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Vienna for Design Lovers

Vienna for Design Lovers

Queer highlights from the one of the current capitals of cool.

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Shhh?it's a (open) secret: Br?no isn't really Austrian. There is no Funkyzeit Gay TV. But now that Sacha Baron Cohen has blazed a trail 'round the world for Austrian fashionistas, Out Traveler sets the record straight by taking a trip to Vienna to get a look at the design-o reality behind the satiric trickery. What we find is a surprisingly vibrant city for a capital of its size (pop: 1.7 million) and a haven for modern design lovers -- especially those of a queer bent. (No surprise, the city has a long and permissive gay history.) Pocketed between, and often within, its grand imperial trappings and ostentatious fa?ade, standout shops, restaurants, galleries and nightlife meld the old and the new, coupling tradition with a vivacious innovation that belies the city's quaint first impressions. It ain't all coffee houses and black-tie balls, though there's that, too, if you want it.

ORIENTATION

Thanks to Hitler's love of the city (he was Austrian, after all), Vienna's historical center still flaunts plenty of Imperial flair and nostalgic romanticism and largely survived WWII unscathed, except for a few squat anti-aircraft concrete pillboxes that remain part eyesore part history lesson.

Allied bombings instead hit about 30-percent of the outer city, mostly around the main-traffic artery called the G?rtel, a ring road that circumscribes the city and includes an elevated railway by starchitect of his day Otto Wagner. (Not to rest on its architectural laurels, Vienna now boasts buildings by five Pritzker Prize winners.)

Most everything you'll want to see -- aside from the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the new town across the Danube -- is contained within the G?rtel and the Ringstra?e, a grand inner boulevard lined with fin de si?cle gems, a historicist building style combining gothic, baroque, classical and Renaissance styles with no small about of pomposity. Starting with District 1 centered on the massive cathedral in Stephansplatz and numbered to 23 radiating out like a conch shell (similar to Paris' arrondissements), most of the noteworthy museums and shops are in the first few districts and the 7th "design district" Spittelberg. Although imminently walkable, numerous trams, buses and subway trains -- not to mention public bike rental kiosks -- make movement easy for the weary.

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SEE

Albertina
Although the ?ber-baroque Belvedere has "The Kiss", Kilmt's got nothing on the Albertina's collection of graphic arts -- the world's largest. Start in the restored imperial apartments of the former Hapsburg palace for a taste of in-situ pomp and royal life (especially if you can't make it to the grand dame of Austrian palaces: Sch?nbrunn), detour to the Da Vincis and original Rembrandts before ending amongst blood-spattered Viennese Actionist and photorealistic Kenton Nelsons paintings, as well as hundreds of other contemporary classics. (Albertinaplatz 1; +43-0-153-48-30)

Architekturzentrum Wien Tour
The historic town center may be good for a stroll, but Vienna is sprinkled with more modern gems, often in the guise of public housing. (When was the last time a Pritzker Prize winner designed projects in the U.S.?) Head to the Architecture Haus in the MuseumQuartier MQ -- a perfect mesh of modernist museums enclosed in the former imperial stables -- for a permanent exhibit on the city' architectural history and tours to see it in person. Highlights include Heinz Tesar's airy, almost democratic Catholic church in Donau City, the Jean Nouvel and Coop Himmelb(l)au Gasometers (huge former natural gas tanks repurposed as public housing), Zaha Hadid's White House, the Gaudi-like Spittlehauer Verbrennungsanlage (incinerator plant), T-Mobile's ship-like horizontal skyscraper, the massive Karl Mof Hof, and Otto Wagner's stark yet playful concrete and aluminum Art Nouveau Postsparkasse. (Museumsplatz 1, MuseumsQuartier; +43-1-522-31-15)

