Christoph Thun-Hohenstein on Design for the Neo-Biedermeier age

MAK director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein on the resonance of objects, digital humanism and how we can design our way out of the singularity

Every day, as the sun rises over the rooftops of the Ringstrasse, the red brick building across from Stubentor comes alive. The façade of the Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK) is only surpassed by the ornate ceiling frescoes and mosaic tile of the interior. This is no conventional gallery for art and artifacts. This museum finds beauty in the everyday; follows creative solutions throughout history, in the present and anticipates it’s future. It houses over 600,000 objects in its design collection, not including fine art. Aside from the eight exhibits from the permanent collection, fashion shows, TEDx conferences and other cultural events, the MAK hosts exceptional touring shows like Stefan Sagmeister’s Happy Show at the Vienna Biennale where you can peruse exhibits on robotics, artificial intelligence and urban design.

Aside from the eight exhibits from the permanent collection, fashion shows, TEDx conferences and other cultural events, the MAK hosts exceptional touring shows like Stefan Sagmeister’s Happy Show at the Vienna Biennale where you can peruse exhibits on robotics, artificial intelligence and urban design.

Thun-Hohenstein says good objects resonate. “If they’re made well, ecologically, sustainably, high quality and well-designed the objects have resonance. Mass consumption, disposable products don’t resonate.”

The MAK director’s knowledge of Austrian design, art and architecture history gives him an edge when looking at the socio-political implications of design trends. He noted that in the same way that Biedermeier is one of the roots of early 20th century modernism, our time will be among the sources of a new modernity.

“Today people are talking about Neo-Biedermeier,” Thun-Hohenstein reported, “and some of the same desire to retreat into the apolitical.” He sees the anonymity we achieve on social media as a certain type of social withdrawal, in which we feel safe to curse and insult other people, or even hate them. “That’s another reason we need design, in order to moderate this decentrality better; to facilitate open confrontation.”

He is a big fan of smartphones, but is also aware of the complicated way they change how we interact with our world. “Our entire lives are organized via smartphones,” said Thun-Hohenstein. From your contacts, to your schedule and access to instant information, we lose sight of the reality of our relationship with the device. “We generate unbelievable amounts of data that are sold and then used to target us with advertising,” he said. He’s clearly thought about this a lot. “The problem is that we don’t know what’s happening and how transparent each of us has become because of it.”

The Vienna Biennale team drafted a Digital Humanism Manifesto that asks how to design our digital modernity so that it’s fashioned in a human and humanist way. “This is the discussion we need to be having on a larger scale. Next to the big digital monopolies we need much more local quality and regional production.”

Design plays a key role, he said, because it can approach the problem in comprehensive and specific ways. “Fine art doesn’t need to have any concrete use. Of course we hope artists treat the subject in their work, but they don’t have to. You can straight up commission a designer to set their wits to it in a project.”

The MAK is not alone in the project of designing our way out of anonymity. Along with the Kunsthalle Wien, the University of Applied Arts, culture centers, the Vienna Business Agency and the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), the goal is to devise ways to show how digital modernity can be made sustainable and fit for the future.

“Design is probably the key discipline because it can do a great job connecting fine art and architecture.” Horror stories and dystopian tales of machines taking over are nothing new. But Thun-Hohenstein, his team and his partners want to keep objects in their place.

“We people have to remain the ones with our finger on the button,” he said. “We can’t become the tools of our tools.”

Where to Find Christoph Thun-Hohenstein in September

At Vienna’s legacy shops

Thun-Hohenstein is impressed that 19th-century manufacturers have managed to remain competitive. For a taste of tradition, he recommends checking out glassware from J. & L. Lobmeyr, china at Augarten Porzellan, the bespoke designs at Backhausen Textiles, and the silverware at Wiener Silbermanufaktur.

Vienna Design Week

As a city-wide event, the MAK director feels that it’s format lends itself to the subject matter: making sure the tension between tradition and experiment remains alive and well in Vienna. For a preview see City Life, page 44.

Vienna Biennale

This is the first event of its kind to combine art, design, and architecture, with the aim of generating creative ideas and artistic projects to help improve the world. This year’s title is Robots. Work. Our Future. (see “The Rise of the Robots”, MET Jul/Aug 2017) MAK 1., Stubenring 5.

MAK Design Shop

This is quite possibly one of the best places to find a gift for the design lover who has everything.

Margaret Childs
Margaret (Maggie) Childs is the CEO and Publisher of METROPOLE. Originally from New York, Vienna has been her home since high school. She is known for non-stop enthusiasm, talking too fast, inhaling coffee and being a board member of AustrianStartups, where she helps entrepreneurs internationalize. Follow her on Instagram @maggie_childs and twitter @mtmchilds.

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