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How Vienna Modernism changed fashion forever

The turn of the 20th century was a significant tipping point in Austria’s cultural development, marking the beginning of Vienna Modernism.  Its creative influence is still being felt today, everywhere from the collections of leading fashion and jewellery labels to the city’s architectural landscape

Sally McIlhone,

Although it ended more than a hundred years ago, the impact of the Viennese modernist era of 1890-1910 is still visible in the Austrian capital today, whether in a café that continues to keep the stories of its former clientele alive, or the high-fashion creations of Andreas Kronthaler, one of the city’s most celebrated designers.

‘No other artist is more linked to art nouveau than Gustav Klimt. His extraordinary portraits of women document the artistic and scientific discoveries and developments that shaped Europe around 1900’ - Dr Friedrich Wille, president and CEO of Frey Wille

‘It’s an homage to my home country,’ says Kronthaler of his autumn/winter 2017/18 collection for Vivienne Westwood. Sparked by a chance rediscovery of the Gustav Klimt prints he loved in his youth, Kronthaler became inspired by the beautiful art and culture of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

Influenced by Klimt’s bold colours and shapes, the collection has touches of gold, but Kronthaler also took inspiration from children’s clothing made by the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese workshops), a community of artists in Vienna in the early 1900s. Incorporating alpine prints and a reimagined dirndl, the whole collection, explains the designer, is ‘a tribute’ to the work of the Werkstätte. ‘History interests me because it throws light on the now,’ says Kronthaler. In Vienna, where traditional and modernist buildings stand beside each other on the street, this certainly rings true.

Many believe architect Otto Wagner – like Klimt, a prominent member of the Vienna Seccession modernist movement – to be the father of the Viennese modern age. In Moderne Architektur, his book published in 1895, Wagner declared an end to the era of historic architecture seen in the neo-baroque, neo-Roman and neo-Greek buildings that line Vienna’s grand Ringstrasse boulevard. Instead, he called on architects to embrace the technological advances of the day and to use cutting-edge materials such as steel and iron.


Café Central, pictured here circa 1900, was a favourite haunt of many of Vienna Modernism’s most famous creatives

The result of Wagner’s bold proclamation can be seen in the work of Adolf Loos, an architect famed for designing some of the most iconic structures of the era. Rejecting the decorative elements of historic style, his work favoured a more structured, minimalist approach, as seen in the Looshaus. Built in 1909 to 1911, the Looshaus is now occupied by Raiffeisenlandesbank. According to Dr Reinhard Pühringer, culture officer at the bank, ‘it remains Adolf Loos’s chief work, his first, most significant and largest finished urban structure.’ After the Looshaus was completed, Pühringer says ‘the unadorned “naked” facade sent a shockwave through Viennese society. It was one of the most criticised and despised buildings at the time.’

Yet as the years passed, Viennese locals began to see that the building, nicknamed the house with no eyebrows because of its rectilinear window patterns and lack of stucco decoration and awnings, was simply ahead of its time. Gradually, architects rejected the affectations and frivolities of previous decades and the Looshaus went on to become, as Pühringer explains, ‘one of the most important architectural monuments of the 20th century, not only in Austria, but in the whole world.’ The Looshaus came under monument preservation in 1947, with Raiffeisenlandesbank renovating the building so that future generations can appreciate its beauty – this historic site welcomes visitors.


The café retains the grandeur of its heyday, and remains one of the best places in the city to experience Viennese coffeehouse culture

© sinuswave|artworX/Arthur Bauernfeind/Café Central, Wien/Michael Rzepa

Café Central is another must-visit on any Viennese Modernism tour. Anna Karnel, director of sales and marketing for the café, explains it was ‘the home or living room’ of poets, writers and philosophers at the turn of the 20th century. ‘Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Polgar, Leon Trotsky, Robert Musil, Stefan Zweig, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and many other famous faces met to exchange ideas while enjoying the coffeehouse specialties,’ she says.

Located since 1876 inside the Palais Ferstel, a mansion house in the Venetian and Florentine Trecento style, Café Central continues to charm visitors to this day. ‘Once a year we open our stage for young literates and keep on working on building up our history,’ says Karnel. Still offering a wide range of newspapers, high-quality service, food and beverages, Café Central remains, says Karnel, ‘the place to be in Vienna to experience real traditional coffeehouse culture’ today as much as in 1900.’


At Frey Wille, Gustav Klimt’s distinctive artistic style has been reinterpreted into beautiful jewellery featuring the brand’s signature fire enamel

Vienna’s modernist influence can also be seen in the modern collections of Austrian brands and designers. At fine jewellery house Frey Wille, Gustav Klimt provides a longstanding source of inspiration.

‘No other artist is more linked to art nouveau than Gustav Klimt,’ says Dr Friedrich Wille, president and CEO of Frey Wille. ‘His extraordinary portraits of women document the artistic and scientific discoveries and developments that shaped Europe around 1900.’ Klimt’s distinctive style is translated onto the brand’s signature fire-enamelled jewellery. His most acclaimed paintings, which include The Kiss and Hope II, are referenced in luxurious and colourful bracelets, necklaces and watches. ‘Lush images, wonderful colours and golden vibrant patterns – with all of this, our artists did not have difficulty finding inspiration for their Hommage à Gustav Klimt designs,’ says Wille.

The Vienna Modernist movement had ‘an enormous impact on art, philosophy, literature, architecture, design and lifestyle in European societies of the time,’ continues Wille. ‘The influence of its great ideas and works is still noticeable today. Keep your eyes open as you explore this city and you can’t fail to see evidence of it.’



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