Caleido interviews Lilli Hollein artistic director of MAK

Caleido interviews Lilli Hollein, Austrian curator, design expert and director of the Vienna Museum of Applied Arts (MAK). Welcome to Caleido, an inspirational diary that narrates many stories: about creative people, trends, travels, objects. / Read the Editor’s letter here


Diary of: @lillihollein

Ph. Katharina Gossow
1. I am really glad to be here today. You are one the founders of the @viennadesignweek [this year the role of director has passed to Gabriel Roland]. How is the relationship between Vienna and the world of design evolving along the years?

Well… When Thomas Geisler, Tulga Beyerle and I decided to found the Vienna Design week (15 years ago), a real platform to present design in the way we understand it was missing in our city. An international exchange was still missing, but we didn’t want to go on complaining about the fact that there was (almost) nothing going on. Back then, we had two options: to either change the situation or leave the city. I’m very grateful for how quickly the local design scene has been transforming.

One of the main indications of how the city has become a fertile ground for contemporary designers and creative people, is the fact that many of them decided to return to Vienna after having studied abroad thanks to its renovated festival and energy. People were excited to participate and to give their contribution at all levels. During these past 15 years we have worked with one major objective: describing what design can be, in all its forms, as a ground for experimentation. Although there is still a lot of work to do, I think we got one step further in. At the same time, we aimed to attract an international crowd in Vienna in order to show them the heritage and the possibilities of the city through craft projects. We strived to create a sphere of exchange between the global and local scene, and it worked quite well. And I am happy to see that this spirit is also evident in the work of Gabriel Roland, the new Director of VDW.

The way we understand design at VDW is definitely synonym of experimentation… outside the logic of pure business. Moreover, since the beginning we’re very specific about what to include and what to exclude: not fashion, nor jewelry design, or furniture retail. Nonetheless, we aimed to engage as many players as possible and to expand our range of action to museums and cultural institutions.”

Ph. Katharina Gossow, Vienna Design Week 2020
Ph. Orlando Lovell, Vienna Design Week 2019
2. You talked about “exchange” and “experimentation”, which are two of the major keywords of these days around VDW. If you were asked to write down a manifesto of the contemporary society, what are the main challenges that society is facing? And what is the feedback from the world of art and design?

If I were asked to write a manifesto I would start with its title: “design can change the world”. I truly believe that, as design is a preferred tool to engage society in issues that we face in everyday life. My manifesto would not be the collection of my opinions, but rather a representation of designers’ voices: I would listen and speak to them, in order to let all their issues and thoughts come to light.

BREATHING SOFTSPACE – AN INTERACTIVE TEXTILE INSTALLATION – Ph. Marie Schumann, Lisa Marleen Mantel, Matthias Rosenthal, Vienna Design Week 2020

3. At @mak_vienna museum you are showcasing some very-ordinary pieces, such as face masks anti-Covid. How can such an ordinary object become part of a museum exhibition? How do time and timing influence design?

Design museums have the responsibility to collect objects that are significant to society. I think it’s crucial to keep an eye on the world we live in and to transport it in an artistic way into the museum reality. I would define this process as a form of a cultural avant-garde. Bringing such contemporary objects into museums also means to reflect on historical references. If we focus on pandemics and masks, we immediately think back to the plague during medieval times, as Vienna was more than once severely hit by dark events such as epidemics. Those facts immediatly get us talking about hygiene, which has always been a very interesting topic for designers: it can be considered the beginning of social design, a simple and immediate language that could easily reach people. Even a simple object, such as a face mask, can make us think about complex issues…

Ph. Kollektiv Fischka/Kramar, Vienna Design Week 2020
@bueronardin x Vienna Design Week 2020
4. Many furniture companies are now facing the challenges of the digital world, highlighting a new relation between design and digital. Sometimes it looks like the digital world hinders the manuality and the ability of crafting, the possibility of meeting people and showing empathy. What is your opinion on the link between this digital r-evolution?

I’m not a fan of taking sides between the analogue and the digital world. No doubts that digital, as a platform, opens countless possibilities for companies and designers, and it is changing our society in a very substantial way. In the future many jobs might be replaced by robots, with the risk of jeopardizing local crafting productions. We need to find a way to cope with the innovation, but there is a lot of room for making it happen by leveraging our resiliency. I’d rather look at it from a positive perspective.

@rado at Vienna Design Week Headquarter North - Ph. Paulus Jakob/Kollektiv Fischka, Vienna Design Week 2017
FROM MODEL TO FACTORY @hofmobiliendepot, Vienna Design Week 2018
Ph. @bueronardin, Vienna Design Week 2018
5. As creative director of the MAK, which are the most significant developments that can be traced in your work? How are the roles of curator and research transforming?

