On tiles and other modules
by Thomas Edelmann
Oct 6, 2015

It’s design festival season. No matter where you look there seem to be new chairs waiting to be admired, tables, carpets and now even fragrances dreamed up by product designers. Manufacturers and brands are proudly cameoing their latest strategies and opening showrooms in more or less spectacular locations. In short, well-nurtured boredom. The world over, design festivals increasingly serve up the same dishes. Geared to modern urbanites, planners, interior designers, and interested parties of all kinds, trying to satisfy their hunger for well-being in the chaos of everyday life – the day before yesterday in Milan, yesterday in London, tomorrow in Dubai or Beijing. One of the design festivals exceeds all expectations, however. It is a curated festival, originally devised by the “Neigungsgruppe Design” of Tulga Beyerle, Thomas Geisler and Lilli Hollein, who oscillate back and forth between writing, exhibiting, curating and teaching, and Lilli Hollein is now solely responsible for the design week.

Sociological issues

She seems to completely immerse herself in her role as host to Vienna’s design scene and the world. She is forever advocating the diversity and many different levels to design, and thus stands firmly in the tradition of an expanded concept of design that emerged as of the 1960s, the vibrant Viennese architecture and design scene always acting as one of its lode stars. With her young and committed team she has updated theoretical and practical sides to design that is advancing from the design of mass products into regions and spheres that do not yet seem clearly demarcated. That in the process design rubs shoulders with sociological issues and artistic forms of intervention is visible occasionally as a weakness or helplessness. On occasion it nevertheless generates exciting constellations and objects. During the week in Vienna, not everything is defined in advance or foreseeable.

At the Vienna Design Week, which took place this year for the ninth time, the focus was less on sales and presenting the latest products. Rather, here design addresses itself, in a more comprehensive manner and a broader vein than is customary almost anywhere else. From the end of September to the beginning of October, there were design shows all over Vienna, and any number of events, talks, and workshops. The range extended from the presentation of a huge meniscus lens created by architect John Pawson, manufactured by Swarovski and exhibited for a few days in the entrance to the Museum of Art History through to social design projects, which the Viennese subsume under the moniker “urban work”. What long-standing companies dreamed up in collaboration with young designers was just as much on show as were the results of the latest Austrian “State Prize for Design”.

Bonjour, comment ça va?

France was chosen as guest of honor, a little out of kilter with the topics of the week – or maybe not after all. Pascal Teixeira da Silva, French ambassador to Austria, reminded listeners during a reception of the historical alliances in design. What was called Jugendstil in Vienna (and Munich) was called Art Nouveau in France, Liberty Style in Italy, and Modernismo in Catalonia. “Vienna and Paris jointly invented Modernism,” he claimed, with a view to the early 20th century. The French Embassy was designed in 1904 by architect George Chedanne, who also masterminded the Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

One could easily lose oneself in European history and cultural history during the week in Vienna. Often tradition is the material from which the new can playfully be generated. For example, when architect Robert Roth, and London-based designer Stephanie Hornig team up to tackle the flexible covers for seats and backrests which have been around since the Biedermeier and were so favored by Michael Thonet. Together they turned the characteristic flat Viennese wickerwork in combination with textiles and leather into three-dimensional objects, bags and baskets – a project as strange as it is stimulating. Another project by guest of honor France is the exhibition of glassware by French company Meisenthal from the Vosges. The famed glass-blowing works was closed in 1969 and later gained a new lease of life as a place for designers to experiment. Together with Saarbrücken Academy of Visual Arts and Karlsruhe’s University of Design, as well as with freelance designers and groups new objects were created that part company with the shapes and practices of arts-&-crafts – surprising glass items created with new methods.

The Vienna Design Week invited everyone to explore the city and European history and the present, both on the fringe and in the midst of the typical tourist paths. The sheer variety and mutually contradictory positions, the admixture of everyday design and upgrading everyday life is not a coincidence, but deliberate. A hustling snail breeder who supplies gourmet restaurants was just as much part of things as was a lecture by an architectural historian on Brutalist buildings. In the Vitra Showroom Hella Jongerius talked about her work developing the color ranges for the company, which she elected to change.

Bricks for Ringstraße

The festival arose in 2006 as a spin-off of the “Passionswege”, which remain an important point on the program to this day, and where young local and international designers gang up with long-standing regional companies and crafts shops. Passion here is a mix of enthusiasm, effort, and pain. Especially for those directly involved, but also for the visitors who find the one or other workshop in a highly unexpected place. The curated project relies on entrepreneurs with strong design roots and on specialized crafts outfits whose Viennese workshops are still to be found in the midst of the one or other residential district of town.

