Creativity with clear direction

Reanne Leuning knows her way within the landscape of the creative industries in Austria. To FAQ she talked about different disciplines and traditions in design as well as her work at the WKO, where she is responsible for the “go international” initiative, which supports Austrian companies on their way to crossing the border.  

Reanne Leuning started her professional life in the cultural departments of the Dutch Embassies in Athens and Vienna. After that, she worked as a translator at the European Commission and as an editor at the Austrian press agency Pressetext. She has been involved in many art projects in the context of her work for ART & IDEA, such as Vienna Art Week, Flow – Festival of Conversation for Culture and Science and the exhibition A Way Beyond Fashion at apexart in New York. Since 2008 she works at the Office for Creative Industries at Advantage Austria. When I met Reanne for the first time in her office at the WKO, we had a professionel meeting. I did not expect that our conversation would become a friendly sharing of views – on the dynamics of the scene in Vienna. Reanne is a young professional who knows the creative industries in detail. She is convinced that they are essential to the cultural climate of contemporary cities. Today she organizes some of the most important events showing the face of Austrian design, fashion and visual arts.

I know you are currently working on the Austrian participation in several important international events. Please tell me more about these latest projects.

This autumn is a very busy period for us: we have three big projects going on. From September 19th to 22nd, we participate at London’s 100% Design fair with a group presentation of more than 10 Austrian design companies. Mid September, we also have a big Austrian participation in the context of Helsinki World Design Capital 2012. For this project, the Austrian design institutions designaustria, designforum, Vienna Design Week, the MAK and Creative Industries Styria joined their forces to present design from Austria in the best possible way. Part of the programme is the big design exhibition „Werkstatt Vienna. Design engaging the city“, the so-called „core exhibition“ which gives an overview of Austrian design history and its top notch innovation. On September 13th, an Austrian Day including workshops, presentations and a factfinding mission takes place. And from September 27th until October 9th, we have a big design exhibition in Maribor, Slovenia in the context of European Cultural Capital 2012. There, we will present a broad overview of Austrian contemporary design, from industrial and product design to furniture and fashion. The exhibition is complemented with several positions in architecture, music and multimedia to highlight with even greater intensity the force of the creative industries in Austria.

Tell me about your work in the Wirtschaftskammer Österreich (WKO). How do you participate directly in the scene of creative industries?

I really love my work at WKO. It is very diversified since I get to work on projects in many different areas of the creative industries. One day I am working on projects in the context of Marché du Film in Cannes or Sao Paulo Architecture Biennale, the next we are organising a fashion event or maybe a press conference for one of our projects, then we are organising a big design presentation in Maribor, next I am showing international design journalists around in Vienna, giving them an overview of the local design scene, then I’m organising a factfinding mission for Austrian companies within the creative industries to an exciting creative hotspot somewhere in the world … I especially like this variety of work, getting to know so many people from Austria as well as internationally and learning so much day after day … I feel very privileged having a job like this! Working on our book “A Way Beyond Creative Industries”, I thoroughly got to know the Austrian art, fashion, design, music, literature, film, multimedia, architecture and PR & advertisement scenes. This really helped me in my daily life, since it made me get acquainted with so many different persons, subjects, products …

Let’s talk about the book. You’re one of the authors of “A Way Beyond Creative Industries”. What is the idea? Who is its audience? What did you want to show?

With “A Way Beyond Creative Industries”, we wanted to offer an insight into creative businesses in both Austria and some of the creative hotspots around the world, bringing together know-how and networks of relevant contacts. At the same time, we wanted to document some of the most important projects we did in the last couple of years. We invited designers, architects, musicians and fashion designers, but also academics and politicians from all five continents, including Richard Florida, Tom Peters, Alberto Alessi, Ben van Berkel and Hans Ulrich Obrist, many of whom we met personally in the context of our factfinding missions and projects, to analyse the Austrian and international creative industries scene from a global perspective. One of the statements in the book that I especially like was the description of Karim Rashid, an American designer of Egyptian descent, of the Austrian design landscape: „Austria has a unique position on the world map. Creatively and physically it is right in the middle, between the poetry of Italian design, the engineering of German design and the upcoming new creativity in Eastern Europe“.

Another part of the book I especially like is the part for which we invited internationally renowned design, fashion and architecture journalists to come to Austria and to write an essay based on their experiences and impressions here. This provides us with a very good overview of what international experts think of our local creative scenes, and at the same time, these people are very important multiplicators that have spread the news what Austria has to offer ever since. In the first place, we made this book for an Austrian audience in order to share our knowledge and experiences. Although we visited many of the people interviewed in the context of factfinding missions, most people of our target group didn’t have the chance to join us there. At the same time, we also wanted to reach an international audience to share some of Austria’s top competencies, companies and events with them.

You are responsible for the WKO’s „go international“ programme. What are the goals and the idea behind this programme?

The „go international“ internationalisation initiative was established by the Austrian Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth (BMWFJ) and the Federal Economic Chamber (WKO) to encourage and support Austrian companies to step across the border and do business abroad by offering advisory services, events and financial support, as well as making it easier for existing exporters to enter new foreign markets. The „go international“ programme is implemented by ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA, the foreign trade promotion organisation within the WKO. Our Office for Creative Industries, which is being financed through „go international“ a 100 percent, has numerous objectives to support this very important sector of Austrian business. These include looking beyond national boundaries, heightening awareness for the creative industries among (national and international) business people, making strategic use of “design” as a success factor, offering a competitive edge at an international level, encouraging the sector to market its products abroad, highlighting the skills of Austria’s creative economy with special service packages and helping break down the barrier between traditional firms and the world of design.

