What would Vienna’s palaces be without their brilliant chandeliers, gleaming mirrors and fine crystal glasses?Uniting craftsmanship and innovation, the Viennese company Lobmeyr has made them shine for 200 years
As you step inside the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, you travel back to the glorious days of elegance, luxury and craftsmanship of fin de siècle Vienna. Gazing around the concert hall, which is surely one of the most beautiful in the world, the brilliance of the décor is almost overwhelming, golden columns supporting an ornate panelled ceiling, the layered pipes of the organ gallery, and the rows of red velvet armchairs, beneath the magnificent bell-shaped crystal chandeliers glowing from high above. These remarkable chandeliers belong to a long list of splendid works of the justly renowned Viennese firm Lobmeyr.
This famed manufacturer has created pieces for prestigious clients around the world, both institutional and private, from government buildings to places of worship. In Vienna, Lobmeyr chandeliers light the Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palace, and the lobbies of the Bristol and Sacher Hotels. They light prominent buildings across the world from Vienna’s Staatsoper to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, from the Austrian Parliament to the Kremlin, from Saint Stephan’s Cathedral to the mosques in Mecca and Medina.
A traditional Austrian crystal manufacturer with almost 200 years of experience in glassmaking, Lobmeyr creates everything from tableware to wall sconces, candlesticks to chandeliers. A family business founded in 1823, because of their quality Austrian-Bohemian glass production and technique, they soon became the chosen crystal purveyor to the court. Today, the company continues to be managed by the family, now in its sixth generation.
An Innovative Glow
Lobmeyr’s history is steeped in tradition but also in innovation. A big sensation was the first electric crystal chandelier in the world. Developed with Thomas Edison for the Vienna Hofburg Palace, the chandelier was commissioned directly by Emperor Franz Josef for the International Electrical Exhibition held in Vienna in 1883.
“Franz Josef was afraid of gas lighting, and did not want to have it in the Hofburg,” explains Andreas Rath, one of the three cousins currently managing the company. “So, he was first among the European monarchs to promote the development of electricity.” Nonetheless, the company will still make an “unplugged” version on request, like the one in the Grand Ferdinand Hotel lobby, the only candlelit chandelier still operating in Vienna.
Lobmeyr is also world famous for the craftsmanship and mastery of their glassblowers, which can be seen in their delicate muslin glass. Less than a millimeter thick, it creates incomparable drinking glass sets almost too beautiful to use. Another highpoint in their history of glassware innovation was the first modern martini glasses, a highly popular 1925 glassware design called “ambassador,” and the Adolf Loos water tumbler, the first drinking glass without a stem designed for fine dining. A complete break with tradition at the time, this novelty launched a sweeping cultural shift that brought us the glassware we are so accustomed to today.
Today the company is led by three cousins: Andreas, Leonid and Johannes Rath, each responsible for a different branch of the company. Andreas for retail and the classic Lobmeyr store on Kärntner Strasse; Leonid for glassware, crystals, and contemporary design; and Johannes for the chandeliers.
“In our father’s generation, we were not so much design driven,”says Johannes.So while their name is “mostly grounded in the old stuff,” they are moving carefully into newer areas, with success he credits to Leonid’s new approach.
Since the first Vienna Design Week in 2006, Lobmeyr has partnered with an emerging designer to create a product or installation together. “It is not meant to be commercial,” explains Leonid, rather “an encounter” between a designer and the world of glass craftsmanship. The chosen designers spend six months working within Lobmeyr’s workshops, and come out with a project together. The results: “unexpected and exciting!”
The Glass Cellar
The exquisite Lobmeyr glass archives are located in the basement of one of their buildings in the 3rd district, where some salvaged pieces of ornamental glass have been stored for more than a century. Everywhere you turn, history winks at you from the shelves. Johannes points at one, part of a chandelier in the Austrian Parliament, a refined baroque angel sculpture unpretentiously laying around there.
The paper archives, on the top floor, contain reference sketches and letters with designers of earlier years. “As we concentrated more on the early modernists,” says Leonid, “it was really interesting to learn in detail about how the relationships with Hoffman and Loos developed, and to find out more about the people using Lobmeyr glass.”
This is the unpolished side of the business, with half-finished glasseseverywheree, and craftsman concentrating amid the din of their loud machines, hands and clothes dirty with sand, mud and dust. All three cousins visit the workshops every day, and know every one of their employees. Those who come to work with them stay for a long time.
The cousins also know how to operate the machines, and occasionally make a piece or two. Johannes can mount a chandelier, Andreas worked for three years in the workshop, and Leonid inspects every piece of glass before it leaves the shop.
Lighting the Way
This is a customer-centred business, and personal relationships matter. “Most of our customers buy our products because they feel they are authentic, honest and sincere,” says Andreas. “Here there is a quality that they cannot find anywhere else anymore. And this is something that matters a lot to them.”
They are also benefitting from a wider trend: “Just now, we are having a comeback of the appreciation for things made by people, for people, and not printed out or laser cut by a machine,” Johannes says. “The human factor behind a handcrafted product is present in the slight signs of imperfection, and in the incredible time and skill dedicated to get to a nearly perfect object. In the end, this is the soul of our product.”
Johannes is currently working with Tiffany’s in New York, as they prepare their annual holiday display for their 5th Avenue store. This year, around 20 miniature exact replicas of the Metropolitan Opera chandeliers will illuminate the window of the world-famous jewelry shop. So from Vienna to New York City for Christmas, it’s making magic in the season of light.