Lilli Hollein, General Director and Scientific Director, MAK, 2021

Questioning processes

Lilli Hollein is the new director of the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. She talks to us about her plans for the renowned applied arts museum and her reflections on 15 years of Vienna Design Week.

Anna Moldenhauer: Lilli, in your life you’ve already been a project manager, coordinator, curator, journalist, and author. You studied industrial design, briefly also psychology, and you have a great deal of experience in art education and practice. How do you link these two paths for your new position as director of the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna?

Lilli Hollein: It was clear to me relatively early on that I wanted to take on the role of educator and intermediary rather than designer. The different ways of articulating design have likewise given rise to a need to build bridges and to reach a broad audience, which is also a focus for me in view of the MAK’s important collection. I think this museum offers particular opportunities for this, since it’s designed in an interdisciplinary way and has been continually evolving over the last few decades.

What do museums need today to appeal to a diverse audience?

Lilli Hollein: They need the ability to communicate – and to do so in a way that makes use of a wide variety of tools. Clearly it’s not enough to just put up posters inviting people to the exhibitions. A wider reach takes more than that. Lots of small education formats, for example, which highlight the museum’s commitment, if possible also to political and social themes.

While preparing for this interview I read that clear positioning and more international visibility are goals the public would like to see at the MAK. Do you see a need for action there?

Lilli Hollein: I think those are two relevant points. Over the past few years, the MAK has worked hard to address pressing questions – including concerning the creative industries. As with positions on sustainability, I believe it’s important to adopt a clear stance here. What the Museum of Applied Arts stands for in general can certainly be condensed into images, and I see that as one of our tasks. Likewise, international linkages has once again taken on a new meaning in light of the last year and a half. The attitude towards collaborations is changing for the better in many places. I’m looking forward to the networking, as well as to interacting with new design museums that have different approaches. Here at the MAK, we are building on an established structure, which represents a huge opportunity. At the same time, it is also a period of time when we need to closely analyse this institution to see whether the way we represent the world is still the right one.

I agree that reflection is essential for further development. So is there any particular area in design education and intermediation that you think should be given more attention?

Lilli Hollein: In contemporary design there are some aspects that we have to convey. These range from the role of design in society to the definition of social design, to the question of why we need design creatives to design processes. There are also many areas of global development in which design plays an unbelievably important role. On top of that, we have to ask ourselves how digital works can be mapped out as new content for the collection – and what might distinguish them so that we want to collect and exhibit them. There are a lot of questions and topics to address there. It is important to keep re-reading the collection, because that way you get a different perspective. That’s something I will do very explicitly. Part of that, I believe, is also reevaluating the biographies of designers. The exhibition on the women members of Vienna Werkstätte is undoubtedly an initial step in this direction, but there is still a great deal more to work through. Ray Eames, for example, is predominantly reduced to her role as the wife of Charles Eames, which is a difficult way of reading it. There is no equal evaluation of achievement here. And that’s the case with a lot of creative man/woman teams, particularly if they are or were also in a personal relationship in parallel.

Is it important to you that you are the first woman to become director of the MAK?

Lilli Hollein: I don’t think it’s crucial that I, specifically, am in that position – but I am a supporter of executive level quotas in order to force new processes. I believe that’s the only way we can bring about a balanced state of affairs. It’s a matter of guiding the conscious process forcibly once so that it can then transition casually into a matter of course and prompt a world view that is more comprehensive. We have to go through this now, even if it causes friction among us at times, as can be seen in the sometimes very passionate debate about gendering in language. In this respect, I think it’s important that a woman is now director of the MAK – Museum of Applied Art.

In 2007, you teamed up with Tulga Beyerle and Thomas Geisler of Neigungsgruppe Design to launch the Vienna Design Week. What were you aiming to covey to society back then?

Lilli Hollein: In Austria in particular, “design” is not a term that’s perceived hugely positively. Even well-educated people often have only very superficial knowledge about design, what it is supposed to achieve, and where it should be applied. There are also a lot of companies that consider design to be merely optimization of the outward appearance of objects. That’s something we found really shocking when we launched the Vienna Design Week and I feel like that today. We were aiming to strengthen the discourse around the term “design”, to give it a more positive connotation and to highlight the international visibility of the Austrian design scene. Providing a platform for design has at least had an impact in that creatives who were lacking a platform for exchange and presentation and had turned away from Austria in disappointment actually found their way back through the establishment of Vienna Design Week.

With the Vienna Design Week, international design came to Austria and at the same time the festival made designers and craftspeople more visible in Vienna. What was the biggest challenge of the mediation during this time?

Lilli Hollein: The negative notion of design was always a hard nut we had to crack, specifically with the Passionswege concept (which deals with craftsmanship). At the same time, the doors have also been thrown open in very surprising places. The concept of design is very open, which means it’s not always easy to distil the message. Even though Vienna Design Week has achieved a great deal so far, there is still plenty to do.

What should design offer our society these days?

Lilli Hollein: I believe that design should place itself in the service of society and offer solutions to current issues. At certain points you also need stronger alliances with business in order not only to offer solutions, but also to apply them. By that I mean, for example, the major issue of climate change, which was a very big focus for my predecessor in the MAK, too. Here, there are still too many excuses. I believe design is always relevant as a form of cultural expression. That said, at the same time, design is also very political.

Is there something lacking in the current design discourse, including in relation to your new role? Perhaps criticism, courage, or an issue that is paid too little attention and which you would like to highlight?

Lilli Hollein: I wouldn’t look so much for flaws, but rather focus on analysis and reflection. We’re looking at the collection from the perspective of today. I think it’s crucial to engage in this process of questioning, and I’m really looking forward to working with the team to take a look at where we are and how we can convey a kind of museum practice that affords a new naturalness. As part of this, museums and cultural institutions should also stand in solidarity with artists as a link to the avant-garde.

Your family has very strong connections with the themes of art, design, architecture, and culture and has had a strong influence on them – from your father, the architect Hans Hollein, to your brother Max Hollein, who is also a museum director, to your mother, who was a fashion designer. But you still have to find your own way on your own – was there a particular conviction that guided you?

Lilli Hollein: What drives me was and remains education – a desire to foster an understanding of art and culture. Back in my school days I saw how much misunderstanding and even contempt was shown towards artistic and cultural creatives and that mediation of their work is really a mission. To give you a small anecdote: A former ambassador to Vienna recently retired. We were together at a reception in a museum, where he introduced himself to the guests there as a writer. After that, he was largely ignored. If he had said that up until a few days previously he had still held the post of British Ambassador, then the reaction would undoubtedly have been different. This alone makes it clear how important it is to convey the importance of cultural creatives to society. We are a cultural nation, and at the same time there is a huge amount of arrogance or even disdain towards creative people. A museum like the MAK has to want to change that.

MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna