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: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/indiv/rare/guides/Urban/.