A Design With(out) a Narrative

What is Austrian design? Or for that matter, Italian design or Japanese design or British design? For many, the fashionable answer would be, "Who cares?" We live in a time of globalization. We are constantly reminded, as national boundaries are blurring, conventional notions of identity have been discredited and distance has become relativized — if not made irrelevant — by easy travel and the virtual realm. In design, one sees Dutch designers working for American companies that manufacture in China, British designers working for Swiss companies with factories in Germany, and so on. We are no longer citizens of nations but, rather, nodes in overlapping networks.

Of course, things are never so straightforward. Globalization and the homogenization it threatens have in fact prompted the inverse effect as well. That is to say, we are increasingly consumed by, and asked to consume, the local (even if what is "local" comes from very far away). Consider the emphasis on locally grown food and locally sourced products, or on reclaiming vernacular idioms and craft traditions. Many fashion customers dogmatically insist on a "Made in Italy" label — never mind if Italian law allowed everything but the button sewing to be actually done in China.

And in contemporary design, it is still easy to conjure an image of "Dutch design," "Japanese design" and "Scandinavian design." But Austrian design? Not so much. Other than it being probably pretty good, I am not sure many people have a strong impression of what that is.

So what does this mean for design in Austria? The short answer is that it means as much as Austrian designers want it to mean — and based on first impressions, they appear to be skeptical. "Does it matter if we're Austrian?" one asked me. "We don't think of ourselves as Austrian designers, but simply as designers," another insisted. Such responses are neither unreasonable nor unique to Austria; no one wants to be pigeonholed, and the very notion of national identity can seem ambiguous, anachronistic and overly reductive, not to mention uncool.

But from an outsider's perspective, it seems that "Austrian design" can, and ought to be, better positioned to compete worldwide. We all know that national design labels can easily lead to a cavalcade of empty clichés. But if we are to agree that such classifications have been successful, if imperfect, devices — that they have benefited designers and their home economies, while also providing valid frameworks for creativity and, yes, even encouraging heterogeneity on an international scale — then we have to accept that they are useful and, frankly, legitimate and unavoidable.

That being said, a "branded" national design is not about creating a style but, rather, a narrative. And a well-articulated narrative seems to be exactly what is missing from contemporary Austrian design — which is surprising, given the richness of the country's design legacy.

Perhaps Austrians don't need to be reminded of Wagner, Hoffmann, Loos and the Wiener Werkstätte — nor the splendor of the Habsburgs; the heritage of Lobmeyr and Thonet; the brilliance of Kiesler; the masterfulness of Austrian craftsmanship, both folk and industrial; the less widely known, yet fascinating work of Hermann Czech, Carl Auböck, Victor Papanek and others. However, I would argue that the rest of the world could use a refresher. Much of this patrimony is studied in classrooms, exhibited in museums, retold in books and sold in stores everywhere. But as far as I can tell, it has yet to be noticeably and convincingly claimed by Austria under the umbrella of being Austrian. Nor has it been effectively tied to the present. Think of Sweden, which in recent years fixated on the mid-20th-century designer Josef Frank — an Austrian, no less — in successfully promoting its contemporary design.

The suggestion here is not that Austrian designers should conform to some historically derived, formal straitjacket. Contemporary Austrian designers appear to be a feisty and fiercely independent bunch, and that should be encouraged. Nevertheless, one can begin to sense a certain Austrianness within the diversity of their work. At Polka, I saw glass and enamelware interpreted with both refined pragmatism and wit. Despite the firm's international emphasis, EOOS's technological-anthropological approach felt appropriate coming from a land equally rooted in folk tradition and modernity. Tino Valentinitsch showed me some of his fantastic brass pieces designed for, and influenced by, Carl Auböck. Vienna Design Week's Passionswege project, which arranges collaborations between designers and local manufacturers, is a brilliant idea.