J.&L. Lobmeyr
Family-owned and famous for its fine unleaded crystal for six generations, follow the chandeliers (yes, that is the same design hanging in NYC's Metropolitan Opera House) to the top floor of Lobmeyr's flagship shop for a small but thorough museum chronically the evolution of glassware via the history of the venerated brand. Pieces from as far back as 1823 abut sparkling experimental forms and modern innovations such as archetypes for the first-ever champagne and martini glasses, plus the thick-bottom square tumblers you've seen in every Ikea since. (K?rtnerstra?e 26; +43-1-512-05-08)

MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts)
The destination for industrial design freaks, the MAK houses an enormous collection of everyday objects from the banal to the sublime in its soaring main building. Check out the basement Study Collection for extensive exhibits showcasing the evolution of materials -- glass, metal, animal, ceramic -- plus the original Frankfurt Kitchen (the basis of all modern, industrial age one-room kitchen setups). Upstairs, contemporary artists such as Jenny Holzer and Donald Judd "intervene" with the permanent collection, guest curating chronological exhibits from the Orient to Art Nouveau. And don't skip the MAK Design Shop: it's a must with eclectic, easy-to-pack souvenirs from Viennese design houses such as Walking Chair and Polka. (Stubenring 5; +43-1-712-80-00)

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CELEBRATE

Vienna Design Week
Now in its third iteration, October 1?11, 2009, the gay-organized (natch) Vienna Design Week continues to create a new awareness of and showcase the brain candy of Austrian and Central and Eastern European industrial designers through exhibits, lectures, interventions, film series and, of course, parties. Don't miss the Passionswege, a festival centerpiece "Passion Trail" walking tour that pairs old-school Viennese stores (such as the 125-plus year old fabric shop Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe) with young international designers to produce bold experimental products.

Life Ball
Don't let its baroque City Hall venue fool you -- there's nothing stiff about the Life Ball (except the drinks). Part fashion show part bacchanal, and all costumed mania, Europe's biggest AIDS fundraiser queers up the ball season with a celeb-studded red carpet event and the party of the year -- that is if you can get a ticket. Past designers to show on the AIDS ribbon-shaped catwalk have included Jean Paul Gautier, Vivienne Westwood, Roberto Cavalli, Gianfranco Ferr?, Agent Provacateur and, most recently, The Blonds. May 2010 date TBD.

EAT

Ein Weiner Salon
Channeling the lingering insouciance of classic salon culture, the gay couple behind Ein Weiner Salon (check out their features superimposed on the kitschy baroque oversized portraits of Empress Maria Teresa and Franz Josef) parlays their fashion and architecture backgrounds into exquisite modern cuisine. With only 24 seats, one dinner service and a set menu based around what's fresh at the farmers' market that day -- ours five generous courses included shitake gnocchi, house-aged goat's cheese, veal cheeks with white asparagus, poached catfish with Japanese risotto and a to-die-for passionfruit cremeux -- reservations are a must. (Stubenbastei 10; +43-0-660-654-27-85)

Kulinarium 7
If the phrase "fine Austrian wine" rings oxymoronic to you, let this just-opened, gay-owned bo?te set the record straight. Pair your serious Italo-Austrian neu-bistro cuisine (think a panna cotta, basil and Szechwan pepper amuse bouche plus a prime veal and chanterelle dumpling main) with thousands of bottles from the extensive cellar below. After dinner, descend from the hyper-slick glass, leather and dark-wood dining room/delicatessen (check out the epicure salts, jams and honeys on sale) for a taste of the ultimate Austrian digestif: schnapps. Don't miss zirbe (nettle tips), beetroot, blood orange and apricot flavors among the 30-plus varieties from Salzburg's renowned Siegfried Herzog distillery. (Sigmundsga?e 1/1; +43-1-522-33-77)

Palmenhaus
Pamper your inner Hapsburg in the airy, plant-filled space while noshing on seasonal Mediterranean-style cuisine (chilled vegetable soup with spicy prawns, sirloin of beef with sauce verte). Once part of the Burrgarten imperial palmery, the soaring glass-and-steel conservatory oozes a slick modern style that befits its chatty, trendy clientele. Summer or winter, it's a quiet respite from the busy milieu surrounding the Albertina and Opera House scene, perfect for a beer on the terrace or a more substantial meal inside. (Burrgarten 1, +43-1-533-10-33)

