné, Neue Galerie, 2010

Angela Voelker, Textiles of the Wiener Werkstätte: 1910-1932, Thames & Hudson, 2004

Blog post by Laura Peluso, ‘Mystery Monday: Mela Koehler’