In Vienna, with so much arts and culture, design may seem like an afterthought. In fact, it’s all around us, shaping how we live, eat and dress

The starched fabric rustles as it’s straightened, a tapeline whizzes – all you hear is your own shallow breath. The deliberate touch of rough, needle pricked hand steadies you and, after a few minutes, it’s all over. The tailor bustles off to record your measurements, and in a few days’ time you’ll be the proud possessor of a bespoke shirt, courtesy of the traditional Viennese tailor Wäscheflott.

Fitting clothes may seem trivial, almost mechanical, but nothing is left to chance. This is an experience that has been designed: Like the tapers of a jacket or the interface of your favorite app, it’s been engineered to respond to your needs. Just as the tailor fits a shirt to your waistline, a programmer tests how users make their way through a website to optimize your experience. It’s a process. Designers strive for this fusion of performance, beauty and satisfaction that is at the center of truly great design.

It is precisely this convergence that contemporary designer duo Chmara.Rosinke were after in redesigning the Wäscheflott shop interior, the result of a partnership set up and fostered by Vienna Design Week’s Passionswege, a program connecting traditional craftsmen and heritage businesses with the young generation of designers. “Think of the ritual,” the duo insisted when Beatrix Stekl, the founder’s granddaughter wanted to get rid of everything old and start from scratch. “You are manufacturing bespoke shirts.” With that ritual in mind, Chmara.Rosinke went on to design new furnishings for the store, changing Stekl’s awareness of how her business worked – and her recognition of the power of design.

“The role of design is not to wipe out the old, and make things prettier,” says Lilli Hollein, co-founder and director of the Vienna Design Week.“ It is to understand the context, the business, the users, and to improve the process throughout.” Hollein is proud of the generations of designers, makers and crafts people working side-by-side in Vienna. Her goal is to link old and new, craft and industry, while fostering collaboration throughout generations of makers.

Design for Every day

What makes Viennese design different, Hollein says, is a more playful attitude and laid-back style.“ There is a generation of designers now in their 40s with a much more lighthearted way of looking at our past. Their approach is more relaxed,” she says. “That matches the feeling of Vienna, a very laid-back city, yet with high standards for arts and culture.” Design has a long history in Vienna. From around 1900 through the 1920s and ’30s, the city was the cradle of movements like Art Nouveau and Modernism in architecture (Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos), kick-starting automobile development (Ferdinand Porsche, father and son), and showing a way to bring “dead statistics to life” with the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Otto Neurath), the basis of modern infographics.

vienna design history
The Secession’s exterior. // @Wolfgang Thaler

These brilliant minds were inspired and worked together with artists like Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser or Josef Hoffmann, who shaped the Secession movement, seeking a “Sacred Spring” (Ver Sacrum) of arts, design and culture. The Vienna Design Week (VDW), in turn, harks back to the ethos of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), an artists’ collective (1903- 1932), whose designers sought to create new values of handcraftsmanship and industry to improve everyday life. From decoration, to architecture and fashion, everything was stripped of the sumptuous, often cluttered baroque style that had dominated, to create a lighter, more modern vision of the use of space with clean, clear lines and geometric shapes.

Today, young designers at the VDW are rejuvenating, reinterpreting and reinventing Vienna’s design language once more. It is a search for the bridge between now and then, between laid-back and opulent, between what tradition demands and what fresh ideas are out to shake up. In other words, it is a process.

Rebirth of a City

The laid-back and playful feeling described by Hollein is actually quite recent. Until the ’90s, postwar Vienna was a very gray and gloomy city, remembers Oliver Kartak, graphic design professor and head of the Institute of Design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. “When I was young it looked more like the Eastern bloc than the Vienna you know today,” he said. “Vienna has brightened up, lightened up and gained color, a lot of color, over the years.” One major reason is the economy.

Vienna has profited massively from the opening up of the former communist countries, which turned it once more into a business hub for Central Europe. Also, after joining the EU in 1995, a lot of money was poured into the city’s development. “The whole U3 area [around Erdberg and the Media Quarter Marx] was renovated in the late ’90s,” Kartak points out. “There was nothing there before.”

