Vienna and design

Lilli Hollein curator and co-founder of the Vienna Design Week recounts which is the method behind it, which the goals and her idea of design.

Vienna Design Week 2016. © Markus Guschelbauer
In the last two decades, Vienna has become increasingly international. Although Viennese traditions are jealously preserved, younger generations have more opportunities now. Among them is the Vienna Design Week, Austria’s largest design festival. This past fall, it celebrated its tenth anniversary (30.09–9.10.2016), saluting the city as a protagonist of the festival. We spoke with its co-founder and director, Lilli Hollein, about her work and aspirations.

Bruno Melis, Elisabetta Carboni: This year marks the tenth Vienna Design Week, a big celebration for the city and for you as the festival’s director. Looking back, what have been the major changes? Which are the goals that you have achieved and the ones that you would like to achieve in the future?

Lilli Hollein: We started the festival with the wish to put Vienna on the international design map, and it is now firmly embedded there. The Design Week has managed to link the city to an international audience. What has changed over the course of the years is that we have become popular with the local audience. We are becoming increasingly international; our audience is becoming wider, and this is something we have always aspired to: not only the international design crowd, but also average people who want to have an idea of what design can be. We have a broad way of seeing design. We have social design, urban mobility, industrial design, visual communications, the crafts, and many educational programmes; it is a curated event. We have always wanted to be known as something Viennese, and I think we have achieved that. We showcase new talents. We look to Eastern Europe. We commission projects; we try to show projects never seen anywhere before, thanks to the fact that we commissioned and curated them. We have tried to create a special atmosphere, something that creates tourism.

Lilli Hollein, portrait. ph. Elisabetta Carboni
Lilli Hollein, portrait. ph. Elisabetta Carboni. Top: Vienna Design Week 2016. © Markus Guschelbauer
Bruno Melis, Elisabetta Carboni: Every year during the Design Week, the focus-district changes, meaning that different parts of the city can be discovered by citizens, visitors and design experts alike. This year, the focus-district was Margareten, the 5th district of Vienna, which used to be working-class. It then became a centre for artisans, and today it is populated by creative industries and businesses that produce locally. Like the focus-district, the festival’s headquarters changes location every year. This year, it was in a neoclassical building, the former Bothe & Hermann exhibition halls. How do you choose the focus-district and the festival headquarters?
Lilli Hollein: We choose districts that are not design hot spots. We go to places where we can raise the awareness that this is also an interesting part of the city, worth being looked at. We need space, like abandoned shops. For the headquarters, we need 1,000 square metres where we can have the opening, a place where we can get the contract a year ahead, because we need that for the planning. We look at the crafts in the district. We look for craftspeople and manufacturers that are a little exotic, that have an interesting material, and so forth. For instance, this year we would have wanted to have a taxidermist but he didn’t agree because he was afraid of the public. We are happy with the neon and the piano maker, but a taxidermist is so exotic! This example was to give you an idea that the research that we are doing for the festival is quite extensive. Therefore, we look for the guest country and the focus-district long in advance. We have already discussed before this festival what we could do the next year. Immediately after this festival, that takes off. We meet the people responsible for the district, and the planners, who always work with the districts and are very helpful. Certain districts come to us, because they would like to be the focus-district. Up to now, we have chosen it ourselves. The process of the guest country is the same. We have had countries came to us, like France, which really wanted to participate, or Hungary or Poland, but the Czech Republic this year was our choice for its design quality, and it was an excellent partner for our anniversary.
Posters for the tenth Vienna Design Week edition. ph Elisabetta Carboni
Posters for the tenth Vienna Design Week edition. ph Elisabetta Carboni
Bruno Melis, Elisabetta Carbone: The Passionswege section of the Vienna Design Week is a cornerstone – international and Austrian designers work together with Viennese production companies to reinterpret traditional Austrian pieces. How did you come up with this idea? Is it a way to preserve the heritage, the culture and the tradition of the city and show it to the world?
Lilli Hollein: It interested me even before we started the festival, because it is a characteristic of Vienna that we still have local production everywhere in the city, not just glamorous manufacturers like Lobmeyr and the Wiener Silber Manufactur. It is great to work with people who are very design conscious already, but I would say we have managed to help craftspeople because they have developed in ways that they would have never done without us. They have delved into contemporary times, into new materials, with designers that they would have never met otherwise. Passionswege is the result of our local production culture. In today’s Austrian design scene, especially in Vienna, we are aware of this huge cultural heritage, and it is quite emancipated. There is a certain lightness and playfulness in how people deal with this cultural heritage. I think the Passionswege format is the way to introduce international designers to the possibility of a place like that. At the same time, it is an educational tool for the manufacturers and entrepreneurs in general, who are still very often afraid to work with designers. Actually, they think that it means a change of identity, which is so untrue. If you work with the right designer, that person would immediately decide for your DNA and work on the basis of this, adding something new. That person would help you and introduce you to contemporary ideas. People need to go through this process to understand it, in many cases.

With the Passionswege, we are the commissioners; we pay the designer’s fee. We even pay a fee for materials and stuff. The project is basically financed by us. For this reason, designers and manufacturers have equal rights, no one is commissioning the other. This makes us different from many others crafts and design initiatives that came up later. We do not only combine traditional manufacturers with contemporary designers, but we force innovation. They don’t necessarily have to make a product. If they want to write a manifesto together, that is fine according to the rules of Passionswege. Morag Myerscough did an installation. The piece by Maxim Velcovsky that you see downstairs was planned as an installation. It became a product because it was so beautiful that the Wien Tourismus decided to sponsor it. That’s the way we work.

I choose the couples and I think this is what we are really good at. It is important to get the right people together. Before I make the teams, I try to meet everyone in person to get an estimation of temperament and personality. I would say that 96 per cent of the teams turn out to be excellent!

Hall of the Festival Headquarters of the Vienna Design Week 2016
Hall of the Festival Headquarters of the Vienna Design Week 2016. ph Elisabetta Carboni

Bruno Melis, Elisabetta Carboni: What is good design?

Lilli Hollein: It is something that has all the qualities that design has to have. Besides functions and aesthetics, it is something that touches me in a certain way. It is not necessarily always an object. It is an emotional quality thing. It could be a present from someone you love. It is something that has extra quality. This is actually what I am looking for. I am looking for things that make sense, that can be a design object that is almost a piece of art, or a social design project, or a super-functional kitchen tool.

Bruno Melis, Elisabetta Carboni: Your father, Hans Hollein, was a great architect and you grew up in a stimulating environment. How much has this influenced your career and life choices?

Lilli Hollein: The things that surround you as a child will always matter. It was and is an interesting world to grow up in. Definitely, my architectural background has had an effect on my life. I studied psychology for two years; I tried to stay away from all art, architecture and design, but after the first year, I already went to take evening classes at the University of Applied Arts. After the second year, I started studying industrial design. It influenced me because I decided very early not to become a designer myself. While I was studying industrial design, I started writing a weekly page for a daily newspaper and it became clear to me that the educational approach of bringing people together, telling about design, and surrendering to my enthusiasm is my world.

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