From makers who continually hone their craft to curators who amplify their work, Austria is a world leader in practical and elegant design.
Austria’s deft reputation in design combines many factors but a meticulous attention to detail marks the best of it, from architecture and graphic design to furniture-making. On our design odyssey across the nation, we highlight the brands, spaces and shops that typify this detail-oriented approach.
Graz graphic-design outfit Bruch is known for pushing the boundaries of typography, as a recent project for workspace provider BSC illustrates. “Initially they just asked for a sign,” says co-founder Kurt Glänzer as he takes monocle through the custom typeface and way-finding system Bruch ended up creating for the company. Referencing the folds of the office’s corrugated-metal façade, the new typeface is clean and functional (like most of Bruch’s portfolio). Custom signage is a hallmark of Austrian high streets and firms such as Bruch are ensuring that this fine tradition continues.
Vienna’s furniture-shopping options are unrivalled. The reason? The nation’s proximity to design-manufacturing hubs such as Germany and Italy, alongside a long history of high-end Austrian craft.
Ali Bechstein and Peter Lindenberg know this well. Their working weeks are spent delving into sales at grand old Viennese apartments to unearth fine glass lighting from companies such as Kalmar and mid-century furniture made in Mitteleuropa. They trade such wares – alongside pieces from further afield – at Vintagerie, which specialises in design from the early and mid-20th century. Now the pair plan to champion newer design talents and have opened Schickeria, a tasteful and eclectically stocked retailer. Expect to find new handwoven lampshades by Market Set and letterpress greetings cards from Belgium’s Studio Flash.
Collaboration rather than competition – such has been the mandate of Werkraum ever since a handful of Bregenzerwald craftspeople decided to group together in 1999 to promote their skills. The craft association has more than 100 members in fields such as carpentry and shoe-making. “Craft holds a fundamental place in our region,” says Miriam Kathrein, managing director of Werkraum. “This understanding has made us a beacon for regional development on an international level.”
Verena Panholzer established her small Viennese design firm, Studio Es, in order to elevate art direction and graphic design in her home city. While her team is small, the work is global. Yet the influences of Vienna creep into most projects, such as an old painting of Beethoven superimposed onto a typographic treatment for a Wien Museum exhibition poster. Here she explains more.
Your ideas seem ahead of the curve. Where do you find inspiration?
We do a lot of research before any work is done and then we look at using that research in an unexpected way. We also try to be not too open to the world. The internet means that we are exposed to too much and, as a designer, you can start to feel that everything has been done before. We try to mix the channels and make something new somehow.
How does Vienna influence your creative output?
Working from this Wiener Werkstätte studio, I enjoy the silence, the space and thinking about the history of the design movement that took place here. On the streets, the old glamour that surrounds you in Vienna is inspiring. You’re also constantly uncovering things that you never knew existed. Three years ago, I was connected with an old copperplate printer for Vienna Design Week. We did posters together and when you step into the old printers like that one you feel that you’re stepping back in time. I like the idea of taking something from the past and treating it in a different way rather than simply recycling it. Vienna allows us to do this.
What separates your design work from art, particularly when you’re working with artist clients and more abstract ideas?
What is really important is having grids and systems; we are not just trying to create art. If we are creating art it’s by doing it through the content; everything we use in our designs has to have an idea behind it that relates back to that content.
No design piece embodies a cultivated Austrian appearance as much as the No 14, Thonet’s classic Viennese coffee-house chair. From the sleek aesthetics of its curved-wood backrest to the delicate tactility of its Viennese braid seat, it is Austria’s pride and dates back to 1859. In fact, an Austrian would tell you that it is the most successful industrial product of the 19th century and the starting point of modern design. Lenin had one, as did Einstein, Tolstoy, even the White House. Some 60 million have been sold to date – more than any other chair. There’s only one catch to this Austrian success story – the chair’s inventor is actually German.