Meanwhile, other efforts like das möbel, designforum, MuseumsQuartier and, notably, Pure Austrian Design have the right idea. "In the past, Austria was very relevant in design, but now we have to bring people together, present their work worldwide and rebuild an image," the latter's co-founder, Andrés Fredes, told me. At Lobmeyr and Wittmann, I saw encouraging, if somewhat conservative, attempts at bridging the past and present with reissued Austrian classics alongside new designs. Still, many whom I spoke with in Vienna seemed resigned to seeing the Austrian capital become a regional, rather than global, design center (perhaps this reflects a broader mentality; it says something that the in-flight magazine of Austrian Airlines, a global carrier, covers only topics relating to Central Europe). And I mostly heard Austrian design being defined in terms ranging from quality and craftsmanship to technology, research and sustainability. All are perfectly laudable attributes, but they don't do much to differentiate Austria from other countries. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is this: It is Austrian because it is Austrian.

Aric Chen, curator of art and design for M+, a new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong.

Exhibition of Austrian Design in Moscow

Advantage Austria showcases the very latest of product and furniture design. WHEN and WHERE: October 14-19, 2014, ARTPLAY Design Center, Moscow

Dietmar Fellner, commercial counselor at the Austrian Embassy, organizing the Exhibition of Austrian Design

The Commercial Department of the Austrian Embassy in Moscow (Advantage Austria) will organize for the first time in Russia a comprehensive exhibition with the very latest creative works of product and furniture design. During the exhibition which will take place in cooperation with the Moscow Design Week at the Artplay Design Center 14-19 October, 2014,  Austrian designers, architect bureaus and production companies show at their best.

Austria is a design country in the truest sense of the word and is one of the most dynamic movers in recent years. Contemporary Austrian designers appear to be a feisty and fiercely independent bunch, coming from a land equally rooted in folk tradition and modernity. Nevertheless, one can begin to sense a certain Austrianness within the diversity of their work.

Characterized by inventive talent, artisanal accuracy and technological advance, Austrian design is becoming more and more successful internationally. Austrian designers focus not only on the local market but are also active beyond the country's borders.

The Exhibition of Austrian Design was created under the framework of the "go international" initiative, which was established with the aim to encourage and support Austrian companies to step across the border. Advantage Austria, which is also the foreign trade promotion organization within the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber with its headquarters in Vienna and 117 trade commissions around the globe, is responsible for the execution of the "go international" program and has placed a special emphasis on the creative industries since 2005. It has defined and executed a strategic plan to consult Austrian creative enterprises on their way to conquering international markets.

Within the context of the "go international" program, design presentations at international industry gatherings such as Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, the London Design Festival, ICFF in New York, the Dutch Design Week and the European Cultural Capitals are being organized on a regular basis. It's the first time Austrian design is presented in Russia. The exhibitors of the Austrian design exposition are all well-known in Austria for being innovative companies that focus strongly on design when developing products. Central elements of works presented in Moscow are an obsession with finding technical solutions to complex problems from daily life, a passion for exploring the limits to which unusual materials can be put and a desire to couple aesthetic minimalism with tongue-in-cheek humor.

Introduction by Simon Mraz, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow and curator of the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia

Simon Mraz

Contemporary is the future

The art being created today lays the foundation for the cultural identity of tomorrow. This primarily stems from the fact that important artistic endeavors, as a rule, are only understood long after their creation. Only historical distance helps shed light on what works of art are capable not only of capturing the present, but also of defining the future, and therefore finding a place in the history of art and culture. This applies to all great artistic figures, such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Pushkin, Andrei Rublyov, Kazimir Malevich, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Nestroy and Egon Schiele, on the basis of whose efforts we attempt to form our own identity. In the end, every generation and era has at least several creative minds of which we can be endlessly proud. Thus, what could be more relevant and important than studying the art of today in all its manifestations? Today we don't know what work, in the end, will truly find a place in the history of art, but everyone can develop their own taste and convictions and like the artists that appeal to them, while also considering work that may not be entirely to their taste, as who judged art correctly or incorrectly will be decided long after we're gone, and shouldn't influence our consideration.

The Austrian contribution to the Austrian-Russian Season of Cultural Exchange

Culture, by its nature, has no borders. We don't need to cite globalization or the Internet; it's enough to consider history. There is no Byzantine art without Greek and Roman antiquity, there is no Romanesque without eastern Byzantium, there is no German Dürer without the Italian Renaissance, and so on.

Cross-cultural influence doesn't pose any danger or threat to local cultural heritage; to the contrary, it allows it to have a wider impact on humanity as a whole, as well as a chance to enrich other cultural spaces. The path to cultural enlightenment and development lies not in isolation, but in the interaction of different cultures and traditions.

