We visit the furniture-making powerhouse in western Austria that is catching the eye of firms in search of superior craftsmanship.
“The furniture of our region used to be marked by strong ornamental traits once typical of alpine design,” says master carpenter Wolfgang Schmidinger, running his hand over a freshly sanded tabletop. “We now favour functionality and clean lines, letting the wood speak for itself.” Behind him in his furniture workshop in the hamlet of Schwarzenberg – in Bregenzerwald, western Austria – hundreds of tables in the same simple timber design are stacked on top of one another, ready to be delivered to the village school for the start of term.
The school tables aren’t the first foray into large custom orders for the firm owned by Schmidinger. Global clients in search of durable timber products with quality design are frequently knocking on his door. Schmidinger Möbelbau began to draw attention at international furniture fairs in the 1990s and commissions have since included pieces for US architect Steven Holl – for his Glasgow School of Art extension, mit dorms and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City – and conference desks for the Swissmedic headquarters in Bern. “In other regions, large-scale commissions such as these would have gone to industrial companies,” says Schmidinger. “Not here, though. We have the experience and technical skills to keep production in craft circles.” His seven-person team only uses European timber, including ash, oak, maple and elm.
Schmidinger is one of a handful of design-led Bregenzerwald craftsmen who have helped the region’s furniture industry gain momentum abroad, building on a rich manufacturing heritage while developing a contemporary vernacular free of alpine clichés. This low-key style makes for versatile, quick-to-construct pieces that resonate with a worldwide audience.
Building on tradition
Though less well-known than global manufacturing meccas such as Lombardy in Italy, this small corner of Austria is attracting design commissions from around the world. A lot of this has to do with the personal relationship that those buying in Bregenzerwald have with the makers. In the past the first port of call for locals seeking to furnish a home or workplace was always the village carpenter. This tradition remains, though it’s not only the villagers who are now consulting their craftspeople; the region’s makers are winning over foreign buyers too, through a long-standing customer-focused approach to their work.
The output here is not unlike the stripped-back aesthetic and function-focused soul of Scandinavian or Japanese design. In fact, the Schmidinger-manufactured, Harri Koskinen-designed Fatty Container box (a stackable storage crate that can double as a stool) is popular with a Japanese audience that covets well-made furniture for small-space living. By combining form and function with expert handiwork and high-quality materials, the region’s craftspeople excel at making pieces that are – and stay – relevant to everyday life, no matter where they are being used. “For many of our international clientele, it’s a novelty to be able to put a face to the person behind a piece of furniture,” says Anton Mohr of Tischlerei Mohr, a furniture brand based in Andelsbuch. “That’s why we prefer not to work with stockists.”
At Tischlerei Mohr, visitors can peek inside the showroom’s adjacent wood workshop, which exhibits the results of collaborations with the likes of celebrated Swiss architect Peter Zumthor (including custom-made beech chairs for his famous Therme Vals Swiss baths) and London-based interior designer Anthony Collett. As Mohr talks monocle through past collections and collaborations, he stops by the Standing Bench Bock, which Tischlerei crafted for German product- designer Carolin Zeyher. This barstool with a built-in drinks tray and bag hanger has become a favourite on Berlin’s hospitality scene, impressing diners at Lode & Stijn and Bar Raval, among other restaurants. “Designers increasingly know of our region,” says Mohr. “They approach us; it’s not the other way around.”
To maintain and strengthen the bond between makers, designers and buyers, regional craftspeople of all trades united in 1999 to form Werkraum Bregenzerwald. The association’s glass-and-timber HQ and exhibition space acts as a display case for the region’s craft ecosystem, where people can see the materials and methods up close. Werkraum organises workshops for children and adults, as well as a five-year apprenticeship programme that is taught in collaboration with Bezau’s business school to ensure the survival of craft-related careers for generations to come.
Bregenzerwald in business:
This Andelsbuch-based company has been crafting hardwood furniture and specialising in tables and benches – often with foldable mechanisms – for more than 60 years.
In Austria, a Tischlerei makes furniture and a Zimmerei performs fit-outs. Reuthe-based Kaufmann Zimmerei specialises in wood-clad interiors and exteriors, as well as modular buildings.
Founded in Lingenau in 1968, Tischlerei Bereuter makes office furniture, including desks (one model doubles as a table and blackboard), rotating stools, pencil holders and many other desktop accessories.
Aside from its furniture collections, this Schwarzenberg-based carpentry firm works on made-to-measure commissions for select hospitality, educational and commercial clients.
“Our region is all about making the invisible dimension of craftsmanship visible to everyone,” says Martin Bereuter, an architect and carpenter who’s the current chairman of Werkraum Bregenzerwald. “We have always built timber furniture that lasts for centuries. Now we want to make sure that our pieces don’t outlive our craft tradition.”