Michael Thonet, the creator, came from Boppard on the Rhine River where he perfected the art of steam-bending beech wood in his workshop. His products ended up becoming the emblem of Austria’s elegant elite merely by chance. “Thonet’s avant garde workshop caught the attention of Chancellor Clemens von Metternich in 1842 so he convinced him to move to Vienna,” says Norbert Ruf, creative director of German brand Thonet, currently the largest producer of the chair. According to Ruf, the then honourable ruler provided Thonet (the man) with money and patents, supposedly telling him: “In Germany, you’ll always be poor.”
At that time the Austrian empire was cashed up and technologically advanced. Under the empire’s patronage, Thonet furnished royal residences, including the Liechtenstein Palace, and created less intricate pieces, namely the No 14. It became ubiquitous in Viennese coffee houses and soon spread across parlours, casinos and grand hotels throughout Europe. This was not just because of its handsome appearance. Comprising just six parts and 10 screws, it was the first flat-packed piece of furniture in the world. Sold today as No 214 by Thonet, it is still produced by hand yet its identity remains ambiguous – an Austrian design icon that’s made in Germany.
An Italian in Austria, design curator Alice Stori Liechtenstein channels the creative flair of her homeland and the grand history of her current digs (a splendid Schloss that her husband inherited in the Styrian village of Hollenegg) into a unique residency programme: Schloss Hollenegg for Design. It will conclude its fifth year with an exhibition in May.
How does Schloss Hollenegg for Design connect Styria with international design?
After moving into the castle, the first exhibition I curated was in nearby Graz. The support that it received made me think I could do this again but this time in Hollenegg. Some people suggested an artist’s residency but working with designers was always my ambition. The castle is full of treasures; any designer would find so much inspiration spending time here. Bringing designers here and asking them to interpret what they discover in the castle into new designs creates something that is rooted in history.
How have you combined contemporary design with Austria’s manufacturing tradition?
I push the designers in residence to create something that both fits with their narrative but allows them to go further than they usually would. They have new opportunities, such as being able to work with different materials. For instance, London-based designer Stephanie Hornig was fascinated by silver, an expensive material that she had never used before. I was able to link her with Jarosinski & Vaugoin, one of the few silversmiths left in Vienna. Since making silver tableware for our exhibition, they’ve gone on to work together on other projects, which was a wonderful outcome for both parties.
What can visitors expect when you open the castle doors for the next showing?
The exhibition is called Walden, which in one way is inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s book about living in the forest but also aims to talk about ecology in an active and positive way. Climate change is a topic that’s too politicised. I just want people to start falling in love with nature again.
When we think of architectural hotspots, big cities often spring to mind. Bregenzerwald in Vorarlberg is an exception. Helping to put the rural region on the world’s design map is Bernardo Bader, an architect whose work blends simple materials with a respect for craft traditions.
What defines the architecture in Bregenzerwald?
There are few regions where architecture and craft are as deeply interlinked as here. These have always been highly regarded construction careers. Take a typical Vorarlberg Stube: anyone stepping inside will think that it’s cosy, partly because it’s old but mostly because it’s incredibly well made. It’s the product of a flat hierarchy, where everyone involved can make functional and aesthetic decisions.
How do you bring this vernacular up to date?
Our ambition is to create good work with few materials – wood, concrete, stone – as it facilitates harmony between material and form. We want to rethink what people want from a building. Our Wolf ski cabin in Lech made us realise that mountain architecture is not about creating some alpine romance. What people expect is to feel a direct link to nature. If architecture truly works in dialogue with people and places, it is made to last. This is why we tend to use wood for rural projects, and stone and concrete for urban ones. It makes sense.
Most of your projects are in Bregenzerwald but some are in Switzerland, Germany and Tyrol. Is there a difference between working close to home and further afield?
Some buildings are right on my doorstep, such as the Salgenreute chapel in Kumbach, which saw the whole village joining in on the construction. We had a limited budget but the outcome is beautiful because it drew on our collective spirit. If I can translate this to other regions, where such appreciation of craft is perhaps no longer the norm, I feel like my task as an architect is fulfilled. This typically Bregenzerwald approach is deeply ingrained in me.
