Focus Scientific Research

Visionary Vienna: Design and Society 1918–1934

Project lead: Elana Shapira
Theory and History of Design
Duration: 01.09.2017 - 30.09.2021
Austrian Science Fund (FWF): V 619 Richter-Programm (inkl. Richter-PEEK)

The research “Visionary Vienna: Design and Society 1918-1934” explores how ideas of rational, scientific progress and progressive social attitudes were shaped in Vienna through cross-fertilization between design and aesthetic practices and anthropological theory. It examines how groundbreaking design and aesthetic practices visualized ideas of social progress and how social theories considered aesthetic habit as part of their findings, and further design as essential to communicating their results. The term “Visionary Vienna” refers to scientific and design projects and individual works that envisioned a progressive society and further better relations between individual and society.

Cultural conflicts between a socialist secular camp and a conservative Catholic camp greatly defined the period of the first Austrian Republic 1918-1934, a period of political democracy, and affected design practices. This study reviews how deeply design and social constructs, as well as questions of identity, were implicated with each other, and offers a historical precedent for how we understand complex networks of design and society today.

The study will examine scientific and design projects and their impact on society and the urban space between1918-1934. It further considers how progressive ideas regarding design and society were further developed by Austrian émigrés and exiles after 1934/1938. Importantly, drawing on research previously examined as well as unexplored original archival material in Viennese cultural institutions, it will consider the relevance of the legacy of “Visionary Vienna.” It builds upon seminal research on “Red Vienna,” on the social position and contributions of women, and recent work on the role of Jews and ‘Jewish difference’ in shaping Austrian culture; furthermore, it re-contextualizes forgotten literature and art avant-garde from the interwar period.

Through analysis of buildings, interiors, design objects, documentary photos, as well as scientific and theoretical texts I argue that both aesthetic and anthropological interventions were made in the fashioning of Viennese society at the time. The interdisciplinary approach of this analysis uses cultural studies, social psychology, and aesthetic theory to examine how these interventions granted empowerment to weaker sections in society, advocated shared communal responsibility, redefined gender roles and redressed questions of cultural Otherness. Challenging the favor given to the Wiener Moderne’s “popular decorative world,” this project re-frames cultural collaborated projects, scientific theories and individual design/ artworks in relation to each other’s output, and maps the revolutionary heritage of “Visionary Vienna.”

Three Table Lamps by Vally Wieselthier for the Wiener Werkstätte, model numbers: K 418, K 432, K 431, Vienna, 1928. Wiener Werkstätte Archive © MAK