at the Art Institute

Israeli journalist Amos Elon recently filed a “Report From Vienna” in the New Yorker that claimed, among other things, that Austrian society still visibly yearns for its imperial past, which was dismantled three-quarters of a century ago. Elon’s extremely unflattering portrait of Vienna today made many in the Austrian diplomatic community angry, for it also suggested a relation between the persistent strain of Nazism in the national consciousness and the current crisis in cultural and intellectual leadership. The backward-looking Austrians, wrote Elon, labor under “a recurrent fear–the fear of being irrelevant, left out, hopelessly provincial.”

It’s no wonder then that the Austrian consulate vigorously supports Austrian Architecture and Design: Beyond Tradition in the 1990s, on view at the Art Institute through the end of the year. Jointly organized by the museum’s departments of architecture and European decorative art, this show may not push Austria into a position of global leadership in design, but it does include contemporary work that refutes any notion that Austrian design is irrelevant. One would be hard-pressed to describe any of the works exhibited as revolutionary, yet many are excellent examples of what we might think of as avant-garde.

In the years approaching World War I Vienna was an international center of culture and intellect that produced such luminaries as Freud and Wittgenstein in the social sciences, Schiele and Klimt in painting, Schoenberg and Mahler in music. Early 20th-century Vienna also produced some of the greatest architects of the early modern movement known as the Jugendstil or the Vienna Secession. Designers such as Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Josef Hoffmann left behind the precepts of heavy German classicism and lavishly ornamented surfaces that made 19th-century Viennese buildings resemble wedding cakes, and conceived buildings that were pure geometry, with only the most severe and stylized decoration.

World War I carved the empire into many small pieces, fragmenting its cultural and intellectual life. Designers such as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra left for Los Angeles, and found it a more fertile territory for their innovations. The advances wrought by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus school shifted the lead in architecture to Germany, where it remained until its leaders fled to America with the rise of the Third Reich. As an architectural capital, Vienna had become, if not irrelevant, at least unremarkable.

In the 1970s the situation began to turn around, and a few Austrian designers made great strides toward changing the conservative image of Austria. Several gained distinguished international reputations.

Of the Austrian architects, Hans Hollein is probably the most familiar to international audiences. His work is elegant and mannerist, incorporating luxurious finishes, historical allusion, and visual humor. In a well-known project for the Austrian Travel Agency, for example, he used decorative elements that whimsically signify exotic means of travel and faraway places: chrome-plated decorative palm trees that evoke the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, a polished bronze Buddhist shrine from India, cashier window screens that resemble Rolls- Royce radiator grilles. In another project, Hollein created a sensuous, jewellike facade of a Viennese jewelry shop that is both ironic and overtly sexual; its cracked marble facade is filled with symbolic gemstones that simultaneously allude to jewels in their natural state and to parts of the male and female anatomies. Hollein’s wit and style place him firmly in the vanguard of what continues to be called postmodernism in architecture.

Hollein is represented in the Art Institute show by a splashy model of the Haas-Haus, an exuberant multiuse commercial building in Vienna. Curator John Zukowsky reports that its profusion of materials–reflective glass, various marbles, masonry, stainless and painted steel–and its bold massing have made it highly controversial in Vienna. Nevertheless, he says, “the reflection of the older buildings brightens your awareness of the site’s historic importance.” Also exhibited is Hollein’s ambitious plan for a Guggenheim museum, to be built completely underground in a mountain near Salzburg. All that will be visible aboveground will be a cylindrical bronzed tower marking the entrance.

The architecture firm Coop Himmelblau has received international attention as well, but its work is somewhat less accessible than Hollein’s. Its designs are often composed of seemingly discordant arrangements of intersecting volumes, making them avatars of deconstruction. But according to Zukowsky, “the firm feels more comfortable with the description ‘architectural dematerialization.’ They think of it as ‘dearchitecture that decomposes and destructs’ buildings.” If this is somewhat difficult to grasp, so are many examples of deconstruction, which as an architectural movement has found greater favor in academic and theoretical circles than in the real world. Coop Himmelblau’s philosophy may become clearer when it finishes its first major U.S. project, a commercial complex currently under construction on Melrose Avenue in the heart of Hollywood–the model of which looks like another unruly mass of randomly arranged asymmetrical shapes.

