Graz is a city of contrasts. It is a place to find cutting-edge contemporary art and historic gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture. Add to that a large student population (the city is home to six universities) and Unesco status as a world cultural heritage site and you have the formula for a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. Austria’s second-largest city was also designated Cultural Capital of Europe by the European Union in 2003, and has been leading the charge ever since.
An eye for design
‘I love Graz because of its comfortable atmosphere and cosmopolitan feeling,’ says Leonore Höfler, co-founder with her husband Manfred of design boutique Mur, which is situated on Enge Gasse, at the centre of the old town. The Höflers launched Mur in 2002 with a vision to ‘open a space for classic and modern interior design’. Right from the start they presented pieces from Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen and others – all esteemed designers whose work was hard to find in the city and who were therefore relatively unknown in the area. Fifteen years on and Mur’s carefully curated, eclectic collection from classic and new designers has given the shop and gallery a strong standing in the city. Leonore Höfler’s top design picks for spring/summer 2017 are the Lumio lamp by Max Gunawan, cleverly disguised as a hardback book, and Qlocktwo, an innovative clock that tells the time in words rather than numbers.
Graz’s most spectacular art gallery, the Kunsthaus, opened in 2003: a gigantic, iridescent blue landmark nicknamed ‘the friendly alien’ by its designers, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier. Kunsthaus Graz exhibits Austrian and international art from 1960 onwards. There are two elements that make the gallery special. The first is a commitment to what its mission statement calls ‘the freedom of art’, achieved through its dedication to being ‘independent, discursive and open to everyone’. The second is the BIX media facade on the front of the building, a large screen that acts as a line of dialogue between the gallery and the people of the city.
Other notable galleries in Graz include the Atelier Jungwirth, which showcases renowned local photographers and aspiring artists, and Forum Stadtpark, which hosts events across the disciplines of fine art, film, photography and theatre.
Fashion designers Bettina Reichl (owner of the Odrowaz label), and Karin Wintscher-Zinganel (Kay Double U) created Pell Mell, a space that serves as shop and showroom for fashion, design and art, in 2002. Unlike a traditional boutique, their place on Griesgasse is a platform for the work of Reichl and Wintscher-Zinganel, as well as other fashion designers. Pell Mell houses changing displays of fashion collections and products, and hosts events and performances. Its aim, according to the duo, is to be ‘a starting point for art and cross-border projects’. Pell Mell is now a focal point for fashion creation in the city, with around 10 exhibitions taking place each year. In 2003 the team also founded the annual Assembly design festival, along with industrial designer Volcker Pflüger. Reichl describes Assembly as ‘a temporary autonomous public space for design that allows even the smaller and young labels to become professionally visible and in touch with other national and international creatives.’
The Pell Mell boutique stocks men’s and women’s clothes designed by Reichl and Wintscher-Zinganel. Pell Mell’s design style has a conceptual feel; abstract shapes and textures are created by clever draping, pattern and knitwear. Reichl's highlights for the spring/summer 2017 season include ‘a reversible dress made from viscose double jersey by Kay Double U and a botanical silk hand-painted, plant-dyed sleeve dress from the Odrowaz Amazonas collection.’
For lovers of history rather than modern art, a visit to the 17th-century Styrian Armoury, the world’s largest historic armoury, is recommended. The 32,000 pieces of armour, tools and weaponry are stored and organised as they were 400 years ago. A guided tour will teach you about the exhibits as well as the wars fought in the mountainous state of Styria, of which Graz is the capital.
Also of interest are the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II and Schloss Eggenberg. The stunning mannerist-baroque Mausoleum of Ferdinand II was begun in 1614 (and finished 70 years later) and is the burial place of King Ferdinand, his parents, wife and son. Schloss Eggenberg, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site, is a beautiful baroque palace built according to the Gregorian calendar; 365 windows, 31 rooms on each floor, 24 state rooms and 52 doors echo times and seasons, weeks, hours and minutes.
City of sights
The city’s history is also apparent in the many shops that have had the same facades for hundreds of years. Alder Apotheke, a pharmacy in Hauptplatz, dates back to the 16th century; while on Hofgasse, the Edegger-Tax bakery, thought to have originated in the 14th century, is the oldest in Graz, according to master baker Robert Edegger. The city’s outdoor spaces also shine a light on the past. Schlossberg (castle hill) is a public park offering wonderful views of Graz and the remains of a historic castle. Reach it via 260 steps built into the rocky hillside, or take the funicular or lift.
What makes Graz unique? Leonore Höfler is keen to highlight its ‘good infrastructure for young designers and creative companies.’ In 2011 Graz was designated Unesco City of Design and remains a work in progress, with new talent being nurtured at every turn. The result is a city that’s overflowing with inspiration, and a destination that creative people and cultural enthusiasts will want to return to again and again.