An architect, designer and graphic artist, Joseph Maria Olbrich first studied architecture from 1882 to 1886 under Camillo Sitte and Julius Deininger at the "Staatsgewerbeschule" in Vienna. After finishing his studies, he returned briefly to his birthplace, Troppau (now Oppava, Tcheque Republic), where he worked as an architectural draftsman.
From 1890 he was again in Vienna, where he studied until 1893 at the "Akademie der Bildenden Künste" as a pupil of Karl von Hasenauer's. Joseph Maria Olbrich won several awards for designs submitted while he was still a student, including the Art Academy Rome Prize, which enabled him to travel in Italy and Tunisia in 1893. On his return to Vienna, Olbrich was employed in the practice of Otto Wagner, who greatly admired his work.
Along with Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner and Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich was a founding member of the "Viennese Secession" (1897), a group of dissenting artists who split off in protest against the academy art scene as other late 19th-century secessionist artists had already done in Berlin (1892) and Munich (1893). Olbrich was involved in designing the Viennese Secession periodical, "Ver Sacrum".
Wanting a building of their own in which to show their work, the Viennese Secessionists asked Joseph Maria Olbrich to plan and design it: his first large-scale commission. In 1899 Joseph Maria Olbrich was invited to Darmstadt by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt. The Grand Duke was planning an artists' colony on Mathildenhöhe, which was to create new practical, intellectual and aesthetic living conditions for mankind on a comprehensive scale. Enthusiastic about the new trends in art, the Grand Duke often went to Vienna, where his family connections also made him familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement in England. The two men became friends. As a result, Olbrich moved to Darmstadt, where he was from the outset the leading intellectual of the artists' colony.
As its sole architect, Joseph Maria Olbrich designed all but one of its buildings: the exception was Peter Behrens, who had originally worked only as a painter and graphic artist, designed his own home, "Haus Behrens". Joseph Maria Olbrich designed the Ernst-Ludwig-Haus, the colony's main building, which housed studios and a stately reception lobby. Its large omega-shaped central portal on the south façade boasts the programme sculptures "Mann" and "Weib" by Ludwig Habig (1900/01). Other buildings designed in 1900-01 by Olbrich were "Haus Deiters", the "Großes und Kleines Haus Glückert", "Haus Habich" and "Haus Olbrich". For the second colony exhibition in 1904, Olbrich built a group of three houses and that same year the Octagon to house sculptors' studios as an extension of the main building.
Also designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich are the Municipal Exhibition Building, the "Oberhessisches Haus" (Sabais Villa) and the "Hochzeitsturm" [Nuptial Tower], all of which were completed in 1908, the year Olbrich died. Olbrich's eclectic, partly progressive, partly historicizing style is best expressed in architecture, which he viewed as a total work of art. In 1907 Joseph Maria Olbrich was a co-founder of the "Deutscher Werkbund" along with Peter Behrens, Peter Bruckmann, Fritz Schumacher, Richard Riemerschmid, and Hermann Muthesius. That same year, 1907, Olbrich established a practice of his own in Düsseldorf, where he embarked on designing the Tietz department store (completed in 1909).
Olbrich designed a great many furnishings (for Gebrüder Schöndorff), interiors, crafts objects, embroideries, glass, cutlery (for WMF and Eduard Hueck) as well as china (for the Wächtersbacher stoneware factory). His works are both functional and beautifully designed.
Joseph Maria Olbrich died of leukaemia at only forty-one.