Austria might not be able to rival auto-manufacturing powerhouse Germany when it comes to industry size. But from the slopes of Tyrol to the manufacturing region of Styria, Austrian vehicle design and manufacturing wields a mighty punch. We take a spin in (and on) some of Austria’s best rides, from the beasts to the beauties.
Hermann Lindner started his eponymous Tyrolean tractor company in 1948, putting this Alpine state on the manufacturing map. Its new Lintrac 130 is a farmer’s dream come true: the smart electronic system and all-wheel drive, plus a low centre of gravity, offer high manoeuvrability. All this makes the Lintrac 130 not only one of the most versatile tractors on the market but probably the smartest one too.
The Austrian-made Action Mobil Global XRS 7200 is part campervan part tank and is coveted throughout Mitteleuropa. Its manufacturer might be based in quaint Zell am See but the statement that this beast of a motorhome makes is anything but quiet. While it will set you back a cool €850,000, you could literally move the contents of your home (well, a modest apartment, at least) into a vehicle this size. The “global” in the name hints at the kind of journey you can undertake in this off-road specialist – this is six-wheel driving at its finest. The “7200” points to its 720Ah lithium-ion battery which, combined with rooftop solar panelling, provides enough juice to keep the campsite party pumping all night.
Graz auto-builder Magna Steyr is a bit like that hot professor you fancied on your year abroad: experienced, exotic and refined. The independent engineering and manufacturing company partners with big-name auto-makers such as Land Rover, Toyota and Mercedes to produce specialised vehicles. More than 3.5 million cars have rolled off its factory floor since it was founded in 1950. Last year the company supercharged the production of the Mercedes G-Class with the launch of a new model. It maintained the design icon’s boxy and rugged aesthetic while improving its off-road capabilities. And with sales growing, it seems that this beauty is in high demand.
The Ziesel, conceived by inventor Alois Bauer and his company Mattro, tackles sandy beaches in summer, gravel roads in autumn and snowy slopes in winter. Steered by a joystick, the vehicle gives access to those too physically impaired to enjoy more treacherous terrains. In Austria, a new verb is already in circulation: to ziesel.
Viennese modernism remains one of the most magical moments in the history of design. Think of Sigmund Freud mapping the mind from his office at 19 Berggasse, Arnold Schönberg harnessing atonality at his house in Ober St Veit or Gustav Klimt sensualising the Secession from his studio on Josefstädter Strasse. All of this happened at once in a caffeinated, multimedia rebellion against the conservatism of Austrian culture at the turn of the 20th century. The moment even has a name: Wiener Moderne. Yet the more that we scrutinise the last century and trace the roots of today’s trends and tastes back through the decades, the more that Vienna’s modern moment feels like a continuum instead.
The innovations of fin de siècle Vienna are familiar to fans of architecture and the decorative arts. While Otto Wagner was rejecting the historicist façades of the Ringstrasse in favour of a forward-looking functionalism, his ally Adolf Loos was replacing what he mocked as “ornament and crime” with architecture stripped to its spatial essence. While Klimt and protégé Egon Schiele were rendering their erotic imagery with a textile-like intensity, Secessionists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser were aiming to bring Gesamtkunstwerk – the Wiener Werkstätte’s design aesthetic of delicate grids, sinuous lines and sumptuous materials – to the masses.
The world wars shattered this efflorescence but also scattered its seeds, and soon new growth was sprouting. RM Schindler, a student of Wagner and Loos, arrived in Chicago in 1914 hoping to work for Frank Lloyd Wright; eight years later, on the edge of a West Hollywood field, he broke ground on what might have been the world’s first fully modern residence: flat roof, communal plan, large window walls and a primal palette of concrete, canvas, copper, redwood and glass. In 1925, Schindler’s Viennese schoolmate Richard Neutra came to live in Hollywood too, at nearby Kings Road, and though personal and professional differences spoiled their partnership, the two Austrians went on to epitomise duelling strains of US modernism. Neutra, the rationalist, was determined to distil his thin, glassy aesthetic into perfect boxes; Schindler, the romantic, was obsessed with arranging space into “a quiet, flexible background for a harmonious life,” however idiosyncratic the results.
