Coffee House of the Future

What will change about the way we meet? According to the MAK, community prevails.

On The Town | Roxanne Powell | November 2011

The more we disconnect through technology, the more a coffee house should help us reconnect. Together, face to face (Photo: Wolfgang Woessner/MAK)

Coffee houses are to Vienna what pubs are to London – an indelible part of the city’s culture. They are a part of public space, an extension of the street, an office for some, an oasis for many. They are also a major tourist attraction, playing on their old-world charm of quaint interiors and mannered waiters.

Should this quaintness be preserved at all costs? Should the coffee houses of Vienna devolve into museum pieces, carefully preserved and unchanging? Or can they adapt to the needs and tastes of the future?

And what are these actually?

All these questions, and more, are at the heart of a project carried out by the MAK (Austrian Museum of

Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) and "departure" (the City of Vienna’s agency for the creative industries) since last March:

Das große Wiener Kaffeehaus-Experiment. The project was launched under the auspices of Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, the new director of MAK, in his previous incarnation as boss of "departure."

During a short guided tour, project director Gregor Eichinger and MAK curator Thomas Geisler explained: In earlier times, coffee houses were refurbished every five years or so according to the latest fashion. This is no longer the case, they say, and more recently, many of the larger coffee houses have been stagnating.

It is in part to find ways to stimulate the sector that the project was launched. Hence under the guidance of three design laboratories – Raumlaborberlin (Laboratory Space Berlin), Antenna Design New York and Studio Andrea Branzi, Milan – new approaches were developed. The 2011 MAK Designer in Residence, Julia Landsiedl, also supplied a valuable input in Phase I, running from March to August.

During Phase II, 8 of the 21 ideas developed in Phase I were tested in a real setting: an actual coffee house was set up in the Columned Main Hall of the MAK, where one could order coffee and cakes at leisure.

The retooled ideas were clustered along various themes such as "furniture," "withdrawing" and "being seen." Beautiful fan-shaped screens that doubled as lighting were used to partition off sitting areas, to create a feeling of intimacy. A box for mobile phones lay on one table, with a casing of one-centimetre thick steel – making it impossible to receive calls whilst engaged in a conversation!

The most striking design was a pair of elevated armchairs upholstered in a light grey fabric, complete with a single armrest made of mirrored surfaces and a small, built-in side table in electric blue lacquered oak. Across from each other, these two thrones mounted on oak stilts, each like a Jägersitz, facing each other like paired hunting shelters like those one finds on the edges of Austrian forests, visible from far off.

In addition to the coffee house in the MAK’s Main Hall, a small exhibition showed the work done in the laboratory evaluating eight selected prototypes. Here visitors were encouraged to give feedback on the various designs through a web application by using devices provided by the "lab assistants."

In a new and faster era, curators say, there is plenty of scope to revive the coffee house idea and further evolve the features of what it does best – providing real spaces where real people can meet, people from all walks of life and all ages, incidentally yet by plan, a private space in the company of others. The coffee house is an island of peace and quiet in the heart of the city, where one can sit for hours on end with newspapers, or laptop, or friends. In a state of benign neglect from an unhurried staff in waistcoat and apron, you are left alone with your thoughts, honoured and undisturbed by the frenzy of time.

Here is not a break with the past; here are no radical changes to the honoured tradition of the Viennese coffee house. Instead the exhibition focuses on the social and communicative potential of the spaces they provide, recombining existing elements and adding new ones, to rethink this very Viennese institution for a new age. So do not expect any wildly futuristic designs or a Star Trek-like set; this is a subdued experiment that, instead of radical, prefers to be real.

Das Grosse Kaffeehaus Experiment

Museum für Angewandte Kunst (MAK)

Through Nov. 13. 

1., Stubenring 5 

(01) 711 36 248,

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