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Scaling new heights


Mixing traditional craftsmanship with quirky humour, Austria’s new designers are climbing towards stardom, says Josh Sims

Josh Sims ,

 A moveable cooker hood and a wall-mounted compact toaster, both ideal devices for a small kitchen, are just two of the quirky yet practical products created at Inseq’s Vienna design studio. Classical simplicity is the trademark of interiors specialist F Maurer, with his ‘reversible’ wine goblets and feather chandelier, while humour is the chief characteristic of furniture by Markus Gamsjäger: ‘sculptures to sit on’ is how the designer/maker describes his faceless, wood-block rocking horse and upholstered recycling skip, both as provocative as they are clever.

Given such diversity and originality, it is hard to understand why Austria does not have the reputation for design enjoyed by Italy, Holland or Scandinavia. As Jakob Illera, founder of Inseq Design, notes: ‘Austria had a world-class design community before the Second World War, but it has not fully recovered since then.’ Austria’s most famous pre-war design legacy is the Wiener Werkstätte, or Vienna workshops, a community of artists, designers and architects established in 1903 with a manifesto of high-quality design accessible to all. With its multi-disciplinary approach and emphasis on top-flight craftsmanship, it succeeded in setting a new benchmark for product design.

‘We are now on our way to creating a renewed Austrian design language,’ says Thomas Feichtner, a multi-award-winning product designer based in Austria. ‘It’s a mix of the fun and the experimental, an international blend of other countries’ design without being, for example, as classical as Germany’s or as whimsical as Italy’s.’

It is also expanding. According to the Austrian Design Foundation, 41% of Austria’s existing product and industrial design companies were established over the past 14 years, centred around Vienna and Graz. Design Austria, a body established in the 20s to represent designers of all disciplines, now has some 1,300 members.

In part this has been down Austria’s craft traditions’ adoption of a new direction. No longer able to compete on price, given mounting competition from mass-producing countries such as China, the nation’s specialist manufacturers, including the traditional glassmaker Lobmeyr, founded in the 1820s, are collaborating with designers such as Feichtner to inject a contemporary edge.

‘It’s a coming-together of craft and design that is distinctly Austrian in being both intimate and regional, rather than focused on that “super design star” approach which has been such a big part of the global industry for some time,’ Feichtner says. Meanwhile, other designers are revisiting traditional crafts themselves: Renate Hattinger’s porcelain brains and hearts put a literal spin on the idea of human organs as containers.

Perhaps this heritage is why, according to designer Sophie Birkmeyer of Claassen, Austrian design appears to be especially adept at melding the conceptual and the decorative; it’s a style that is ‘very marketable’, she says. ’Austrian design may still be perceived as all crystal chandeliers,’ she adds, ‘but while that style is a strong part of the Viennese tradition, there is growing interest in new design here too. In fact, we recently relocated from Berlin to Vienna precisely because the creative scene here is that much more focused now. The city’s central European location also makes it a sponge for different influences, which reflects the mentality of the Viennese people too.’

This new dynamism has also been assisted by greater activity on the part of educators and promoters. With the 2009’s Vienna Design Week drawing some 19,000 visitors in its third year, as well as Pure Austrian Design acting as a platform body for product design, awareness of the nation’s designers on the international stage is growing rapidly.

‘The design schools here are gaining a strong reputation and every curatorial effort is helping to create a lively scene,’ explains Dejana Kabiljo, designer for Kabiljo Inc in Vienna, ex-art director of the Vienna Museum of Technology and former lecturer at the city’s University of Applied Arts. Even for young talent, funding is available, she adds. Creative Industrial Objects' Valentin Vodev, winner of a coveted Red Dot design award in 2009, adds that, in recent years, the Austrian government has become increasingly aware ‘that to not support the creative industries here is to be on a losing ticket, given that the talent is here but needs help to keep it in Austria.’

This is indeed vital if a national design language is to grow. But Illera explains that Austrian consumers are still largely more classical than contemporary in their design tastes. This, alongside corporate culture, is driving expansion in a direction that is not always positive, as designers are pushed to find their best markets abroad rather than at home.

‘Many companies here are still reluctant to work with designers; although design is part of the Austrian tradition, they have lost that design consciousness,’ Illera says. ‘That means it’s hard for us Austrian designers to find work locally, but it also means that we tend to think in much more European-wide terms, which I think in the end is to our advantage.’

Illera is not alone in predicting a pending explosion of Austrian design talent. ‘There is a great design movement growing here now,’ says Michael Tatschl, one of three designers who met at university in London in 2005, later returning to Vienna to form their design studio, Breaded Escalope (a reference to Austria’s national dish of Wiener schnitzel). ‘That name is a joke, of course. But it’s also a reference to Austrian heritage and the tradition of quality you find here. We’re taking that into new design.’

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