Vienna’s Design Week is a feast of ideas that reveal the many ways design enhances our lives

Given any traveler’s willingness to pay for charm, it’s a wonder how many miserable corners fill our world. “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people,” quipped the American urbanist William H. Whyte in his brilliant documentary The Social Life of Small Public Spaces. “What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” The goal of Vienna Design Week is to make this rare. Co-founded and directed by the designer Lilli Hollein, VDW (Sep 29- Oct 8) presents an impressive variety of projects from digital textiles to the social projects that help to connect our communities and make our shared places a pleasure to inhabit.

Disrupting Traditions

With over 150 free events in more than 50 spaces, and 7 sections (Stadtarbeit, Debut, Laboratory, Education, Passionswege, Future Urban Mobility and Programme Partners), locals and visitors alike experience the design process first hand.

“It’s about taking a view on the Vienna design scene,” says Julia Hürner, head of festival production and curator. Visitors can view crafts by the art glassmaker Glashütte Comploj, the Swiss backpack maker Qwstion (producing innovative organic cotton shell products in co-operation with students), and the Eastern European focused fashion design collective Spazio Pulpo, founded by Chmara.Rosinke, BreadedEscalope, and Patrick Rampelotto. Visitors participate in installations in pop-up spaces and abandoned warehouses, and help the fashion label meshit print textiles with designs by the tile manufacturer Karak. Since the first VDW in 2007, the festival has aimed to do something for local designers, “exposing their work for free to the public,” Hürner said. And connecting them to the outside world.

At the crossroads of tradition and contemporary style, visitors can explore various workshops like art glassmaker Glashütte Comploj, and Petz Hornmanufaktur, Hornsmiths since 1862. // © Glashütte Comploj

Each year, the festival focuses on a different district, particularly ones overlooked even by locals. This year it is the 15th, or Rudolfsheim – Fünfhaus, known more for the mix of blue-collars red-light doorways and colorful accents than its cutting edge design. But that’s changing. The district is now drawing young creatives attracted by the Altbau architecture and cheaper spaces, such as the former pea factory Brick-5.

VDW will steer visitors toward some of these new hot spots as well as the fourth generation family-owned business Hegenbart Kupferschmiede. Run by Roman Hegenbart, it’s one of the last coppersmiths in Austria to make fine hammered products by a more time-and labor-intensive and controlled process than pressing.

Hegenbart, working with the German designer Matthias Lehner, is part of the successful Passionswege section, which teams up five local “heritage” businesses with invited international designers to “experiment, create and transfer knowledge” in open work settings. “The Wiener Werkstätte had a big impact on Viennese design for many years, but there has been so much development since then,” said Hürner about this year’s Passionswege collaborations, projects that are leaving “a strong impression” on the city’s design scene. This year, the traditional family businesses include Petz Hornmanufaktur, who will team up with the London-based Austrian designer Katharina Eisenköck; J. & L. Lobmeyr, working with the Dutch designer Jólan van der Wiel; the engravers Brücklmeier with the Romanian designer Radu Abraham; and the creative mash-ups of local businesses Zerunianandweisz with Wiener Silber Manufactur, and Pavillon_35 with Saint Charles Apotheke, which promise to show precisely how “science, in combination with art and design, can become something innovative.”

International co-operation between design festivals has led to exciting cross-pollination of ideas and processes. This year’s VDW will host Romania, whose fresh creative scene is represented through projects by Radu Abraham, and the design duo Alexandra Trofin (Polytechnic University of Timișoara) and Farkas Pataki (Vitamin Architects) among others.

Traditional crafts have risen in prominence thanks to a global focus on sustainable production. Romania will feature their heritage under the banner Threads of Tradition. “Our influence on design can be seen in folklore all the way through to Dada,” notes Irina Cornisteanu, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Vienna. “It is important to find unique sources of inspiration, to go back to the roots through memories and traditions,” she said, while also including “very modern and fresh designs for everyday objects.”

Schiele goes 3D. Vom Porträt zur Skulptur. // © Lucretia Schmidt

An ear for Design

Design weeks offer many solutions to current challenges, whether managing tourism better or, as with newer festivals in crisis- scarred capitals such as Beirut and Addis Ababa, using design to attract new visitors by reinventing a city’s self- and international image. Design weeks also provide valuable takeaways, often freed from both the excesses of technology and the more insular aspects of tradition. “I care that something stays in your mind,” says Hürner. “Maybe your view of an area is changed, or your idea of what design can be.”

Street furniture was a focus of Barcelona Design Week, while the Stadtarbeit section in Vienna, where the street furniture is homeless-friendly and traffic lights flash same-sex couples, promotes things that project manager Nadia Brandstätter hopes will “bring people together to collaborate and experiment” and “to address societal issues from a design perspective.”

Stadtarbeit features City Work, a platform for social design supported in part by Erste Bank’s ExtraVALUE Sponsoring Program and Design Award, in collaboration with the Catholic charity Caritas.

Among the social design projects presented during the festival are the mobile betting office Admirabel by Veronika Hackl, Cosima Terrasse and Andrea Visotschnig, which encourages neighbors to place bets using their own services as currency; the Italian project Drawing Public Space, which uses large scale, drawn symbols to bring the local community closer together; Lebenswelten, which offers ideas on navigating public space for people with dementia; Tischlein Deck Dich from the Romanian duo Trofin and Pataki, which will serve Romanian street food around the 15th district to celebrate the importance of sharing; and Re-tracing Home by Benedikt Stoll and Anja Fritz of Guerrilla Architects, which reflects on how planning and architecture create a sense of home as seen through the experience of refugees. Participants can visit the mobile architecture office Bastian, the city Symbiont, and various public spaces in this year’s focus district Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, with a resulting “ideal home” displayed in a local empty commercial space.

Listening to those most impacted by design is the first step in the influential “design thinking” theory, exemplified at this year’s VDW by the Answering Machine project from Timisoara’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism: Twelve Romanian architecture students will traverse the 15th district, posing locals a series of questions on specific areas to improve. The results of their crowd-sourced questionnaire – a critical step in the architecture process – will be presented at the festival’s main hub.

The weighty program for VDW reveals the energy and breadth of ideas in this design obsessed city, where popular public spaces like the Museumsquartier already satisfy Whyte’s dictum: “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.” At Vienna Design Week, the human-centric “food” on offer is an enticing mix of ingredients, pointing the way toward a better designed future for us all.

Sep 29- Oct 8, various locations. viennadesignweek.at

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Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app