In Vienna, the so-called “café culture” does not resonate as a foreign concept. Within its coffeehouses, the Austrian capital has nurtured a stalwart appreciation for the arts and its related disciplines since the industrial revolution. Ask any Viennese citizen if this is a new development, and they’ll most likely scoff—discreetly, of course—at your cultural crudity and lack of historical awareness. However, to say that Vienna’s café culture has not changed over the course of its 125-year history is to ignore one of the greatest shifts in the contemporary European design community.
Over the past 10 years, Vienna has become a mecca for new European designers who are constantly looking forward. This isn’t Berlin, where decades of political, social, and cultural divisions have produced enough fuel for a slow-burn counterculture revolution. It’s not Paris, a city expected to uphold its avant-garde nature just on principle. This is Vienna, a place where design is a very serious matter. Most Viennese designers still hail from rigorous technical educations. They are the students of the esteemed Academy of the Fine Arts, having completed apprenticeships at centuries-old craftmakers, yet their work is anything but traditional. And in keeping with their non-conformist ideas, they’re showing and selling their work in non-traditional places: Vienna’s cafés.
“This is the first time the city is recovering from its ‘shit’ period [after World War II]. There’s a lot of opportunity for work to be done.”
- Fidel Peugeot, Walking Chair Design Studio
When you consider the evolution of modern Viennese design, it’s not so strange that this has come to pass. In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I bulldozed the city’s walls and replaced them with the Ringstrasse’s aggressive architecture. The city has incorporated design into everyday life ever since. After all, you can’t ignore design if you live in a city literally built to the edges of its property lines. People here accept design because it’s omnipresent and a welcome cultural facet. Couple this love for material objects with a robust historical café culture, and it’s no wonder that contemporary cafés are beginning to morph into design studios. But Viennese design certainly has not been corralled exclusively into the cafés. All over the city, studio think tanks, traditional artisans and the new showroom-coffeehouse hybrids are redefining the aesthetics and principles of 21st century Viennese design. Here, objects have always been privately crafted with incredible care. Processes that are no longer taking place behind closed doors.
New contemporary design studios like Walking Chair are determined to open design to the public. Designers Fidel Peugeot and Karl Emilio Pircher formed their partnership in 2002; Peugeot classically trained in communications design at the University for Design in Basel and Pircher, first trained as a mechanical engineer in his home country of Italy, and later continuing his studies at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Eventually finding each other while drifting through the Viennese design circles, the duo decided to set up shop as a can-do-all design studio in the Landstrasse neighborhood, home also to the famously-quirky HundertwasserHaus. They even chose a converted Viennese café as their studio’s home base.
Walking Chair specializes in product design, architecture and graphic design. In fact, the studio is named after one of Pircher’s mixed discipline designs, an animal-esque chair that actually walks. To Peugeot and Pircher, this wide-angle body of work makes sense in a city currently undergoing a design renaissance. “This is the first time the city is recovering from its ‘shit’ period [after World War II],” states Peugeot. “There’s a lot of opportunity for work to be done.” Their experimentation with vivid colors, non-traditional materials and zany product installations serves as a testament to the Walking Chair philosophy. The studio’s products range from a playful series of P.E.T lights, chandeliers assembled from shrunken plastic bottles meant for the private home, to the bright red You May furniture unit, large enough and durable enough to withstand use and abuse in a public space. Peugeot explains this exploration simply, stating, “The way we work is the way we are living. We believe in our craziness—we don’t want to become Coca-Cola!”
“The way we work is the way we are living. We believe in our craziness—we don’t want to become Coca-Cola!”
