Vienna: Design destination

The capital of Austria has a rich and illustrious design past, but it’s not resting on its laurels, says Helen Parton, a visitor to the latest Vienna Design Week, where she saw much to be impressed with during the 10-day event and beyond

It's boring to stick to your past, says Norbert Kettner, director of the Vienna Tourist Board. It's so good to see a city that has a great design history but isn't reliant on it; rather it is using it as a catalyst to new, innovation creations. Kettner adds: 'We have a huge cultural heritage and we have to deal with that in a contemporary way."

He was speaking at the UK leg of the launch of the European Home Run, a competition to design a new souvenir for Vienna. Six product design practices were invited in 2012 to participate in a scheme to capture their view of the Austrian capital in three-dimensional form: Germany's Ding 3000, Switzerland's Big Game, France's Ionna Vautrin, Spain's Hector Serrano, Italy's Studio Formafantasma and PearsonLloyd from the UK.

The celebrated British duo came up with a simple interpretation of a coffee set consisting of a tray, sugar bowl, glass, and spoon, their take on the kind that can be found in the 800 or so coffee houses across the city. The teaspoon balances perfectly on the glass, which nestles neatly next to the bowl on the small rectangular tray.

'The target of this project was expose the DNA of the city,' explains Tom Lloyd. 'Coffee houses were places where people have met and where the great pieces of culture were cultivated. If the past can be created in these coffee houses, so can the future.'

PearsonLloyd is currently looking at who might be able to produce the coffee set that might inspire the next generation of Schuberts, Schieles and Freuds pontificating over a caffeine-fuelled beverage or two. Despite the Brits best efforts, it was Italian-born, Holland-based practice Formafantasma which scooped the prize, the results of which were announced last October.

Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, who make up Studio Formafantasma, are both graduates of Eindhoven's prestigious Design Academy. They decided on a deck of cards for their souvenir design, another object synonymous with Vienna's coffee houses and one which has a resonance with Formafantasma's home nation, says Trimarchi. 'In Italy playing cards are regionally customised. They are a beautiful graphic expression of locality, while reflecting the impact of some of the different cultures which dominated the region,' she says.

The competition's judges praised the winning design's usefulness and desirability, and the way it reinvented something that has been used for centuries. 'We love Vienna because of its modernist history and its beautiful landscape. Playing cards have the ability to be perceived both as an authentic expression of the local context, while being enough of a curiosity to be collected by tourists,' says Trimarchi. 'A contemporary Viennese deck of cards can used by citizens and taken home by visitors as well as addressing some functional issues. Souvenirs should be inexpensive to produce, small enough to go in hand luggage, have a limited environmental impact and, when possible, produced locally.'

Vienna of course really came into its own in the 1900s with the proliferation of buildings and works of art that still attract visitors in their thousands, keen to see the likes of Gustav Klimt and others connected to the Wiener Werkstätte movement, which saw rapid developments in the arts, architecture, science and music, in the city's museums, galleries and antique shops. Vienna Design Week, held each September, continues this golden age into a new era with the 'Passionswege', a series of site-specific installations on the premises of established Viennese businesses, making use of workshop spaces and authentic materials. Says the city's progressively minded tourism chief Kettner: 'In a continuation of this proud history, in recent years young Viennese designers have been working with traditional manufacturers throughout the city, supplying them with original ideas and blueprints for new designs.'

One great example of this from 2012's Design Week is the Viennese design group breadedEscalope transforming the entrance area of design retailer Stilwerk into a temporary workshop, turning factory seconds from manufacturer Thonet Austria into beautiful, one-off chair designs. The general public were able to get in on the act too, building their own Thonet chair with the help of a few screws, cable binders, a bit of glue and assistance from the designers themselves. Meanwhile non-Viennese resident and Konstantin Grcic protege Charlotte Talbot collaborated with Wiener Silber Manufactur on new silverware, also on show during 2012's Vienna Design Week. It combines Talbot's interplay of materials with experimentation of form and is an attempt to bring the concept of table silver bang up to date.

Vienna-based design practice Polka came up with a new porcelain dinner service with decorative motifs for Herend, which was exhibited at Lobmeyr, its retail partner and purveyor of fine crystal in its own right since 1823. The hand-painted plates and bowls are inspired by a diverse range of influences, from Oriental motifs to graphics. Monica Singer, creative partner with Polka, says of the brief: 'The new forms and decor should work for a younger audience. Since the decor is produced using a special "underglazing" technique, which means it can be put into the dishwasher, it is more suitable for enjoyment on a daily basis.'

Polka has also worked with Lobmeyr in the past. 'Lobmeyr has, like Herend, a long tradition and history. It is a special challenge to prepare and develop its future. We work a lot with the archive and analyse and understand what happened in the history of the company to understand its true DNA. It is essential to be able to make the right contribution. We have experienced a great deal of understanding, trust and energy for experiments and new ideas from Lobmeyr, which is so important.'

The results from a number of years of the Passionswege was the subject of an exhibition at the MAK, the city's museum for design, architecture and contemporary art, which ran until March. It featured the work of experimental designers including Spain's Tomas Alonso, Max Lamb from the UK and the Dutch studio Makkink and Bey.

