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09 Apr 2008

Austrian design is like a good red wine,” says Christian Horner, of design duo Soda. Indeed, like a good bottle of Kerschbaum, it has severity, depth, melancholy and a certain charm. And although your head may be heavy the next day, the profound experience of quality makes it all worthwhile.

Internationally as well within Austria, the term “Austrian design” is commonly associated with the Wiener Werkstätte, the Viennese workshops founded in 1903 by artists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. Two years ago Vienna launched its first design week in an attempt to step out of its forefathers’ shadows and gain international recognition.

The media was indeed seduced by Vienna Design Week’s eclectic mix of arty installations and a newly found confidence, but the Austrian design scene still lacks definition. All the more reason for me to visit the capital with its emperor’s charm and old-world architecture to find out what that definition might be. To ensure a good cross section of the scene, I spoke to three diverse design collectives, Eoos, Polka and Soda, all of which feel that the idea of “Austrian design” is a media construction. There are, however, some established links that bind the country’s creatives together:

1. A strong conceptual understanding and aspiration towards the base concept of a design

2. A lack of mass production commissions in Austria resulting in a well-founded arts and crafts movement

The first factor is primarily down to education – the majority of Austrian designers study at the Applied Arts University in Vienna. Both Soda and Polka, for instance, were tutored by Ron Arad while he was guest lecturing there in the 1990s. Due to the artistic freedom inherent in the university’s teaching methods, the designers share a depth of knowledge of the conceptual side of design that contributes towards a national style. Overall, their work balances on the intersection between artisan and industry, a result of the non-existent mass production industry in Austria. Eoos works almost exclusively with international companies, saying: “It’s the only way!” while Soda admits: “Working internationally is what we in Austria perceive as being successful.” And Polka says: “ We would do anything, we’re open to all briefs but we’ve had to do crafty projects simply because there are hardly any other commissions in this country.”

The parallels to their design forefathers are evident. The Wiener Werkstätte movement concentrated on design quality for a more select market, while the Arts and Crafts movement in other countries tried to integrate the craft tradition with mass production techniques for a wider market. Hoffmann famously said, “Since it is not possible to work for the whole market, we will concentrate on those who can afford it.” At the turn of this century the philosophy is back. And despite it being a necessity rather than a choice, the resulting products show how restrictions can be an advantage. There’s no riding the design wave, no easy pleasing the masses, only hard and elaborate design ethics and, like their forefathers, a dependency on people with money to buy it. But like a good red wine, once you’ve tried some it hurts to go back to the standard supermarket screwtops.

This year’s Vienna Design Week, organised by design collective Neigungsgruppe, will run from 2-12 October.

SODA
Designers: Nada Nasrallah and Christian Horner
Founded: 2000
Clients: Bene, Wittmann, Ligne Roset

“Design is a mindset!”
“Design is emotive!”
“Design is discussion!”

Nada Nasrallah and Christian Horner’s strong design definitions are a sign of their fruitful collaboration
as Soda.

“In Austria today,” Horner says, “there are two typologies. The industrial business firms like Bene, and the companies with a tendency towards crafting like Wittmann.” Nada Nasrallah adds: “The classic mass production is dead, it has lost its appeal ever since the ‘China phenomenon’. The new challenge is to present your concept, to create space solutions and symbols rather than furniture.”

In 2000, Nasrallah and husband Horner started their own studio but still continued working separately on projects – he for Bene, she for Philips Design. “When we started we wrote a manifesto, an intellectual account of what we want,” says Horner. “We recently revisited it and I was surprised by what we had put down. We’ve stuck to most of it throughout.”

Mirroring the old Italian model – but in a less dogmatic way – of training in a big international studio before taking on the family business, the couple worked for Italian maestri such as Ettore Sottsass and Paolo Rizzatto before going it alone. “We were really upset when Sottsass died, and Castiglioni, because it’s the end of an era. Postwar Italy was the golden age of design, with a marvellous correlation between designer and manufacturer that you seldom find today.”

Horner adds: “Working for Bene is great because they let us use the products in our portfolio, while at the same time they obviously benefit from letting us design freely on separate projects – which keeps us fresh and creatively active.”

Soda’s style is to design objects by altering their context. The best example is a range of leather products the duo created for Wittmann at last year’s Vienna Design Week – a mattress, a deckchair, a swimming ring and other products playing on the 1950s camping craze. The idea of bringing the outside in was so popular that the leather deckchair is now going into production.

At Cologne this year, Soda presented a mini bar for Ligne Roset. The team decided to redesign the mini bar concept as there is no modern interpretation of the once iconic piece of furninture. “We decided to orchestrate the bottles by lighting them up with LEDs. The lights softly break in the bottles, taking away the cold ambience.”