Finding its own Language

Curator Thomas Geisler, one of VDW’s founders and now the director of the Werkraum Bregenzerwald, also sees long gaps in many Viennese design traditions. Art and design had flourished from the turn of the century, continuing on through the 1920s and into the ’30s, before the heavy boots of fascism and Nazism stamped out all but the socialist realism that supported their ideology. Much of Austria’s intelligentsia was either starved, murdered or driven out. “This created a huge gap not only in science, but also in the arts, design, architecture and so on,” explains Geisler.

Vienna design history
“The role of design is not to wipe out the old and make things prettier. It is to understand the context and improve the process throughout.” Lilli Hollein, co-founder and director of Vienna Design Week. // ©Katharina Gossow

The horrors of the Nazi era left a crippling legacy. So the Austrians looked further back for a history they could be proud of. “Unlike Scandinavia or Italy, Austria struggled with its recent past. So we looked back to the imperial heritage,” says Geisler. “Especially in the film industry, with movies like Sissi, [a fictionalized biography of young Empress Elisabeth, starring Romy Schneider],” he says. Aside from some brave realist filmmakers like Georg Tressler (Das Totenschiff and Der Weibsteufel), or naturalist architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, little in Austrian design of the early postwar years was either progressive or modern.

Instead it was a time of reconstruction. Architects and designers went to work with big societal changes in mind, building social housing and affordable furniture, often assembled at home, as most people could not afford professional help. From 1945 to the 1990s – a full half century – Vienna was struggling to find its way back to the energy and creative life that had once defined it.

Today, the need for high-quality social housing joins a growing interest in sustainability, mobility, and smart-city projects for a growing and diverse population – all based, in the social democratic tradition, on open dialogue with citizens. These are social premises ingrained, through training and tradition, in an Austrian designer’s mind, and are visible across design disciplines.

Dreams of Bricks and Mortar

But it is in architecture and urban planning that the social focus really comes to light. Social housing, in particular, has long played an oversized role in the city’s planning and development. “That is a long tradition, going back to the Red Vienna period (from1918 to 1934),” says Geisler. Alleviating housing shortages and improving the living conditions of the working class were the central concerns of urban policy.

Today, with one in four Viennese citizens living in rental housing owned by the city and managed under a carefully monitored scheme of rent controls, social democratic leadership provides a counterweight to the pressures of the market. These social housing projects, or Gemeindebauten, exist in every district of the city, and help avoid typical problems like gentrification and socio-economic ghettos. Arguably, this commitment to affordable housing is a major factor in Vienna’s continued ranking as number one in quality of life in the world.

A typical Viennese Gemeindebau. // ©Christian Kadluba

One of the biggest urban development projects in Europe is Vienna’s Seestadt Aspern, a model for the smart city of the future. This ambitious urban lakeside development involves both technological infrastructure and collective projects designed with future tenants. Taking their individual lifestyles into consideration, unconventional, cooperative, traditional and diverse, they are designed so residents will interact and really live together as communities, sharing the ample park and recreation spaces provided. Aspern is also being guided by attention to gender equality, with streets named after remarkable women in history and community panels brought into the process.

The recent influx of refugees has added to the need for creative housing solutions, as has continued immigration from Central Europe. Current and future creative initiatives in Vienna such as Magdas Hotel, designed for Caritas by AllesWirdGut Architektur, are focused on pressing challenges. Staffed by refugees since opening in 2015, this nice and affordable hotel has become a thriving business, while tackling migration in a dignified way. These pressures have also shaped Austria’s contribution to last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, with an exhibition on social housing entitled Places for People, featuring three on-going projects – a collaboration of Caramel Architekten, Eoos, and the next Enterprise, several nonprofits and the refugees themselves.

Signs That Make Sense

Infographics, the data visualization schemes widely used around the world were first developed here. Created by social scientist, political economist and philosopher, Otto Neurath, Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) consists of a series of pictograms, icons and symbols — a picture language — to enable understanding of complicated statistics and social, technological, biological and historical data.

Called the “Vienna Method,” this visual system was created to help people understand complex information and in turn drive societal change on a large scale. During the 1920s-1930s when Neurath created the method and Isotype Institute, he wanted to contribute to the creation of a better, more unified world, under the motto, “Words Divide, Pictures Unite.” He wanted people to realize that bringing about change was the responsibility, and also within the grasp, of every citizen. Today, visual communication and design is still taught this way in Vienna.