But unlike their doctrinaire International Style peers or the commercial copycats who followed, both Schindler and Neutra put individual identity first. That is why they still resonate at a time when the internet threatens to flatten everything. The human, the handmade and the unconventional – these are the values that distinguish the curvaceous furniture of Schindler and Neutra’s fellow émigré Paul Frankl; the elegant yet radical ceramics of Lucie Rie in England and Otto and Gertrud Natzler in California; the eclectic fabrics and interiors of Josef Frank in Sweden; the flowing architecture of Harry Seidler in Australia; even the gutsy graphic design of Stefan Sagmeister in New York. Vienna’s modern moment is long over but the liberation it represented – and continues to inspire – will always be in style.
While neighbours Germany and Italy are well recognised for large-scale furniture industries, Austria has, over centuries, quietly mastered a more delicate side of design. And in 2020, when buying less but better is the new model for furnishing your home, one can look gladly to the many grand “Made in Austria” pieces available in the nation’s ateliers and showrooms. We unpack the fine pursuit of living like an Austrian.
Lobmeyr’s dramatic chandeliers (Thomas Edison was a notable collaborator) hang in the nation’s most handsome homes and museums. Its smaller glassware work is equally elegant.
For almost 300 years the gold-tipped porcelain of the Belvedere collection has adorned the smartest tables. The brand’s dedication to perfection is still present at its home, the Palais Augarten. augarten.com
The Viennese café culture has informed the nation’s excellence in making furniture for a sunny outdoor perch. Karasek delivers perfect plastic-and-steel pieces for the patio, from early modernist designer Josef Frank to more contemporary creators.
Top of the pile when it comes to tassels is Austria’s M Maurer. The brand draws upon traditional embroidery techniques to form theatrical pieces that will add a touch of flamboyance to your curtains.
The sixth-generation maker is known for its use of high-end 925 sterling silver. Every piece in a cutlery set is hand-made and buyers can choose from more than 200 patents.
While the pace of Austrian life veers between relaxed and very relaxed, when work does need to get done offices here are well equipped for the job. Bene has been churning out chairs and desks since 1790 and while this steel-legged desk system is a more modern marvel, its “Made in Austria” tag keeps its quality in line with Bene’s extensive catalogue.
A punchy pink Styrian Schilcher should only be drunk in fine Austrian glassware. Riedel is respected globally for making such vessels and its Extreme range is designed to direct wine straight to the tip of the tongue, maximising the robustness of a good rosé.
Alongside partner Andreas Wessely, interior designer Michael Niederer (pictured, right) has mastered the art of scouring markets for well-designed vintage wares. You’ll find the fruits of their labours at their beautiful rural hospitality ventures, Villa Antoinette (a step back into the heady fin de siècle of Alpine holidaying) and Hotel Fernblick (a magical mid-century mountain hotel). Here many items, such as Murano glass chandeliers and bar trolleys loaded with vintage glassware, have been sourced at Vienna’s Naschmarkt, the couple’s favoured spot. Niederer, who also owns award-winning firm St Corona Interiors, leads monocle on a sourcing journey through the busy stalls set up in the capital in the wee hours every Saturday morning.
Return relentlessly. “We’ve built up relationships with the traders and often they’ll have pieces put aside for us.”
Fuel up. “Our traditional start is always a Frankfurter served with mustard and horseradish on the side – it also helps with hangovers.”
Don’t hesitate. “If you see something you really like, always buy it; there will always be a home for it. For us it either ends up in one of our hotels, in an interiors project or in the cellar until the right place becomes available.”
Barter fairly. “Bartering is a game you must play. If you’re not getting about 30 per cent off the first price you’re given, you’re getting ripped off. That being said, you should never be unfair. If a trader is having some bad weeks they might sell a precious piece for less than they should and this hurts their business.”
Inform yourself. “Read up on what you want to buy. As soon as a trader recognises that you know what you’re talking about they’ll respect you more and you’ll get a better deal.”
