'DESIGN NOW: AUSTRIA'

Celebrate the contemporary fusion of form and function

by Tony Skevington

Modern design is as much about the toothbrush as it is about the airplane. It is, after all, the conception and realization of man-made objects. It has been with us since the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of mass production. A well-designed product is one that fulfills its basic function efficiently and has the added bonus of style — although how style is judged varies with time and place.

Most of the exhibits at “Design Now: Austria,” a contemporary design display at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, share the twin principles of utility and aesthetics. A few achieve one at the expense of the other, but all are evidence of the centrality and importance of Vienna. Its Secession artists and designers started a revolution of architecture and design at the beginning of the last century, and the revolution is ongoing.

“Living in Austria, especially Vienna, sometimes feels like living in a museum,” says Christian Knechtl, one of the organizers of “Design Now: Austria,” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. “The aim of this exhibition is to show that Austria is, in fact, at the forefront of contemporary design.”

Despite the show’s small scale, there is much to admire and puzzle over, and its exhibits range from mundane light-fittings to an erotic salt-cellar. Some of its designs are familiar, others merely prototypes pointing toward the direction of future design.

The furniture in the exhibition ranges from the beautiful armchair “Galaxy 1″ (Walter Pichler, 1966), in aluminum and red leather, to the “Ibu — Wicker Lounger” (Eoos, 1995), a chair-cum-bed, made from rattan and resembling a Neolithic fertility goddess. Hans Hollein’s “Mobile Office” (1969) consists of a typewriter, a telephone and a drawing board encased in transparent plastic that can be inflated to provide a protected working environment.

The audiovisual dimension of the exhibition includes a superficial mention of contemporary Austrian fashion design in the form of a rather uninspiring video of a fashion show by top Austrian designers.

There is also, in a small gallery all by itself, an exhibit of photographs and CD covers of Kruder and Dorfmeister, a pair of young musicians whose fusion of conventional musical instruments and electronic sounds has taken the Austrian music world by storm. Their music is called “The New Classical,” and according to its composers, creates “a timeless model of understanding.” With a choice of 20 CDs and plenty of headphones around the walls, visitors can draw their own conclusions about how timeless this music really is.

While on the one hand, the exhibits include objects that have been designed and put into production, there are also some exciting, even bizarre prototypes that have yet to hit the market.

One of these, “Chair” (Karl Emilio Pircher, 2000), is an upright chair of metal and see-through plastic. The plastic seat and back can be opened and used for storage or to display items of decoration, thus creating your own constantly changing art exhibition. Another exhibit, “Soft and Found Water Boiler” (Hasenbichler and Hollander, 1998), is a must-have for nicotine and caffeine addicts — a disposable lighter inserted into the base of a polyurethane cup serves to heat the water for coffee or tea.

Then there are the porcelain salt-cellars in the shape of naked ladies, dispensing salt from every orifice, and the elegant and beautiful “Sanophoton” (Hugo Hubaceck, 2000). This is a thin, transparent plastic disk with geometric shapes incised on it. When placed in water, this object will (according to the inventor) “transmit photonic energy” into the water, thereby making it purer and healthier.

The only disappointment is the lean pickings of the exhibition. Judging from the catalog, many of the display items have been shed along the way in the course of the exhibition’s travels through five European capitals, as well as Kyoto and Nagoya. As an unfortunate result, the exhibition concludes in Tokyo with just 30 pieces, leaving its display rattling around in the magnificent space provided by the Hara Gallery.

Nevertheless, in spite of its small size, the exhibition shows that Austria’s design revolution has plenty of steam left in it.