Vienna looks to alter staid image by design

by Mariko Kato

Mozart, Freud, Klimt. Those who came to Vienna in centuries gone by to join the heart of European activity are now the very attractions that draw crowds of tourists to the Austrian capital today.

Visitors, many of whom are Japanese, enjoy the silky sounds of waltzes at open-air concerts and gasp at the formidable Schonbrunn palace. Vienna is adored for its classical culture and traditional architecture — the entire central area is a UNESCO World Heritage site — and its charm is timeless.

But this seemingly valuable quality is exactly what the strategic minds behind the city’s tourism industry are trying to overcome by promoting a new modern image.

“Being timeless means that Vienna is beautiful today, it’s beautiful tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, so there’s no reason to go there now,” Norbert Kettner, managing director of the Vienna Tourist Board told The Japan Times on Thursday.

Kettner, 42, was speaking ahead of a five-day exhibition of Viennese contemporary interior design at 100% Design Tokyo, part of Tokyo Designers Week. The exhibition, entitled “Spot on Wien — Flashing Austrian Design and Music” will run until Tuesday at Meiji Jingu Gaien in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

The exhibition shows that Vienna is still a melting pot of different cultures and that its offerings are still cutting-edge, said Kettner, who hopes it will help revitalize the city’s image.

“Come to Vienna to see Europe,” Kettner said. “Every day there’s a reason to come to Vienna; just try to get a glimpse of contemporary life as well.”

But first, the exhibition. The 34 installations on display — mainly furniture, lighting equipment and tableware — focus on practicality and intelligent design. They were selected by an international jury from more than 250 entries and created by artists who are either Viennese or live in Vienna.

One highlight of the exhibition is “The Idea of a Tree,” an outdoor machine that uses solar power to spin thread around a large cylinder, with its speed dependent on the amount of sunlight available. The variation in sunlight causes the machine to make objects of a random size each day.

“During the summer, it’s able to create a bench because the day is long, but in the winter it can only make a stool,” Kettner explained.

The idea behind the project, created by duo Mischler’Traxler, was to manifest the recording qualities of a tree and its dependence on nature’s cycles as real products.

Although “Spot on Wien” showcases innovations from Vienna, its creators are multicultural, Kettner said. Soda Designers, who conceived a chic leather chair produced by Viennese furniture manufacturer Wittmann, are formed by an ethnically Lebanese woman and a German man.

“It’s so very indigenous. We depend heavily on influences from abroad,” Kettner said.

Kettner chose Tokyo as the place to promote Vienna’s new image because the city gets so many Japanese tourists.

“Japanese people are extremely well-informed about Austria and Vienna, so it’s a very elaborate, mature market for us,” he said.

According to the Austrian National Tourist Office, Japanese tourists in Vienna are second only to those from the United States. About 120,000 Japanese visited last year, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.

This year marks the 140th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and Japan.

The Japanese share with Austrians a love of efficiency, said Kettner, who was visiting Japan for the sixth time.

“To quote (Viennese architect) Otto Wagner, ‘Something which is unpractical cannot be beautiful,’ and that describes the approach of Austrian and Viennese design, as well as Japanese design.”

Wagner was a member of the Vienna Secession, formed during the Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the 20th century, a group that included artist Gustav Klimt. Around that time, many of the city’s residents were foreign, which has affected the present lifestyle, according to Kettner.

“In 1910, Vienna was the fifth-biggest city in the world, but only 50 percent of the city spoke German. There were 14 official languages but they all had the same rights,” he said.

To get a taste of this multiculturalism, Kettner recommends visiting the Naschmarkt, or the Nibbles Market, which sells fresh food and delicacies from around the world.

“You can really explore the flavors of Europe, but mixed together in a very Viennese way. The Austro-Hungarian empire included so many influences, Vienna was the crossroads of the Protestant North and the Catholic South, and the East and the West.”

Meanwhile, contemporary attractions in Vienna lie mainly in the varied nightlife, according to Kettner.

“Tanzcafe Jenseits, for example, is an original ’50s bar, very velvety, while the Volksgarten Pavilion is classical slick ’50s style. The Badeschiff is a boat on the Danube (Canal), which has a pool, sauna, bars and discotheques,” he said.

The city’s central area also has the highest density of restaurants in Europe, he added. Vienna was named the city with the best quality of living this year by global consultancy firm Mercer.

In Vienna, as in many other parts of the world, Japanese tourists are renowned for their incessant camera clicking, turning the lens on a detail that often seems bizarre to local passersby. But for Kettner, their enthusiasm to capture and immortalize unfamiliar objects was the inspiration for the design exhibition.

“We called it ‘Spot on Wien’ because our typical perception of Japanese people is photographing. Photographing something means cherishing and appreciating it, to not forget it, and I think it’s a nice approach.”

Those who should come to the exhibition and to Vienna are “people who are interested in the sustainable lifestyle,” Kettner said.

“Vienna is very sustainable, the interiors but also the image of the city, it’s not a hop-on, hop-off destination.”