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Vienna hasn’t had a thriving design scene since the days of Josef Hoffmann. But now that’s changing and a new annual festival is hoping to attract the design jet-set to the city.

Words Beatrice Galilee

Vienna hasn’t had a thriving design scene since the days of Josef Hoffmann. But now that’s changing and a new annual festival is hoping to attract the design jet-set to the city.

“Two years ago people would have asked us: ‘What design scene in Vienna?’” says Lilli Hollein, founding partner of design platform Neigungsgruppe Design. The city has been buoyed of late by the success of a new generation of architects emanating from the Austrian capital’s University of Applied Arts, under teachers including Wolf Prix and Zaha Hadid, but its design culture has remained mired in obscurity.

Hollein hopes to change that. Neigungsgruppe has founded Vienna Design Weeks, a new annual festival aimed at pushing the city into the first rank of European “design cities” and drawing in the euros of design tourists. For two and a half weeks in October, the city was decked with posters, maps and pink flags promoting the festival, and Neigungsgruppe curated a conference where designers Stefan Diez, Martí Guixé, Patrick Cox and others discussed “Mitte” – the concept of the middle in design, and what design means in the middle of Europe.

The academic focus of the conference was countered by the more accessible Passionswege, the Paths of Passion. Ten young Viennese designers were commissioned – each by a different traditional Viennese company, including milliners, chocolatiers and jewellers – to create an object that responded to one of ten venues, where it would be on display for the duration of the Design Weeks. At the grand Hotel König, for instance, design group Dottings produced a series of elegant lampshades made entirely of the fine white fringing used to decorate traditional 19th-century lampshades. The response has been good. “Every day we are getting emails and the phone has been ringing with people who want to buy our stuff,” says Katrin Radanitsch, one half of Dottings. “But some of it is not even in production yet! So for us, as a new practice, it is working well.”

The question is, however, whether designers like Dottings will come away from the festival as part of a more coherent Viennese design scene. The city’s music and fashion industries prospered in the 1990s, when a more relaxed cafe culture emerged from behind Vienna’s stuffy facade. Parties held in gasworks outside the city centre propelled local electronic DJs Kruder & Dorfmeister to global acclaim, and a new generation of confident architecture practices, with strange names like Next Enterprise, Caramel and Querkraft, found international success.

Now the Austrian government is focusing its attention on design, and since 2003 a state-funded organisation called Departure has been giving grants of up to €100,000 to young design groups. More than 100 grants have been given out so far, driving designers, especially young women, to form practices. “It’s easier and more fun to work together,” says Monica Singer, who set up Polka with Marie Rahm in 2004. Now the city is home to a host of young design groups, from stalwarts like Eos to newer studios such as Walking Chair and Polka.

The work is lighthearted and inquisitive, but crucially – because the money was given on the basis of a strong business plan – it is marketable and accessible. In Vienna, chairs are designed to fall over, lilos are made from leather, wardrobes do not have walls and are painted bright green. It’s relaxed, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. “The Viennese way is not about breaking heads with serious thoughts,” says Singer. “We care but in the end it’s playful and positive.”

The scene is still embryonic, though. “Vienna is not like Berlin where there are two streets and you know you will find designers and products at almost every door,” says Hollein. “It will never be like that.”

Nevertheless, the city’s designers do have a new confidence. Next year’s event promises far more, and designers from across Europe will be invited to take part in the Passionswege. “You get the feeling people are proud to be working out of Vienna,” says Thomas Geisler, a co-founder of Neigungsgruppe. “Before, everybody wanted to leave and go to London, Paris or New York. There are good vibes now and this is reflected in the work.”

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