I’ve always enjoyed connecting a broad public and not only well-educated people with art and design, it’s something that really drives me. Obviously the way of doing that changed over time. I started very young and through experience I’ve become wiser, more skilled and developed a critical eye. I was courageous enough a couple of times in my life to take the risk to experiment. The festival (VDW) at the very beginning was a quite big risk and every single year it is so. But the reward is unparalleled: working in very different scenarios and facing the challenges of being a curator is extremely exciting.

Ph. @glashuette_comploj, Vienna Design Week 2017
Ph. Wild At Heart | Maija Astikainen, Vienna Design Week 2019
6. Do architecture and design need new symbols and icons? Or do you think creative people should be more focused on finding practical solutions to concrete issues, such as sustainability and human rights?

After the First World War, Vienna was a city beset with misery and hunger, with too little living space. If we observe the architecture during the following period, called “Red Vienna” (click here to discover more), the city pioneered the construction of public housing and tried to solve the problem of working class living under unbearable circumstances. Vienna was quickly expanding and people didn’t even have their own beds. The municipal housing complex Karl-Marx-Court, for instance, was built within this scope, but also became an architectonic icon and symbol of socialist city government at that time. Symbols and usefulness should go hand in hand. When architecture is not just a statement, it becomes a symbol.

Ph. Phillip Podesser/Kollektiv Fischka, Vienna Design Week 2020

Festival Impressions, Vienna Design Week 2018
@francescociccolella - ALTERNATE REALITIES Ph. Patrizia Gapp/Kollektiv Fischka, Vienna Design Week 2017
7. Part of your job entails the scouting of new artists, designers and talents. What are the characteristics that designers should have in order to stand out from the crowd?

One of the ingredients for a designer to stand out is to be brilliant: which is a combination of being talented and able to communicate. This feature is needed now more than ever before. Designers are requested to have a marketing talent too… which is a bit unfair, but really helpful. I do think that being brilliant means developing a certain attitude. Nobody can tell you in school, if the specific software skills you are learning will be useful forever, and how the job of designers will change in the following 25 years, and if maybe robots will become your competitors… But what will never be taken from designers, is their ability to analyze. The most important feature that distinguishes designers from all other professionals is their capacity to ask the right questions and to work on the solutions. In other words, serving the society by providing the tools that can take it further.

@bueronardin x Vienna Design Week 2020
Campaign - Ph. Katarina Šoškić - Bueronardin, Vienna Design Week 2019
Ph. Kramar/Kollektiv Fischka, Vienna Design Week 2020
8. During the Milan Design Week at the Milano Supersalone you were one of the guests of a very interesting talk about the role of women in art institutions. If you had to summarize that discussion, what would you highlight?

I am convinced that our society urges us to tackle issues like this one. And it’s evident that we need a time for transformation. It’s not only about “male and female” as genders, but also about diversity in general. We need to keep an open mind, maybe more than ever before, in order to integrate those topics in our daily lives and language. Although it’s a matter of symbols, we need them. As the first female director of this institution, I find myself in an advantageous situation. Sometimes I wonder: isn’t it ridiculous that so many institutions, as this one, have never been run by a woman before? With the exhibition “Women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte” (click here to discover more) I wanted to deliver certain symbols to the ones who visit the museum and tell them that here we embrace diversity.

DEPARTURE TOUR 2: FUTURE CONSUMPTION - Wirtschaftsagentur Wien, Kreativzentrum departure - Ph. buero bauer, Vienna Design Week 2019
475 BARS COVERED IN 2.375 MINUTES - Diego Faivre - Ph. Pierre Castignola, Vienna Design Week 2019
Morag Myerscough - Ph. Kollektiv Fischka, Vienna Design Week 2016
9. You have mentioned before that a couple of times in your life you were brave enough to run the risk. do you consider yourself as a person of habit?

I am a quite flexible person and I usually go for things that make me happy. If you ask me what’s the last thing that I want to do in my life, I would say: jumping in the lake with my daughter, hand in hand. It’s pure joy, but it has nothing to do with habits. I think flexibility is what characterizes me most and it represents a distinctive feature of designers as they have to react to transformations. If I hadn’t been this kind of person, I would have never survived all these years. We need to redesign ourselves constantly, so it is better not to have too many habits and strict mental schemes!

FESTIVAL MIX TAPE - mt masking tape / Kapitza Das Kreativstudio @kapitza_studio - Ph. Kapitza, Vienna Design 2019
10. What is an object that you would never give up? What is the memory associated with it?

I wouldn’t be able to name one single object. It’s like if I was asked to say which is my favorite song… I have so many! It would be tough to list them all! I recently visited the Enzo Mari exhibition at Triennale, and I thought I’d always wanted to own the calendar designed by him. Especially now that I am in a new office, I realised that turning the pages of that calendar could become a little daily ritual of mine… Although I hadn’t reckoned with the cleaning team: they insist on turning the pages for me [she smiles].

Ph. @marcomagalini

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