“The general shift to craft, not just in Austria but worldwide, is not a step backwards,” Nasrallah emphasises. “We’re post industrial,” Horner interjects. “So the general move towards crafting designs is the result of a critical debate around the exhaustion that the design industry was suffering.”

The couple have a remarkable ease about them, while at the same time discussing design with a depth and weight that is highly academic. “As a team our recipe is discourse, every concept is questioned ten times over,” Nasrallah says. Horner concludes: “It’s about quality. Vienna especially has this black-and-white approach, which comes from the arts. There’s either good or bad. Austrian design is trying to find a new middle route by working with symbols.”

Eoos
Designers: Martin Bergmann, Gernot Bohmann and Harald Gründl
Founded: 1995
Clients: Moroso, Matteo Grassi,
Walter Knoll, Duravit

The three designers at Eoos claim for the first eight years of their studio’s existence they had no commissions at all. Today, however, they work with big brands such as Moroso, Matteo Grassi and Walter Knoll. “It takes a long time before you get noticed and then it’s international commissions that bring in the money,’ says Gründl. Funnily enough, their first product for an Austrian company, Bene, was the Filo chair that they had originally designed for Canadian office furniture manufacturer Keilhauer. “It’s surely the first time an Austrian design group created a chair for a transatlantic client and an Austrian company then bought back the rights for distribution,” says Gründl.

Filo is an office chair with an elaborate science behind it. Faced with the common task seating challenges (onoffice 18), Filo spurned the quest to develop the ideal task chair. So after seven years of research, Eoos brought out Sguig last year, a new task chair that moves with you. “It is our dream to create the perfect office chair, one that moves organically and naturally with the body,” says Gründl. Sguig is the closest a chair has ever come to simulation of the body’s movement. The backrest functions as an elongation of the spine.”

Eoos’ studio divides itself into three major sections: furniture design, retail interiors (flagship stores) and basic research, a unit dedicated to decoding standard design issues. Their basic research division looks into realities such as the fact that men and women sit differently on chairs to collect empirical data as the basis for their designs. “People still quote Dreyfuss’ Measure of Men, which hasn’t been updated for years. We’d love to do an up-to-date book on modern ergonomics.”

Eoos’ thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. This year their second book, The Cooked Kitchen, is launching in Milan. In it, they pull everything out of the kitchen cupboards to deconstruct this essential living space. Asked to describe the way they work and approach design, Gründl casually says: “We define our work style as poetic analysis. Essentially that means that we attempt to uncover the ritual at the base of each project.”

Their first book, The death of fashion, is a prime example of that method. It looks at the phenomenon of sales in the fashion world, which Eoos claims is the unconscious following of an ancient sacrificial ritual. Just as in ancient Greece, the God of Fertility had to be killed during the Dionysia in order to be resurrected; the season’s fashion has today to be symbolically sacrificed in order for the shop windows to be filled with something new. In the book they show why archaic scenes of darkness, nakedness and chaos briefly dominate the shopping streets of the fashion metropolises, and why people buy (and have to).

This theory is also at the heart of their famous flagship store designs for Armani cosmetics and Adidas. “It’s about spatially translating the brand,” says Gründl. “For instance with Adidas, we were asked to design the stores for their originals line, which is old-school sportswear resurrected to lifestyle gear through the myth of kids in the States who couldn’t afford new products, so bought old trainers and tracksuits on fleamarkets and with that started an urban trend. We decided to recreate that flea market scene by installing low tables and simply throwing the gear on the benches. Admittedly, when we presented the idea the board was shocked, but the concept worked and in the end they loved it.”

This highly conceptual tactic weaves itself through Eoos’ work like a consistent thread regardless of the subject matter. “We think in context and revive the ritual to create a poetic moment,” says Gründl. “That’s poetical analysis.” At the heart of this perceptive style lies the aim to encourage new ways of use and behaviour in the end-user. For example, their bath tub for Duravit: “We thought as people don’t use their bath everyday it would be good to maximise its usage by providing a cover to create a surface. Then to animate the ritual of the bathing process, we create a poetic moment through the way the cover folds up like the soft deck of a sport car.” The folded cover also functions as a headrest. The interesting thing for Eoos, however, was the unexpected reaction: “People said, ‘Great you can put it outside.’ We’d never even considered that.”

Like Polka, Eoos is curious to play on the borderline between separate design worlds. The studio resurrected the Austrian tradition of a corner seat often found in old country cottages as a product for the office – a meeting chair to change communication between people by design. “You sit so close, a proximity not normally found in the corporate environment, but the effect is highly productive communication.” The psychology of sitting is a topic Eoos is continuously looking into. As previously mentioned, the difference in sitting between men and women lies in both physiognomic and cultural differences. “Women tilt their pelvis and would never sit with their legs apart the way a man does. We believe that everyone has their own favourite chair – ideally each staff member would need to choose their own chair as there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all task chair.”

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