Activities were not just downtown, but all around town, with the focus on District 10, which is called Favoriten, the so-called Festival focus district. This year saw the celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the buildings on the inner ring road, and Favoriten could have played a special role. For the giant urban design and planning ring road project relied on the use of bricks made at Wiener Berg by the company Wienerberger. Migrant workers from Bohemia and Moravia lived in Favoriten and cast the bricks for the glorious ring road. In the late 19th century, physician Victor Adler wrote undercover reports on the awful social conditions in the brickworks, where workers were paid with metal tokens they could only trade in at the works’ shops for goods that were excessively priced – and the articles caused outrage among workers and the middle class alike. Later Adler succeeded in uniting the Austrian social democrat factions into a single party.

Today, the Victor Adler market in Favoriten is one of the last to be geared to local inhabitants, not tourists. On the square stood the Caritas charity’s pavilion painted in this year’s Festival yellow. During the Vienna Design Week architect and artist Ebru Kurbak hosted a workshop on “infrequently asked questions”. It brought together migrants who swapped very specific insights that only a little while ago had been part of everyday life and now seemed obsolete in their new homes. A woman from Somalia demonstrated how to filet a swordfish and a compatriot described how to milk a camel. And yet another showed how Afghanis build kites.

Kurbak’s own pieces, on show at Stilwerk Wien, highlighted the “microelectronic space that surrounds the human body as an alternative space for artistic interventions. Her “Knitted Radio” and her digitally controlled objects made of ostrich feathers remained a bit abstract, however, as locked away in glass displays.

Designing together

The Festival’s office is located in Favoriten in the converted section of an old bread factory. Hundreds of Viennese design scene aficionados entered this unknown territory for the opening: There was a kind of small fair with different exhibitors. For example, a surprising presentation on the Roma trades, whose archaic trades objects were distributed by the Romanian “Romano ButiQ Association”. An exhibition on the Polish furniture design yesterday and today neighbored one on proposals created in Austrian design colleges. And there were also tangible design trends on show. One surprise, the “Interioe” collection, the Austrian arm of the interior design chain “Interio”, boasting ideas by Patricia Domanska, Robert Rüf, March Gut, Thomas Feichtner and others, curated by Lilli Hollein. While “interioe” emphasized inexpensive but high-quality furniture, others opted to experiment. For instance, Mischer’Traxler, which presented two current projects, or groups such as breadedEscalop, which last year participated in the “collective furniture” project, where visitors could take part in deciding the functions and design of the furniture. This year, Neue Wiener Werkstätte showcased the resulting prototype for a “Collective Desk” which is to go into mass production. The office furniture can be transformed into a storage system for all sorts of things and for office electronics simply by inserting different-sized shelves, and into a kind of workbench or into a calm desktop for papers and your laptop.

In the form of the “Ganz neuen Galerie”, in the rear courtyard of a glorious old building in District 1, breadedEscalop, cmara.rosinke Patrick Rampelotto and Kosmos Project from Warsaw opened their joint space for “experimental design”. There, they presented their latest ideas, intend to hold a monthly discussion session, explore the history of modern experimental currents and, free of all false modesty, develop collections such as Memphis once did in Milan. The context and point of reference: eastern and central European designers and currents.

Open society?

Vienna as a city with its close-knit design network of actors, makers, workshops and institutions was very leisurely during the week, for all the anticipation. In fall 2015, Vienna seems to be an exemplary city: Thousands of refugees arrive at the stations, camp on the sidings or in the middle of the new main station, families with old relatives and babies. Where helpers are at hand to provide the basics, and arrange accommodation or their onward travel where possible. The dedication of the helpers, such as groups like “Train of hope”, contrasts with a diffuse at often unarticulated feeling of fear. The political parties don’t know how to allay these fears or respond with reforms and change. There are elections round the corner and for the first time since democracy reached Austria it is conceivable that the Social Democrats in the SPÖ will be marginalized and the populist SPÖ party replace them as the decisive factor at the helm of power. “We don’t marginalize anyone, certainly not our Viennese” the FPÖ declares on posters, as if they had more to offer than firebrand slogans. Events such as the Vienna Design Week can only exist in an open society, offering not only forums for debate and interaction, thriving in a vibrant city that has a broader horizon than just “our Viennese”.

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