I remember a televised interview with the German artists Herbert Volkmann and Jonathan Meese in which they said: "Art exists in order to obliterate the boundaries of reality. Most artists are afraid of art but not of life, and this is useless — we need fearless artists. In art, everything is possible; everything can be realized. You can unfold all the maps." It is only under these conditions that the seemingly impossible portrayal of reality can be made visible and real through art.

As part of the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia in 2013 and 2014, a variety of well-known Austrian artists and cultural institutions took part in projects and visits to Russia. Almost all of the projects were documented in books, catalogs and film clips. However, one important issue remains unmentioned, and addressing it is the goal of this publication.

Russia's creative potential

Curators and artists who travel to Russia have the chance to meet their Russian colleagues, about whom little, unfortunately, is generally known.

Willingly or unwillingly part of the rich and diverse artistic traditions of an enormous European and non-European empire, the Russian art scene is perhaps the most promising in the world. Confident in relating to art abroad, farsighted and independent in formulating strong, independent opinions, Russian contemporary art has potential that is unparalleled.

In our opinion, Russia can truly take pride in its current generation of artists, who for international curators and artists are a major discovery and source of enrichment.

At the close of the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia, we, the organizers of the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia, together with our partners in the current publication, would like to talk not about Austria, but about Russia. What is written here is a story of mutual discovery, a story of creative potential that lays the foundation for a promising future. Today there is nothing more important, for all of our collaborations in the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia — whether in theater, music or fine arts — have taught us that we in Europe and Russia have a lot to say to one another, and that together we have tremendous potential that is limitless in its application, that is unburdened by obstacles large or small.

I hope that the readers of this publication gain an idea of what's happening in Russian contemporary art, and that they enjoy reading the commentary of an array of Austrian and international curators and individuals who have had the opportunity to work in Russia and whose expertise and experience gives them something to say.

Special thanks to everyone who supported this publication, first and foremost the artists, those who wrote articles and commentary, and the project's staff at The Moscow Times and Vedomosti, as well as the general sponsor of the Austrian Cultural Season in Russia, Raiffeisenbank, the sponsors of this publication, ViennaFair, HR Solutions, Meinl, and the Commerce Department of the Austrian Embassy in Moscow, without whom this project would never have been possible.

Finally, I am especially happy that we can announce three great and promising exhibitions in this issue: TALES OF TWO CITIES, a cooperation between the Jewish Museum Vienna, Memorial, Moscow Museum of Modern Art and the Austrian Cultural Forum Moscow, "CREATIVE APPROACHES," the first ever Austrian Group exhibition fully dedicated to Austrian Design and VIENNAFAIR. In short: We keep on rocking.

Dmitry Aksenov, Founder of RDI, Chairman of the board of Viennafair

My interest in contemporary art has evolved from a purely personal attraction and has now become a full-fledged professional engagement. As chairman of the advisory board of ViennaFair and as an art collector, I strongly believe in contemporary art and have a lot of vested interests in it.

As a collector I'm interested in building a narrative. The focus of the collection is on contemporary Russian and Eastern European art, but there are no binding geographical constraints. Art is an important historic document, and by making visible cultural links between countries with shared histories, or shared momentum in history, you become something of a chronicler, establishing important causal and artistic relations. And in this respect, collecting contemporary art is immensely gratifying — you feel you're making history, not just watching it build by itself.

Contemporary art is also the strongest bridge-builder between cultures, which is especially relevant today. And I'm glad that ViennaFair in the past three years has turned into a platform for a cultural dialogue in Europe that fosters cultural and business partnerships alike.

And then there's an indirect but nevertheless very strong connection between contemporary art and my core business activities in real estate development. Artists are visionaries, and as "imagineers" of new real estate we draw on an inherent plurality of contemporary art to shape our vision of inspired living, filled with unique architectural designs and innovative construction technologies. And, of course, on a more practical level we try to incorporate contemporary art into our development projects.

Russia - Austria 2014
Russia - Austria 2014
The Austrian season of culture, which took place in Russia in 2013 and 2014, gave artists from both countries an unprecedented opportunity for creative exchange and joint projects. The cooperation of institutes and artists from all areas of culture expanded far beyond the framework of particular events.
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