I discovered that one of the crowning events of Vienna’s annual design fest, co-founded in 2007 by curator Lilli Hollein, is Passionswege — The Path of Passion. Passionswege is a program that pairs traditional Austrian manufacturing companies with industrial designers from other countries; their avant-garde creations are unveiled during the 10-day-long “week.” Neighboring countries that constituted the Austro-Hungarian empire and were also its principal manufacturing centers — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland — provide frequent collaborators. In 2018, the centennial year of the empire’s breakup, Hollein chose to honor Poland and Polish designers.
Passionswege participants included influential Polish designers such as Tomek and Gosia Rygalik, who head Studio Rygalik in Warsaw; they were paired with Vienna’s oldest traditional silver manufacturers, Jarosinski & Vaugoin, and because the Rygaliks were expecting their second child, they chose contemporary shapes in lieu of traditional rococo decoration for the “heirloom” silverware they fashioned.
Viennese conceptual artists Markus Hanakam and Roswitha Schuller repurposed a table setting from 19th-century glass manufacturers J. & L. Lobmeyr into a board game. In the past, Dutch designer Jolan van der Wiel, also working with Lobmeyr, produced blown-glass vases that echo the different shapes water takes when it is poured through large and small, thick and thin ring-shaped collars.
Lobmeyr’s historic showroom is a must-see destination in the city’s medieval center, in part because it remains unchanged in the shadow of the 1137 Gothic-era St. Stephen’s Cathedral and is close to the iconic 1990 postmodern Haas House, designed by Hollein’s father, architect Hans Hollein.
In another part of town, designer Fidel Peugeot, co-founder of Walking Chair Design Studio, showcased his ingenious lampshades made of discarded plastic pill sleeves retrieved from one of the studio’s large pharmaceutical clients — perhaps to shed light on the issue of responsible/recyclable design.
These inventive ideas became topics of discussion over drinks with designers at the fin-de-siècle Loos American Bar — a favorite of early 20th-century Austrian painter Egon Schiele — designed by Adolf Loos; at the exhilarating new Das Loft bar atop the Jean Nouvel–designed SO/Vienna hotel; during leisurely lunches at the garden pub/bistro Glacis Beisl; and at the chic Salonplafond restaurant inside the historic Museum of Applied Arts, aka MAK. The latter’s prized holdings include works by Thonet and Wiener Werkstatte, and this summer the museum is hosting the third Vienna Biennale, which combines new art, design and architecture.
Coffee at the Supersense cafe and store (they have old-fashioned letterpress platen presses working in back) and at the famed 1880 Cafe Sperl stretched into a couple of hours with other local Design Week participants such as Italian sculptor Patrick Rampelotto, who now lives in Vienna, filmmaker Virgil Widrich, and Christina Steinbrecher Pfandt, the former viennacontemporary art fair artistic director, who now calls San Francisco home.
Only a short walk from there, past open markets, were Otto Wagner’s 1898 art nouveau apartment building Majolikahaus — on par with his turn-of-the-century Austrian Postal Savings Bank — and other historic landmarks such as Josef Maria Olbrich’s gilded 1897 Secession Building with its murals by Gustav Klimt.
All this super-accessible historical design so close to where I was staying at the elegantly modernized hotel Grand Ferdinand sparked an idea: why not track new designs in other Austrian and Polish cities as old as Vienna
So, armed with a Eurail Global Pass from Rail Europe, the hunt was on.
I left Vienna’s Westbahnhof station for Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, about two hours away on the Salzach River close to the German border. It offered up medieval, baroque and 19th-century buildings: the 11th-century Hohensalzburg hilltop fortress that has a modern funicular running up to it, the 17th-century Italianate marble Salzburg Cathedral and the lavish Mirabell Palace gardens of the same period. Evidently, Salzburg’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site discourages the addition of radically new structures or design and in the center it has almost none, with one notable mountain-side exception: the 2004 marble-clad Museum der Moderne by Munich’s Friedrich Hoff Zwink architects, designed to blend in with a medieval water tower.
Even the summer music festival, in this romantic temple to Mozart, sings the same tune.
But the town of Graz on the Mur River close to Slovenia, although similarly picturesque and protective of its past, has the futuristic 2003 Graz Art Museum, with a neon billboard-like skin designed by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier as a persistent beacon of new thinking.
Onward to Poland: I trundled into Warsaw’s central train station, with curiosity running high. The large part-subterranean station is a stone’s throw from the 1950s Soviet-era Palace of Culture and Science.
In this centuries-old capital that was mostly obliterated during World War II, the once abhorred Soviet-built palace is now a defining 42-story landmark brimming with popular movie theaters and entertainment clubs. Surrounding it are modern office and residential high-rises such as Zlota 44 by architect Daniel Libeskind; Poland’s tallest tower, Varso by Foster+Partners, is due to open next year.
Northeast of the center, a section of the old town along the Vistula River has been rebuilt. Its Disney-esque Rynek Starego Miasta square, lined with medieval-style town houses and flanked by re-created battered city walls and a restored castle, have been reproduced so faith- fully that they are also collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site. So the birthplace of Nobel laureate Marie Curie lives on.
On the other hand, the swanky 19th-century-style Raffles Europejski Warsaw hotel near this fake cobblestoned Old Town indicates Warsaw’s new design aspirations. The hotel’s chic, relatively modern interiors showcase big-name artists’ works. They include a signature stainless steel installation by well-known industrial designer/ architect Oskar Zieta. His larger, inflated-steel Nawa pavilion can be experienced on an island in the center of Wroclaw, his adopted home on the river Oder. The over-1,000-year-old Slavic city, only partially bombed during World War II, was spared Warsaw’s fate.