Disseminating their vision of good design, whether it is with their own work or the work of somebody else, is a key tenet of Walking Chair’s principles. “We like design, ours and others,” says Peugeot. In 2007, the designers opened Walking Chair Gallery right next door to their studio in order to showcase both types of work. The admission-free gallery exhibits three to four shows a year, often debuting the work of unknown Viennese designers. This past fall’s show featured Klangbox instruments, guitars made by Vienna scavenger Elmar Zeilhofer. And while they don’t serve coffee in the gallery, artists like Zeilhofer insist that its space captures the familiar Vienna café culture vibe because it publicly but casually encourages design innovation. “I was visiting a friend to show him two new instruments, one with a deer skull, and Walking Chair is on the same street,” says Zeilhofer, recalling how he walked into the studio off the street to introduce Peugeot to his madcap guitars. “I was curious to see what reaction the instruments would cause. Fidel was very much interested in the idea, although he later admitted that his first thought about their non-expected appearance was: ‘Is that a wild one or what?!’” Shortly thereafter, Walking Chair decided to take a chance on Zeilhofer, commissioning a solo exhibition that ran this past summer. When asked how he feels his Klangbox instruments swerve the Viennese design scene, Zeilhofer plainly replies, “Hmm…I simply don’t know. The exposition at the Walking Chair Gallery is my first connection to the local design culture so far.” This response seems perfectly fitting. Because, as Peugeot and Pircher have proven time and again, Walking Chair likes to encourage the growth of new design by showing fun, offbeat work in their relaxed public space.
Even though their studio and gallery may feel casual, the zealousness that characterizes Walking Chair’s passion for design is unmistakably Viennese. In this city, design is an entrenched culture enricher, and it has always been treated accordingly. The histories of old companies such as world-renowned fine crystal makers J. & L. Lobmeyr can—and do—attest to design’s high cultural value. By the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna’s artists and designers recognized Lobmeyr as a serious design institution, a company committed to preserving high levels of craftsmanship while simultaneously pioneering modern design aesthetics.
The company has always shunned industrial production. To this day, the crystal makers handblow, engrave, cut and polish each piece of work that they produce. Each piece is made from a hand-milled mold that can only be used 100 times. Paper silhouette patterns ensure that all new molds exactly replicate their patterned predecessors. Lobmeyr’s materials and products reference historicism, and its manufacturing process is almost too protracted to ever have been considered modern. On its time-tested apprenticeship program, Leonid Rath, a sixth-generation Lobmeyr family member and current head of the company, says, “About five years are needed to be able [to] learn copper wheel engraving or glass cutting.” The process is so laborious and so technical that each designer typically only masters one or two design positions. As Rath proudly admits, “Not everybody can do everything even after 30 or 50 years. There are certain challenges we only can give to one specific craftsman.”
It’s slightly baffling to think of Lobmeyr, a crystal maker so tied to intricate craftsmanship, as champions of contemporary design. However, the company has always collaborated with leading contemporary artists and designers, such as architect Aldolf Loos, glass sculptorVera Liskova and product designers Marie Rahm andMonica Singer of POLKA, in order to generate new stemware collections for fabrication. To this day, Loos’ pattern no. 248 still sells as one of their most popular glassware sets. Debuted in 1931, the design itself is sleek and simple, limited in ornamentation and unmistakably modern. Lobmeyr attributes the pattern’s historic success to the miniscule intricacies that comprise its perceived simplicity. “There are many small details that even make a very simple design unique if designed and crafted through until its perfect,” states Rath. “A good sample is the very simple [Loos] tumbler set. The tumbler is quite a bit wider at the top than at the bottom, but you will not recognize that seeing the actual piece. On the contrary, you will feel the tumbler getting narrower on top, if the shape is made exactly cylindrical.” Loos’ tumbler indeed exhibits the Corbusian phenomenal transparency—a modern design property so rarely achieved when a detail is only indirectly perceived, not directly observed.
“We have the experience that our people stick to their job with a certain passion,” Rath asserts. “I do not know many who ever changed their job.”
These properties, Rath reaffirms, can only be created through Lobmeyr’s meticulous process of artisinal hand manufacture. This is how the company justifies training craftsmen in a field of such narrow work opportunities.
“We have the experience that our people stick to their job with a certain passion,” Rath asserts. “I do not know many who ever changed their job.” Lobmeyr also offers to the world an alternative definition to the hot-box term, sustainability. The company strives for emotional durability, an idea based on the concept that consumers will keep goods for decades if they truly love them. “Objects have to stay desirable for their total physical lifetime. We know that carefully hand-crafted products have a very high emotional durability. In a world overloaded by mediocre products, it is touching how customers can be affected by the uniqueness of a glass they touch.”
