Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > Theater History & Dramatic Arts > 243. Joseph Urban

243.  Joseph Urban (1872-1933).  "Blue Nursery Scene," The Ziegfeld Follies, 1931. Theater set model; gouache, watercolor, and graphite; wooden base with paper board drops supported on metal poles; paper and transparent tissue paper decorations, some supported with wooden bases. RBML, Joseph Urban Papers

Joseph Urban studied architecture at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in his native Vienna. He established himself as an architect as well as a book illustrator, exhibit designer, interior decorator, and set designer, often in collaboration with the painter Heinrich Lefler. Urban and Lefler were co-founders of the Hagenbund, an exhibiting society similar to the Secessionists. In 1912 at the age of forty, Urban emigrated to the United States and became the designer for the Boston Opera Company, where he introduced the innovations of the New Stagecraft from the European theater.

After the Boston Opera Company went bankrupt in 1914, Urban began designing sets in New York. He designed the Ziegfeld Follies, as well as all other Ziegfeld productions, from 1915 to 1932. In 1917 he began designing for the Metropolitan Opera and continued to do so until his death in 1933, with operas including the first American productions of Puccini's Turandot and Richard Strauss's Egyptian Helen, and the first Metropolitan Opera productions of Verdi's Don Carlos and Richard Strauss's Electra.

From 1921 to 1925 Urban was also the art director for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios. He had branched out to other artistic endeavors since moving to New York, including designing shop windows, roof gardens and interior decoration. From 1921 to 1922 he introduced the works of Viennese artists to the United States through his Wiener Werkstätte shop. He received his license to practice architecture in the United States in 1926, after which he designed homes, buildings, ballrooms and theaters in New York and elsewhere. Notable examples of his extant architecture are the Paramount Theater Building and Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, and the New School and the Hearst Magazine Building in New York.

Columbia's massive Joseph Urban holdings cover his entire career. Most recently, the Joseph Urban Stage Design Models and Documents project, through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has made possible the preservation of 240 three-dimensional models created by Urban for New York theaters between 1914 and 1933, including productions for the Ziegfeld Follies, such as the "Blue Nursery Scene" in 1931, the Metropolitan Opera, and a variety of Broadway theaters. The project has also created digital images of the set models and related stage design documents and drawings that are linked to the online finding aid:

Gift of Mrs. Joseph Urban, 1955

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