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SLEEP

Altstadt Vienna
A former industrialist palais turned four-star boutique hotel, each of the Altstadt's 42 rooms is uniquely decorated with art from owner Otto E. Wiesenthal's personal collection, as well as by local designers (Polka's pop-tastic, curtain-clad "Chocolate Room" is a winner, as is the Boesendorfer Suite with grand piano). Book into the just-renovated and super-spacious Matteo Thun-designed rooms for tongue-in-cheek eroticism and peek-a-boo showers (think dark parquet, sumptuous silvery damask wallpaper, chandeliers and black-and-white pinups). Located just a short walk from the MuseumsQuartier MQ and Spittelberg, fuel up with an extensive gourmet breakfast buffet in the Red Salon before your day of design. (from ?139; Kirchenga?e 41; +43-1-522-66-66)

Rathaus Wein & Design
An appellation of a different color, boutique meets bottle at the gay-managed Rathaus Wein & Design where each of the 39 rooms is sponsored by a different Austrian vintner (plus one sparkling wine estate and a schnapps distillery, too) down to the bottles in the mini bar and hand-picked art on the wall. An overflowing breakfast buffet, wine-inspired bath products and tranquil garden pair with four-star service and slick furnishings for a high-end homestay just steps from the top shops and museums of the Spittelberg design district. (from ?138; Lange Gasse 13; +43-1-400-11-22)

SHOP

Gabarage Upcycling Design
Extending the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra to a human scale, gabarage is a one-off store all about second chances. Surplus rubbish bins become couches, beat-up soccer balls double as planting pots, end-of-life advertising tarps stitch into billfolds and messenger bags (? la Freitag minus the stiff designer price), but best of all, recovering drug addicts also start a new life as product designers, craftsmen and shopkeepers. Near the sprawling food and crafts Naschmarkt. (Schleifm?hlga?e 6; +43-1-585-76-32)

Ina Kent
Part of the Spittelberg 7th design district (pick up a free curated map listing a selection of hip, one-of-a-kind stores -- better yet, arrange a personalized shopping tour at 7tm.at), Ina Kent's hand-stitched and expandable yet slim leather laptop bags (from ?229) are perfect for any 'mo on the go. Murses, purses, belts and pocket books available, too. (Lindenga?e 46; +43-0-699-19-54-10-90)

Phil
A kaffeehaus/art space where everything is for sale, from the eclectic cut-glass lamps and mod seating to the music the DJ is playing, the books on the shelves and shelves themselves, so grab a slice of apfeltorte and a m?lange (a Viennese coffeehouse staple) and shop while you sip. Best of all, unlike the city's more famous old-school temples du caffeine, such as the 125-year-old Caf? Sperl across the way, Phil is smoke free! (Gumpendorfer Stra?e 5; +43-1-581-04-89)

w?atf (what about the future)
Up-and-coming Austrian fashion designers get their day at this former launderette re-cast as avant-garde streetwear boutique-cum-gallery. Men should check out Daniel Kroh's rugged blazers, sewn from discarded blue canvas German worker wear, and women shouldn't miss the hyper-constructed overcoats and frocks. Be bold -- much of the fashion tips toward the ?ber-euro end of the scale. (Siebensternga?e 52)

PLAY

Kaiserbr?ndl
Sure, there are the requisite mazes and cabins, but what other gay bathhouse has an almost 200-year history, elaborate erotic murals and frescoes referencing classical myths, Byzantine-style marble and tile archways, plus a plant-filled, sunlight-dappled underground "Winter Garden" love grotto? Think of it as the aesthete's play palace. The fey brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, the Archduke Ludwig "Luziwuzi" Viktor, certainly did. (Wien 1, Weihburgga?e 18-20; +43-1-513-32-93)

For trip planning help, up-to-date exhibition and events, plus more LGBT-specific info, visit the official Vienna Tourist Board.

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