The Vienna Method (Illustration) // ©jwyg

“There is a social component in almost all the projects we develop in the design institute,” Kartak says. But he cautions against too heavy reliance on tradition – historicism, the Secessionists, or Neurath’s isotypes – however distinguished. “I am honestly bored with that history,” he says. “Not that I don’t value it. But most of it is 100 years ago. It is part of our cultural DNA, of course, but not a key ingredient of our understanding of design now.” He is happy that design is finally moving beyond this vocabulary. “Now, after some 30 years of prosperity, Vienna has a visual language of its own,” he says. It is “progressive and funny – reflecting Vienna’s society today.” For great examples of graphic design done right in the city, he refers to his former students’ practices: Studio Vie, Bleed and Studio ES, many of them led by women.

These multidisciplinary design studios are pushing the boundaries of what visual communication can do. Studio ES enveloped the Diagonale’17 with colorful ribbons, reminiscent of reels; Bleed shot sensual and eerie videos for the wildly popular Norwegian TV drama series Skam; and Studie VIE went overboard for Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Translocation- Transformation, the most successful show at the 21er Haus, which saw an ancestral temple, from the late Ming Dynasty, traveling all the way from China to Vienna and being reassembled here.

“Our catalog design cites the four stages of Ai Weiwei’s installation: dismantling, transportation, install, and exhibition at Vienna 21er Haus,” they state. They also placed shipping containers at the back of the hall as sign system for the exhibition. Altogether, a cutting-edge approach to graphic design expanding the concept of the exhibition. Once again, breaking with “historicism.” The Secessionists would have been pleased. So would be the masters of the Wiener Werkstätte. Viennese interior design studios are once again pressing ahead, with ambitious projects like mischer’traxler’s uplifting flying gardens, EOOS’ award-winning Blue Toilet for people with inadequate sanitation facilities, or Polka’s reinterpretation of the iconic Thonet bent-wood chair.

Vienna design history
“Unlike Scandinavia or Italy, Austria struggled with its recent past. So we looked back to imperial heritage.” Thomas Geisler, co-founder of Vienna Design Week and director of Werkraum Bregenzerwald. // © kollektiv fischka

Fesch in Fashion

In the old days, the fashion scene and textile industries in Vienna thrived as well. Emilie Flöge, an Austrian fashion designer and the life companion of Gustav Klimt, had her own haute couture fashion salon Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters) on Mariahilfer Strasse. It became the leading fashion venue for Viennese society, with more than 80 seamstresses, before she was forced to close in 1938. In the interwar years, Austrian fashion exports were popular in Southeast Europe and the Levant. These industries almost ceased to exist after WWII, says Gabriel Roland, fashion columnist at The Gap and textile designer. After the war, there were no jobs in fashion in Vienna, or in all of Austria for that matter. Still, a few businesses did survive, such as Getzner Textil, in Vorarlberg since 1818 and still thriving, exporting luxury textiles to Africa.

Then there is Helmut Lang, a self-trained designer, who opened his first boutique in 1979, only 23 years old, and reinvigorated Vienna as a city for fashion design. “You can’t talk about fashion in Vienna without mentioning Helmut Lang,” says Geisler. An agent provocateur by nature, Lang’s progressive ideas and minimalist style were rapidly embraced by the international fashion scene, leading Lang first to Paris and then to New York, where he lived and worked since the late ’90s. Retired from the industry in 2005, his label lives on. Prada first acquired it and, in 2006, passed it on to the Japanese group Link Theory Holdings. His legacy also lives on at MAK, which holds his archive and mounts periodic exhibits. The leading Vienna fashion house, Wendy&Jim, belongs to designers Hermann Fankhauser and Helga Ruthner – former pupils of Helmut Lang at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Today, a vibrant contemporary fashion scene focuses on local production, distribution, and the use of ecological, fair-trade materials. Roland recommends several ateliers as the best of Viennese design: #meshit, S/ght, the Hood studio, Samstag-Shop, and House of the Very Island – each in its way an example of the playful, laid-back style described by Lilli Hollein.

Today, as designers are again talking about a human-centric approach to their craft, they can look back at the Wiener Moderne, over 100 years ago, that was also aimed at just that. Design is not only about creating beautiful objects; it is about giving people a pleasing as well as practical place to live, an object to appreciate and a time to remember. In Vienna, the modern design premise established by the German Bauhaus in the 1920s, “form follows function,” comes in second place. Here, people and their social wellbeing come first.