Central Intelligence: Vienna and Brno for Design Lovers

For European Design Editor Françoise Labro, Vienna and Brno are essential visits for aficionados of all things 20th century.

Françoise Labro
OF 7

Vienna is a dream city for people who love architecture. It’s where the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte movements started at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, when artists and designers like Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann started to think that less is more. I’ve been to Vienna many times in my life, but recently, I wanted to see the city from a new point of view. So last winter I went to experience the Christmas markets, the opera, and, most importantly, the modern design of Central Europe.

You can walk anywhere in Vienna since so many things are in the center of the city. Overlooking Michaelerplatz, I found Adolf Loos’s former Goldman and Salatsch building, Looshaus (Michaelerplatz 3), completed in 1910 and today a branch of the Raiffeisen Bank. Its functional style was controversial because it was in stark contrast to the decorative Art Nouveau buildings of the day. People called it the “house without eyebrows” because they were so shocked by its modernism. In response to the public’s reaction, Loos allowed some of the windows at the top of the building to have flower boxes. He rejected the ornamentation used by the Vienna Secessionists. The most important example of their style is the Secession Building (Friedrichstraße 12; 43-1/587-5307; secession.at), a ten-minute walk away near the MuseumsQuartier Wien (Museumsplatz 1/5; 43-1/523-5881; mqw.at). The white building, finished in 1897, was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich and features a dome made out of golden leaves. Today it serves as a museum—in the basement is Klimt’s stunning Beethoven Frieze painting—and also as an expression of what Art Nouveau artists were trying to show. It’s poetry. You can’t compare it to anything else.

Of Vienna’s 100-plus museums, the best for design is the Museum for Applied Arts (Stubenring 5; 43-1/711-360; mak.at), or MAK, where decorative art from Austria is spread over rooms curated by different artists. My favorites from the permanent collection were the Baroque, Rococo, and Classicism furniture, curated by late American minimalist Donald Judd, and a room of bentwood furniture, organized by conceptual artist Barbara Bloom. If it’s on view, you shouldn’t miss Albrecht Dürer’s painting Young Hare, at the Albertina Museum (Albertinaplatz 1; 43-1/53483; albertina.at), which has 50,000 drawings, in addition to 900,000 paintings and posters. I was also astonished by an exhibition of the portraits of women by Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka at the Baroque Belvedere (Prinz Eugen-Straße 27; 43-1/7955-7134; belvedere.at), two palaces constructed between 1712 and 1723. The Upper Belvedere building houses the world’s largest collection of Klimt paintings, as well as works by such French Impressionists as Claude Monet, while the Lower Belvedere and Orangery house temporary exhibits. Surrounded by French-style formal gardens, the Belvedere is just outside the city center and is a 30-minute walk from the MuseumsQuartier, but it’s easier to take a ten-minute cab ride.

For shopping in Vienna, the best place for turn-of-the-century crystal is J. & L. Lobmeyr (Kärntner Straße 26; 43-1/512-0508; lobmeyr.at). This store opened in 1823, and today it’s run by the sixth generation of the Lobmeyr family. They carry creations from Loos, Hoffmann, Oswald Haerdtl, and others. Unlike the brand’s Tokyo showroom, and retailers around the world that carry a selection of pieces, the Vienna store has their entire crystal and chandelier ranges, as well as a museum on the third floor. The modern Loos crystal champagne cooler I bought is perfect. Architects Hubmann Vass created it in 2012 based on a design Loos once sketched on the back of a business card. Loos himself designed the storefront and two floors of the men’s store Knize (Graben 13; 43-1/512-2119; knize.at), which were completed in 1913. He gave Knize an imposing black granite entrance and cherry-wood shelves throughout for the feel of a gentlemen’s club. Nearby, there’s another Loos store, called Manz (Kohlmarkt 16; 43-1/5316-1100; manz.at), a bookstore specializing in law and economics that opened in 1912 with a black marble façade and recessed entrance (a standard for shop designers now, but not at the time). Though these stores are 100 years old, they still exist because of their quality. In Vienna, they don’t destroy. They create and renovate. They protect their culture.

As a great admirer of the work of German American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I have always dreamt of visiting his 1930 Villa Tugendhat (Černopolní 45; 420- 515/511-015; tugendhat.eu). So on this trip I took an hour-and-a-half train ride from Wien Hauptbahnhof to Brno, Czech Republic, on Austrian Railways. Villa Tugendhat is one of the few private houses that Mies van der Rohe designed. Grete and Fritz Tugendhat, a German Jewish couple who came from textile manufacturing and trading families, let him do whatever he wanted, no matter the cost. Simon Mawer wrote a novel based on the couple called The Glass Room, which I read before visiting. Grete lived for a time in Berlin, so she was very open-minded. Designer Lilly Reich and writer Eduard Fuchs provided an introduction to Mies van der Rohe, and the Tugendhats worked with him to build this incredible house. When the war came, the Tugendhats fled to Switzerland, and the Nazis, and then the Soviets, occupied the house, but didn’t treat it well. In 1950, it became the property of the Czechoslovak state and was used as a rehabilitation center of a children’s hospital.

Villa Tugendhat was meticulously restored and renovated from 2010 to 2012. It was an expensive and difficult job. The Macassar-ebony-veneered bookcases were replicated and the onyx wall in the living room was cleaned. Faience tiles were relaid in the kitchen and bathrooms. New travertine steps were constructed for the garden terrace. Most of the original furniture had been destroyed, but the city of Brno acquired and restored four original pieces (a coffee table, red chaise, bench, and sideboard) that had been on display in Brno’s Moravian Gallery. The rest of the furniture was reproduced based on archival photographs. Of course, some of the iconic pieces—like the tubular-steel and leather Barcelona and MR20 lounge chairs, and the white leather Brno dining chairs—are still manufactured by Knoll. The house is an amazing example of modernity and simplicity. It could have been built today. The big windows disappear into the floor when you push a button. The onyx wall changes the color of the room, depending on the light. To me, it’s the perfect house.

Earlier on this trip, I was walking down a tiny street in Vienna with my friend Dominique Meyer, who moved from France to become the director of the city’s opera house, Wiener Staatsoper. I asked, “Are you happy to live here?” He said, “Françoise, when I am walking alone on a little street like this one, I am always thinking that Beethoven walked on the street before me, listening to the same noises and seeing the same buildings.” In Vienna and Brno, you are surrounded by the past and by the creators who once lived there.