The Italian Riviera, Reborn and Reconsidered
A road trip across Liguria.
Inside the 200-year-old atelier where J. & L. Lobmeyr crafts pure magic out of crystal.
IN 1823, THE world was, by almost all measures, a harder place to live in. Average lifespans did not exceed 40 years, there was no indoor electricity or plumbing, child labor was rampant, mesmerism was used as a surgical anesthetic, and about 95% of humans lived on less than $2 a day.
There’s no denying that our lives are better today as a result of the unprecedented and statistically unabated period of sustained economic growth ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. But what have we given up?
This is what I wondered as I walked past the gold-leafed glass and through the front doors of J. & L. Lobmeyr. The crystal and glass manufacturer’s flagship store, located on Kärntner Strasse, a robust commercial center in Vienna’s 16th district, houses 200 years of history with unrivaled provenance. In 1835, founder Josef Lobmeyr equipped the imperial court’s table with the “prism-cut drinking set,” for which he received the title of a “Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court.” In 1883, working alongside Thomas Edison, the founder’s son Ludwig Lobmeyr co-developed the first electric chandeliers in the world. J. & L. Lobmeyr has also supplied a crystal chandelier for Schönbrunn Palace, one of the most important architectural, cultural, and historic sites in Vienna; and has provided services to the King of Belgium, the Duke of Brabant, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Kremlin.
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These days, the company seems to be occupying an impossibly sweet spot between being an organization frozen in time and being one simultaneously poised not only to navigate but to disrupt the future. Once inside the flagship store, I felt immediately that I was somewhere special. A member of the staff walked me through Lobmeyr’s many product lines that include glass and crystal housewares, home decor, and tableware sets that are still blown, cut, engraved, and polished entirely by hand, as well as their artist collaborations with the likes of Ted Muehling and Sebastian Menschhorn. Discussing it later with Leonid Rath, one of the current managing partners and a sixth-generation member of the founding Lobmeyr family, I told him that holding these pieces felt as if a butterfly had landed in my hand. I wanted to care for it. This was, I felt, quite a sensational, perhaps even hysterical, response to holding glass stemware, but he just smirked and nodded. I told him that I loved it, obviously, but wondered if I could live with something so fragile.
He reminded me that the fragile butterfly can travel from 50-100 miles per day, for up to two months and outlined some of the characteristics of the glass I had just handled.
“Muslin glass,” he said, “appears to be much more fragile than it is. The process by which it’s crafted encourages a very robust and ultimately quite elastic, or flexible, glass.”
He’d definitely answered this question before.
After visiting the retail shop, I walked to the atelier. Vienna is known as “the City of Music” (not to be confused with Nashville, which is “Music City”), and the Wiener Staatsoper is one of the most respected opera houses in the world (many place it at number two, only behind Milan’s Teatro alla Scala). Walking through Stadtpark, I wondered about the city’s culture and history, and how it related to Lobmeyr’s seemingly irrational commitment to hand-producing these meticulously crafted objects.
I asked Rath if the company had a guiding principle or corporate ethos that drives internal decision-making. His response that “good design includes quality and satiates need” is a compelling statement that can be interpreted in a couple of different ways: First, it implies that people need beauty, and secondly, that existing within beauty is natural, and what is natural is necessary.
In either case, as an American, these seem like very poetic, lofty notions because our guiding principle seems to be that you work forever to die in relative, isolated peace.
After walking off my giant plate of veal schnitzel from GmoaKeller, we finally arrived at the workshop, where I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of a cavernous, white-gloved “insta-lab” and perhaps find people buffing out the markings left on the glass by the machines that had already done the heavy lifting. Instead, I found a real atelier: a dusty, old labyrinth of workspaces, each nook housing artisans dedicated to their respective stage of manufacturing. This was not a public space. It was not for journalists and definitely not for Instagram; it was a creative workshop, meant for creative work. It was magnificent. There were metal forms being both followed and manipulated by hand, aided by big, heavy, 100-year-old, red-badged, perfectly faded green machines that were well-oiled and covered in carbon. It smelled, as good workshops do, like earth and metal. I was so impressed not only with the authenticity of this space but also with the logistical precision required to produce one of their “off-the-rack,” 6-foot, 165-pound chandeliers in a timely fashion. There are lots of organizations claiming to hand-manufacture, but this was no “claim.” Lobmeyr artisans were building it like Johnny Cash said: “One piece at a time.”
I gingerly navigated the narrow cement-and-earth maze, trying not to break anything, hoping to remember this feeling, which I do, sort of. While there, I learned that a single engraved letter takes about an hour to cut by hand, with more complex designs requiring upward of 1,000 hours. One thousand hours! If you put in a 40-hour work week, that’s 25 weeks. The first Led Zeppelin album was recorded in 30 hours.
With real awe and appreciation, I watched an artisan steadfastly turn tool and glass around each other. It occurred to me that Lobmeyr can help us reimagine what matters. Amid all of our new stuff, we’ve lost the appreciation for quality, which takes time and is, according to Lobmeyr, a vital function of human need.
This whole trip I wondered how the company could be expected to compete in today’s data-driven global drive-through that almost exclusively promotes a culture of now. The answer is: they’re not. They’re not even playing the same game. Lobmeyr shouldn’t bend to satiate the whims of some fickle market segment — they don’t need to. They’re catalysts for change. Perhaps that change can save us all.
Jeremy Malman is a part-time journalist and full-time dad based in Brooklyn. His writing explores topics including motorsports, design, fitness, farming, and fatherhood — in other words, some conceptually comical notion of modern masculinity. He also really enjoys traveling.
Natasha Stanglmayr is a New York–based photographer. Her work has a documentary approach to travel and portraiture, with natural light as her driving force. She was born in Beirut, raised in Vienna, and spent her summers in Honduras with family. Her global upbringing and extensive travels have made her comfortable in a wide variety of cultures and locations. She brings an unfiltered, authentic, and unscripted point of view to her audience.
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