Thomas Geisler, one of the founders of Vienna Design Week and a curator at MAK, explains the rationale: 'It's about rediscovering the knowledge of these companies and bringing the passion to the fore.' Often the collaborations will feature designers who have no previous experience of the particular craft for which the brands are famous. For instance designer Marco Dessi worked with Viennese porcelain specialist Augarten on exploiting the centuries-old manufacturing process to produce a series of lights, vases and tableware, and Canadian Philippe Malouin collaborated with Lobmeyr on a 'sand clock': a variation on an hourglass, referencing sand as a material necessary for making glass but representing it in a highly abstract way.

Formafantasma's Andrea Trimarchi is certainly a fan of Vienna: 'In the past few years, the city has invested so much in design and great institutions such as MAK, and festivals like Vienna Design Week are giving a new vibe to the design scene.' Says Geisler: 'It's also an exercise in making sure that people are aware the manufacturers are alive in the city; getting that awareness across on a international level.' This is only possible because this manufacturing tradition has actually continued in Vienna whereas, Geisler argues, in many other bigger Western cities it has died away.

As far as homegrown talent goes he adds: 'There is a wide range of approaches but a sense of humour is deeply embedded in the culture.' The Walking-Chair design studio exemplifies this way of thinking with an idiosyncratic approach to its designs, from a revolving panoramic sofa for bars and public spaces, a round ping-pong table for meeting and dining, the Supersampler and the Colorspalsh Lomographic cameras as well as the studio's namesake: a chair with remote controlled legs that allow it to be directed across a room.

Geography plays a key part in Vienna's evolution as a design city. Singer says: 'The airport is just 20 minutes away, and being located so centrally in Europe means we can quickly get everywhere quickly.'

The fall of the Iron Curtain has also helped as Vienna is close to many emerging creative economies in eastern Europe, such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic. The advantages of its geographical location are manyfold, as Vienna-based designer Adam Wehsely- Swiczinsky points out: 'Its location at the edge of the Balkans; the nature that surrounds and inspires us - the mountains, the plains - and the places to swim in the city. Plus, with 1.8 million people, it is just the right size. You can be in three different countries within an hour, connecting East and West, between the Pannonian plain and the Alps.'

Designer Adam Wehsely-Swiczinsky is currently working on a fascinatingly diverse crop of projects including medical products, outdoor furniture and children's skis. After working for 10 years as a carpenter, Wehsely-Swiczinsky attended the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Its alumni also includes designer Christian Horner, who says: 'It is an art school, where you can find also departments in architecture, graphic design and sculpture, so students can attend lectures in many different fields. Vienna is a good place to live too for a designer: it is offers a very good quality of life and affordable conditions. It's a good place to concentrate.'

Since graduating in the mid-Nineties Horner has designed objects for companies that include MDF Italia and Ligne Roset, He is a main designer for office furniture manufacturer Bene, responsible for products such as the Cube_S cabinet, designed to suit both open-plan working with its transparent elements and openings and individual quiet work with its visual and acoustic screening.

Horner studied in Vienna under British designer Ron Arad ('It was one of the reasons for me studying in Vienna; he was my professor when I started.') Thomas Geisler, who also studied under the Israeli-born, British-based, Arad says: 'Ron Arad left his traces in the local design scene, no question about it.'

The mantle of professor of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts is now with Fiona Raby, of London-based practice Dunne & Raby who will strengthen yet further Vienna's reputation in terms of providing a focal point for emerging Viennese and indeed international design talent.

Vienna's built environment very much blends the old with the new. The newly refurnbished Hotel Lamée, opened in autumn last year, is a great example. Built in the Thirties it embodied early 20th-century modernism. Located right in the very centre of the city, next to St Stephen's Cathedral, it comprises 32 rooms and suites in the eight-storey building. The geometric design of the facade has been carried on into the entrance of the hotel for something of an old-school Hollywood glamorous feel while the reddish brown stone floors, walls and ceilings adds a warm tone to the interior. With art-deco-inspired light fixtures with oversized tassels, shiny red lacquered dressers and circular back-lit mirrors, it certainly has a nod to its former glories. The old-school opulence continues into the hotel's two-storey bar, bistro and cafe with its vivid wall and ceiling patterns comprising backlit wooden veneer and tinted, mirrored glass.

Architect Stephan Ferenczy with Vienna-based practice BEHF says the brief was to create 'a cosy, highly luxurious, Viennese style project befitting the existing building. The city has a long tradition of producing architecture to a high standard with world-famous interior design. The challenge is to ensure that tradition of quality and values is saved and a sense of the contemporary is added'. BEHF is also working on a number of different projects in Vienna, among them a luxury supermarket, a small coffee and wine bar and an apartment building.

Says the city's tourist board bosss Kettner: 'Vienna is a big city in a small country. It is important to look across the border and to ask people to do things. We have a huge past and a great present.' And judging by the shape and proliferation of things to come, one might add a terrific future as a design city.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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