Like Wroclaw, Warsaw is encouraging new design. Anna Maga, curator of the Centre of Modern Design at the National Museum, pointed to displays of new furniture by Studio Rygalik and other young Polish firms like Vzor shown next to forgotten Polish masterworks from the 1930s, rescued from the rubble of war.
“They are again bringing new Polish design to an international stage,” she said. The Zacheta National Gallery of Art often juxtaposes contemporary works by Polish and international artists for a comparative viewing. Off-topic, but a nice way to end the day, was a visit to the new Polish Vodka Museum within the 19th-century neo-Gothic brick buildings of the prewar Warsaw Vodka Factory “Koneser.” Known for fine Luksusowa and Wyborowa vodkas, it has a generous, heady tasting bar.
Next, the fast train from Warsaw arrived in Lodz (pronounced Wooj) at the Lodz Fabryczna station, one of the country’s newest and most striking stops. Completed in 2016, this mostly underground train/bus station, designed in part by the French company Systra, has a postmodern air. Its steel and clear glass canopy hovers over subterranean white-painted neoclassical “town house” offices and ticket-booking buildings that are like the ghosts of industrialist Karl Scheibler’s original 1865 station structures that used to be there.
Lodz, formerly a thriving textile manufacturing town supported by several Jewish industrialist barons such as Izrael Poznanski, was devastated by the Nazis but, with today’s new investment, is seeing a comeback.
A 1907 coal power station near the Lodz Fabryczna railway station has been converted by Home of Houses to EC1 Lodz, a stunning $850 million observatory, interactive industrial museum and cultural center. Lodz now hosts the prestigious Lodz Design Festival, and in Poznanski’s 70-acre factory grounds that had homes and schools for worker families there is now a bustling mall called Manufaktura. It is brimming with attractions, atmospheric restaurants like Bawelna and destinations like Vienna House Andel’s hotel, which has a vertiginous penthouse swimming pool perched above the central square. Not far from there, Poznanski’s palace is also being refurbished for visitors. Lodz’s main artery and one of Europe’s longest streets, Piotrkowska Street is bordered by stores and cafes in beautiful 19th-century buildings that have survived. Sculptures line the sidewalks commemorating Lodz’s most famous denizens, including pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Lodz’s transformation is remarkable but also a reminder of what Poland has lost.
I wondered if more devastation lay ahead as my train pulled into my final destination, Krakow, dating back to the seventh century and Poland’s capital until the 16th century.
My modest hotel, Legend, was not far from Planty Park, which surrounds the oldest part of town with a ring of green. Within the Old Town, Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s enormous old square, is alive with horse-drawn carriages and crowds of people sitting in outdoor cafes and in excellent nouvelle cuisine restaurants such as the Szara Ges. Unscathed and breathtaking, the 14th-century red brick St. Mary’s Basilica, with its colossal late Gothic polychromatic altarpiece by sculptor Veit Stoss, dominates the square. Its two mismatched towers rise high above the diminutive 11th-century Romanesque St. Wojciech Church nearby and the two-story Renaissance-era Sukiennice or Cloth Hall arcade in the center of the square. Atop this elegant two-story market, where locally produced lead, salt and cotton textiles were traded for exotic spices and silks for centuries, is a new art museum. Below the square, after recent excavations revealed medieval markets, aqueducts and cemeteries, an interactive archaeology museum called Rynek Underground was installed.
West of the square, alongside the manicured banks of the Vistula River, lies another treasure: the Gothic manor where Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus once worked. Heading southward on Grodzka Street — the royal route, now lined with bars and Polish pierogi dumpling and kebab restaurants — leads to Gothic-era Wawel Castle, which sits on a hill. Within its grounds is gold- domed Royal Wawel Cathedral, a collage of medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque embellishments that rivals St. Mary’s Basilica. Perhaps to rival it, especially after a long walking tour, at the foot of Wawel Hill is Pod Nosem restaurant, on charming historic Kanonicza Street. It serves up history — traditional Polish fare in a space decorated with tapestries — with distinctive, modern flair.
All this exists because the occupying Nazis who chose Krakow as their Polish home did not bomb it to ruins. And, that’s why, despite the nearby extermination camp at Auschwitz (with a revered museum now), Kasimierz, Krakow’s 15th-century Jewish quarter — featured in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List — and most of its synagogues, including the oldest in all of Poland, are intact, as are the adjacent Podgorze Ghetto, a 19th-century Jewish cemetery, and Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, now a popular national museum.
As popular, perhaps, is Krakow’s 17th-century Wieliczka Salt Mine, another World Heritage site half an hour’s drive south of Krakow’s Old Town.
Visitors climb some 300 feet down a stepped mine shaft accompanied by guides as the creaking stairs snake through a sprawl- ing maze of underground chambers spread over nine levels. One fantastically grand chamber is a chapel with an altar dedicated to Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners. Its chandeliers, ecclesiastical sculptures and bas-relief works — including a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” — are all made from rock salt. Until the 1990s, miners maintained these shrines, dissolving salt and reconstituting it into crystals as clear as glass for their chandeliers.
Another memorable sight is a dimly lit subterranean salt lake presided over by (salty) St. John Nepomucene, the patron saint of drowning. It gives you pause, before you squeeze into a small cage-like miner’s elevator, hands clutched, for the ascent back up to daylight and the flight home.
Photos of Vienna courtesy of Vienna Tourism and Vienna Design Week. Photos of Poland courtesy of Polish, Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow tourist organizations.
This article originally appeared in Spaces print edition with the headline: “Paths of Passion”.