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Urban Sensibilities

A New Approach to Stage Design

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

The Boston Opera Company's production of Pelléas et Mélisande on January 10, 1912 showcased the first set designs in America by Viennese artist Joseph Urban. "Nothing like them has ever been seen in any opera on the American stage," wrote Henry Taylor Parker in the Evening Transcript. With control of the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and the props, Urban brought European craftsmanship and a unified theatrical experience to America.

Joseph Urban's career encompassed 170 productions and as many as seven hundred stage sets, along with designs for theaters, restaurants, films, and private homes such as Marjorie Merriweather Post's Mar-a-Lago estate. When the curtains came down on his shows, many of his designs dissolved into memory. Sets were dismantled to make room for the next show. Costumes were recycled for future finery. The audience went home while programs and playbills were discarded.

More than a century after Urban began his career, an attempt is being made at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library to preserve his designs. The collection covers Urban's work in Vienna, Boston, and New York from 1897 to his death in 1933.

Donated as a gift from the artist's estate in 1958, the collection contains two hundred linear feet of artwork, including watercolors, photographs, drawings, clippings, scrapbooks, programs, and other documents. Urban's inspirations often began with a scribble on a cocktail napkin, and the paper trail documents the development of his artistic vision.

The magic, however, is in the models. Constructed of cardboard and wood, 328 reside in the collection. While many were flattened, wrapped only in rough brown craft paper, sixty of the models have been assembled in open wooden proscenium boxes, viewable from every angle. These doll-scaled structures give a rare glimpse into how Urban envisioned his productions.

"They're incredibly beautiful objects," says conservation assistant Georgia Southworth. "They are par-ticularly detailed. They weren't just sketch models. There is a great level of difficulty to their construction. They have cut-out windows, perfectly furnished . . . and they're surprisingly exact when compared with photos of the actual productions."

"You'd think you were looking at a real landscape," says Janet Gertz, director for preservation at Columbia University Libraries. "His works were really atmospheric. In one subway scene, the tunnel seems to fade into the distance. There's an infinity feeling, with the lights changing as you look down the tunnel. Urban is known for his really intense colors and innovative use of light. You can see that craft in these models."

The craft began in Vienna, where Josef Karl Maria Georg Urban was born in 1872. At the time, the city was a center for European culture and innovative art. The young Urban soaked up the influences of great artists such as Richard Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Gustav Klimt amid the splendors of the new Ringstrasse. He was particularly impressed by Wagner's philosophy of gesamtkunstwerk, an attempt to combine all the elements of theater--costumes, lighting, stage movement, settings into one artistic effect.

For his first commission, Urban traveled to Egypt to complete a European wing for the Abdin Palace in Cairo. While he was there, he was struck by the color of the Mediterranean against the azure of the sky in the harbor of Alexandria. Urban absorbed the color, made it his own, and splashed the shade across theaters from Austria to America. It has been known since as "Urban blue."

Returning to Vienna, Urban forged a partnership with illustrator Heinrich Lefler, marrying Lefler's sister Mizzi and collaborating on designs ranging from greeting cards to pavilions. Their work articulated the Art Nouveau style that pervaded Europe. The partnership continued with commissions for private homes and public spaces, as well as for theatrical design, until 1911, when Urban accepted an offer to be the stage director of Henry Russell's Boston Opera Company.

At the time, American stagecraft consisted primarily of crudely constructed flat canvases, poorly painted and harshly lit. Urban brought with him from Vienna a handful of artists in order to build the designs he envisioned. The first season included Pelléas et Mélisande, Hånsel und Gretel, Tristan und Isolde, and Tales of Hoffman. For Pelléas, Urban created a scene of medieval Normandy, complete with a stone castle and forest. He constructed a series of platforms to make a stage within a stage. The device gave a scene more intimacy for the audience but sometimes less mobility for the actors. "I can hardly turn around," complained one diva, but critics and audiences reacted favorably. "The performance was clothed in scenery, costumes, and light that seemed unmatched on the American stage in illusion of time, place, and atmosphere, in imaginative suggestion and intrinsic pictorial beauty," wrote Parker about the Hoffman production.

Urban's sets would continue to dazzle audiences, but the Boston Opera Company did not share in his good fortune. After the 1914 summer season in Paris, the company dissolved in a sea of financial difficulties. Urban and his family stayed in Europe and toured Italy, where they were stranded by the outbreak of World War I. With help from Broadway producer George Tyler and his Italian underworld connections, Urban and his family escaped from Naples in time to design Tyler's upcoming New York show, The Garden of Paradise.

Although Paradise was a commercial flop, it spelled success for Urban. Songwriter Gene Buck persuaded Florenz Ziegfeld, impresario and showman, to see the play. Ziegfeld took one look at Urban's Paradise sets and tracked him down to a nearby tavern. He wrote Urban a check for $10,000 on the spot to design his next show.

Although he was a successful promoter, Ziegfeld's Follies were considered garish, known for "tall girls and low comedy," as historian Abel Green describes them. Urban's friends and family urged him not to abandon the high culture of opera for Ziegfeld's shows, but Urban accepted the offer and set about transforming the revues into elegant and sophisticated spectacles. The alliance of showman and scenic designer would transform the Follies and catapult Urban into the national spotlight.

By 1919, Urban's ornate landscapes were the signature element of Ziegfeld's revues, particularly the staircase that Urban introduced, from which dancer after dancer would descend, show after show. One critic wrote, "Today it is as impossible to imagine the Ziegfeld show without its Urban settings as without its girls. The young ladies may come and go, but Urban is fundamental."

Urban designed a theater for Ziegfeld at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, financed by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who had built a hotel across the street. The theater was designed with the philosophy of gesamtkunstwerk in mind. The lack of moldings allowed the elements to flow together, as Urban said, "like the inside of an egg," and the gold-toned carpeting and seats formed the base for an atmosphere of "colorful gaiety."

The Ziegfeld Theatre opened on February 27, 1927, with the premiere of Rio Rita, a musical set along the U.S.-Mexican border. That same year came Show Boat, with sets designed by Urban and his daughter Gretl, followed by other Ziegfeld productions until the Broadway scene hit hard times in the Depression. The theater became a movie house in 1933; Urban died that same year. The theater was demolished in 1966 to make way for an expansion of Rockefeller Center and only a scale model remains.

The degree of detail in the Ziegfeld Theatre and other models is apparent in the digital images being prepared for the electronic archive. One of the 1931 Follies shows a stage blanketed in Urban's signature velvety blue. A series of interlocking Gothic arches appears to extend into the horizon, giving the stage depth. Shelves are piled with intricate vases, bottles, and other objects. Circular cut-outs, covered with colored cellophane, bathe the stage in a rainbow of hues. "His depth of color was astounding," says Southworth, "and the models have retained those incredibly vibrant colors."

Though beautifully crafted, the models were never built to last. The materials--plaster of paris, wood, papier-mâché--are perishable, the watercolors sensitive to light. An action as simple as moving a flat section into a vertical position can trigger a shower of pigment flakes. "That's why this preservation is so important," says Gertz. "These models were totally untouchable--completely removed from scholarship."

Although the models from Urban's New York period are the focus of the current conservation, Gertz hopes eventually to restore the entire collection. Since the works are in demand by historians and scholars from several fields--including stage design, drama, and architecture--the library is photographing and scanning the assembled models along with documents, technical drawings, sketches, and stage photographs. The images will be available online, offering an opportunity to study the collection without exposing it to further risk.

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Funding Information

Columbia University Library received $207,289 to preserve 328 stage sets and to digitize 2,545 other documents of the Joseph Urban collection. The collection can be found online at