So, although its products may be associated with high brow institutions and vintage social traditions, Lobmeyr’s work processes of design collaboration, manufacturing and sustainability prove that the company has rightfully earned its place as a Viennese design heavyweight still setting the bar for its contemporary compatriots.“We think that Vienna [design] stands for the incorporation of emotion and rationality, and that this is the most important base to manage the massive fine tuning, which has to be achieved in [the design] world in the next decades,” Rath says. This is a serious proposition that’s going to take a tremendous joint effort within this relatively small community. But, in looking to
some of the new showroom-cafés, it becomes so evident that the fine-tuning of the Viennese design scene has already begun.
These new hybrid design showrooms, with names like “Phil” and “Das Möbel” (“furniture” in English), capitalize upon Vienna’s long history of strong café patronage and love for the design disciplines. “Vienna’s design scene is definitely upcoming,” states Das Möbel team member Katharina Marginter. “Designers come to live and work in Austria,
especially Vienna. There is a strong cooperation between designers and economy.” Obviously, this energy provides a prime space for new design exhibition techniques. Whereas the cafés of old Vienna often invited designers and artists to come and engage the public in a dialogue about their work, these new cafés instead place the work directly within
their spaces. But it’s more than just showing art on the wall or sculpture on the floor. These culture hot-spots literally furnish their interiors with hardware, industrial products and furniture done by Austria’s best design up-and-comers. Their casual vibe just makes the work all that more accessible.
Das Möbel really pioneered this new design space typology. Founded in 1998 by Lothar Trierenberg and Margreta Schieszwohl, the café has become a design-collecting hub where the general public can confront designers and their work over a cup of coffee and piece of strudel. The space itself is sparse, but it is filled with all kinds of colorful objects produced by an interesting mélange of Central European designers, with every piece in the expanded three-story coffee shop for sale. “In the café, people can use the furniture and find themselves in a relaxed shopping atmosphere,” he says. “You can come as often as you like, without having a sales assistant sneaking up on you and asking if you want to buy something.” While Trierenberg admits that Das Möbel encourages exhibited designers to spend as much time as they can at the café, he firmly believes they don’t show up just to hawk goods. They come to exchange ideas and further build up Vienna’s burgeoning design culture. “For designers, Das Möbel is an international contact point and a design scene expert regarding Austrian style,” Trierenberg says. “It establishes access to the market and presents an up-to-date survey of contemporary Austrian and Central European design work in temporary exhibitions.” Over the past few years, Trierenberg and his team have worked closely with the Austrian design community in order to hone its principles. “The concept of design is no longer equated with fashion trends and costly prettification of living spaces, but stands for furniture-creations that connect with their users in form and function on a daily basis,” says Trierenberg. “In this public living room, exchange will continue in the future.”
Today, Vienna is a unique city in that it considers how good design can affect people’s lives. Ultimately, what is most striking about Vienna’s new public design scene is the fierce passion that drives its evolution. Just like the café culture, this passion has a long history, and takes many shapes. Playfulness and optimism are on view at studios like Walking Chair. Lobmeyr is still training artisans and fabricating crystal goods with painstaking care and the utmost respect for materials. And the slew of new cafés like Das Möbel actively encourage designers and the public to come utilize their
spaces as public platforms to talk about good design. Although these approaches are all different, they promote the same goals: actively engage design, realize that it must be produced at a high level of quality and keep it alive for the future. This is not about a political statement, a cultural movement or a class distinction. As is so evident in the city’s galleries, showrooms and—most publicly of all in its cafés—in Vienna, good design equals a good way of life.
Text by Kathryn Freeman Rathbone
Photos by Chris Eichenseer
Chris Eichenseer is the creative force behind the design studio Someoddpilot, Chris Eichenseer Photography and Public Works. He also plays drums in Beak—the world’s heaviest metal band.