There are plenty of striking sights to enjoy during a grand tour of Austria’s design highlights, from the remote castles of Styria to the ornate façades of the capital. Although the nation is known for its historic castles and turn-of-the-century art deco gems, it has also been home to pioneers of modernist and brutalist architecture in more recent times. monocle asked some of the top Austrian photographers and architects to highlight some unmissable moments for your design odyssey.
The latest book by Vienna-based photographer Stefan Oláh is dedicated to Austrian architecture of the 1950s and features remarkable buildings such as Imst, one of the country’s largest power plants. “I wanted to show the archetype of postwar architecture and engineering,” says Oláh of the now defunct site. “Inside the building every detail is a masterpiece of design but there are no workers. It’s a hidden beauty.”
Photographer Jamie McGregor Smith has spent the past two years capturing the most striking modernist churches around Europe. The church of St Theresia is one of the largest postwar catholic churches in Linz and among his top picks. Built by German architect Rudolf Schwarz between 1959 and 1962, its series of elevated glass-brick panels allow a soft, peaceful light to flood the spacious elliptical nave from all sides.
Supermarkets should be functional but why can’t they also be beautiful? That is the idea behind MPreis, a family-owned supermarket that has collaborated with different architects to build its 260 shops across Austria. Our favourite is in the village of St Martin, where LP Architektur has designed a timber building that emerges out of the hillside. “You can build something beautiful that is not terribly expensive,” says the practice’s Stefan Österreicher. “It also creates a pleasant atmosphere for customers.”
The team at the helm of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (Mak) aim to shift our perception of design. This takes place across the ornate halls of Mak through exhibitions examining everything from bentwood Thonet chairs to virtual-reality worlds derived from a Gustav Klimt masterpiece. At the museum’s popular Mak Design Lab, Marlies Wirth has helped to shape a collection featuring everything from an experimental light-switch billboard from Vienna’s Studio Ruhry to early iPhone models. Wirth and Mak director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein sit down with Monocle.
Walking through Mak, it feels like all of Austrian design comes together here. Where does Mak fit into the design world in both Austria and the rest of the globe?
Christoph Thun-Hohenstein: We are the world’s second oldest museum of applied arts, behind London’s V&A, with a huge collection, yet we are also a laboratory for the future. Whatever we present from our collection, we also think about how it would help us to design the future. A key feature is the Mak Design Lab, which we introduced in 2014 and overhauled last year as part of the Vienna Biennale for Change 2019.
The Mak Design Lab displays work that might interest people who don’t necessarily come from design backgrounds. How do you find that balance of making it accessible but still serious?
Marlies Wirth: That is due to our unique curatorial team. We invited Vienna-based design studio Mischer Traxler, a couple who work in experimental and transformation design, rather than in product design. I, as a trained art historian, was also involved in creating the design collection. My colleague Janina Falkner is in charge of new concepts for learning and also has two kids; I know that normally doesn’t play a role but here it did. We had many different perspectives and, guided by Christoph, we made sure that the Mak Design Lab would inspire designers but also kids or grandmas – specialists and novices alike. We aimed to highlight a good mix of ideas to expand what the notion of design could be; something contributing to how society works and how we can care for our planet.
Mak Design Lab, alongside highlighting some revolutionary products, showcases some less successful, but still inspiring, ones. Why is it important to include works like this?
MW: These are specifically placed in a section called Design Dilemma, which implies that they were ambitious projects, with great design, but they didn’t work. We try to explain why design can sometimes fail but why, when it does, you have to try again and maybe fail better, especially with technology.
And how can Mak Design Lab and the museum help designers, and the planet, in the future?
CTH: We feel like we are living in a new modernity, a digital modernity – and smartphones are often the drivers. This is the reason why I, at least, say that this modernity started in January 2007, when the first iPhone was presented to the world. It is very important that we, as an institution, actively try to influence how this modernity develops. It must turn into an eco-social modernity with development around climate care; this has become the point of departure for Mak Design Lab.