The Art Institute’s European decorative-arts curator Ian Wardropper explains that the Austrian design industry, which produces decorative and utilitarian objects, has suffered from its geographic location–squashed between Italy and Germany, probably the two most influential nations in design. Austrian designers have typically been forced to market their work through commercial outlets in these two countries. “A few of the Austrian architects have gained international exposure,” Wardropper says, “but the design community is largely unknown.” As a result, he says, “we had to start from scratch in assembling the exhibition.”

Despite the relative obscurity of the works, Wardropper was able to uncover some provocative examples that represent the design spectrum. Jeweler Fritz Maierhofer, for example, claims it is unimportant if his work is worn; according to the catalog text, “scale cannot be seen as differentiating jewelry from sculpture.” Indeed, Maierhofer’s pieces of gold and oxidized silver do resemble the sculpture of such artists as Tony Smith and Anthony Caro–small-scale versions of their enormous pieces made from building parts such as I beams. If his pieces were blown up in scale, they would look perfectly appropriate in the Art Institute’s outdoor sculpture garden. However, jeweler Gert Mosettig exhibits jewelry that he says is created strictly for the purpose of ornament and not as object art. “Mosettig’s work can only function if a person is wearing it,” says Wardropper. One of Mosettig’s designs, for example, consists of a large hoop and a solid cone that the wearer must assemble before he can don it as a ring.

Several designers of furniture are represented in the exhibit. The work of BRAND, a firm of only two self-taught interior designers, is the hardest to miss. Their modular installations are typically composed of sinuously intertwined iron rods, storage units, and upholstered seating that somehow form entire room-size environments. Wardropper says the firm’s installations are occasionally criticized for being simple, unabashed 50s revivalism–which they’re not. The arrangement exhibited at the Art Institute draws from a number of sources to create a highly personal signature. The final effect looks something like a futuristic beauty shop as a German Expressionist set designer might have conceived it–sort of a cross between The Jetsons and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Certainly the most arresting object in the entire exhibition is the grand piano designed by Hans Hollein for the Bosendorfer piano company, which claims a long tradition of manufacturing “designer pianos.” Bosendorfer’s promotional materials feature photos of grand pianos designed for Empress Eugenie of France and for Emperor Franz Josef in 1867, and one designed by Josef Hoffmann and built by the famous Wiener Werkstatten in 1909.

It’s difficult to think of a piano as “flashy,” but that’s how Wardropper describes Hollein’s. Its madly sensuous, curvilinear body is supported by powerful, polished bronze legs and pedals that seem to float on air, setting it apart from more conventional instruments. But it is most striking in its use of color. Closed, its rich black enamel finish is similar to other pianos and gives little hint of the surprise it holds when the lid is opened and the keyboard is exposed. The vivid scarlet finish and gold-leaf patterns that adorn these hidden surfaces give the piano a distinction that is almost alarming. One might go so far as to call it kitsch, but one would certainly never call it irrelevant. Amos Elon may well be right about the decline of the Austrian intelligentsia, but this exhibition suggests that its design community is still vital.

This show is also highly significant because it signals the return of the architecture department’s exhibitions to Gallery 227, the semicircular mezzanine area overlooking the library. Like many departments in the ever-evolving physical plant at the Art Institute, the architecture department had been victimized by a game of logistical musical chairs.

About two years ago the department’s offices were taken over for other uses. While the department waited for its new offices, it had to move into its usual exhibition space and had to mount its exhibitions in what the museum called Gallery 10–in reality, a bleak hall linking the children’s museum, the Thorne Rooms, and the ground-floor toilets. The new offices are not, unfortunately, open to the public. This is too bad, because they are kicky-looking spaces designed by the ever-popular Stanley Tigerman that remind one an awful lot of his stylish exhibition installations. But at least architecture exhibitions have at long last reemerged from the basement.