Which annual events does the WKO support by priority?

For three years, the biggest event organised by us has been our interior exhibition in the context of Milan’s Salone del Mobile. We will continue with this initiative in any case, since we also see it as an important pre-event of the next world exhibition that will take place in Milan in 2015. Other projects that will hopefully be continued in the coming years are our participation in 100% Design London and the Austrian Fashion Showcases in Paris and Berlin. Apart from that, anyone with interesting ideas for export initiatives, fair participations and showcases can contact us at any time: we are always interested in new initiatives and projects.

“Raw and Delicate” was the title of the Austrian participation in the Salone del Mobile in Milan this year. Why did you choose this title?

“Raw and Delicate”, a title our exhibition designers from Pudelskern, a young, three-man-strong team from Innsbruck, came up with, stands for the two sides of Austria: the original, wild and natural that is found in its landscapes, and the refined, sophisticated and traditional that shapes urban culture. These contrasting elements are not only typical for Austria’s landscape and its culture but also were an important characteristic of our exhibitors: from young, ambitious and talented newcomers to internationally recognised companies from the world of Austrian design that share combining innovative working methods with the skills of traditional craftmanship that goes back several generations. The central design feature of the exhibition was the forest, which covers almost 50 percent of Austria’s territory. The Pudelskern team, consisting of Georg Öhler, Nina Mair and Horst Philipp, created a milieu flanked by living trees shrouded in darkness that showed off the exhibits displayed in four clearings in sharp contrast with the dark. Above them hung a ceiling of light, created from drapes of delicately knitted fabric. 50 representatives from the Austrian interior design branch displayed 67 products and product lines encompassing furniture, tableware, lighting, outdoor living, green design and new materials over a floor area of 1000 square metres in Milan’s Brera district. This year, all records were broken – not only in terms of the size of the exhibition area and the number of exhibits and visitors, but also concerning the response from the press. In the last two years, our exhibition took place in Zona Tortona, but this year, we moved to Brera. I think this location change really contributed to this year’s success: apart from the fact that La Pelota, the building where our exhibition took place, is already a very famous event location where stars like Zaha Hadid and top companies like Hermès and Established & Sons had presentations before, we really noticed that the level of audience was much higher here.

Through your work at WKO you have a good idea of the creative industries in Austria. What has happened in the creative industries? What is important according to you?

The most important goal of my office is to support Austrian creative companies that want to export their products. The last couple of years have been extremely difficult from an economic point of view. Still, we have expierienced that so far, this hardly had any consequences for the exporting activities of Austrian designers, film makers, musicians … The number of companies that are exporting their goods is still climbing consequently. My theory is that companies from the creative field are already used to working in a flexible way because of the type of projects they are working on, and therefore it is much easier for them to adapt to the changing circumstances that go with the “crisis”. I think in the last couple of years we have seen many wonderful private and public initiatives to support the local creative scene, both in the fields of fashion, art, design, music, film and multimedia. Events like Vienna Art Week, Modepalast, Vienna Design Week, Vienna Fashion Week, sound:frame and many other wonderful festivals and events have put Austria on the creative world map. Austria has already been known for classical music and art, but it is increasingly becoming a creative destination.

If we talk about product and fashion design in Austria, we will note many differences. The main difference, I think, is that product design and architecture have a long tradition. On the other hand we can see a great dynamism in the field of fashion design today. Almost every week there are some events – openings of exhibitions, new showrooms or some of the major annual events. What are your observations?

You are right that Austria has a very long tradition when it comes to product design and architecture. Long before the word “design” even existed, Austria already had some genuine star designers and architects around the turn of the 20th century. The “designers” pooled their strength under the name of the Wiener Werkstätte. An increasing number of traditional family-run businesses in Vienna started to display an interest in the work of the Wiener Werkstätte. These companies – like Backhausen, Augarten and Lobmeyr – still invest in design today. We shouldn’t underestimate Austria’s tradition in the field of fashion either, although that stretches back to the Habsburg monarchy. Back then, Vienna had a flourishing textile and fashion industry. In 1858 for example, the very first men’s label and also the mother of all flagship stores was opened on Graben: Knize. With branches in Vienna, Berlin, Karlsbad and Paris – all designed by Adolf Loos, by the way - Knize was the first ever fashion label to position itself not as a Viennese label but as an international brand. I think this rich history as well as the excellent fashion education at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna – where since the early 1980s, international stars such as Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander, Vivienne Westwood, Viktor & Rolf, Raf Simons and Bernhard Wilhelm have headed up the fashion department – have contributed to ensuring that fashion from Austria can rub shoulders with the crème-de-la-crème of the international fashion world.

What else should be done regarding Vienna as a European centre of fashion?

To be entirely honest, my impression is that it will be very hard to position Vienna as a European centre of fashion. Europe already has some very important fashion capitals, such as London, Berlin and Milan. I think Vienna would do and already does very well on a regional base, looking at with events like Modepalast or Vienna Fashion Week that have many participants from Germany and Eastern Europe. But to become a hot spot on a European level is something I think we shouldn’t strive for. We have to accept that there are other cities that are more important and where all the buyers of the fashion houses go to. Therefore, I think it would be better to intensify the Austrian participation in Berlin and Paris – something we are already working on since 2007 in cooperation with Unit F and for about a year also with the very successful Austrian Fashion Showcases in Paris and Berlin. That doesn’t mean I don’t consider Vienna as a “fashion hotspot”. It would be interesting, for example, to try and link young, up-and-coming fashion designers with the big Austrian houses such as Wolford, Swarovski, Tostmann or Gössl. A similar initiative already exists in the field of product design: the WIEN PRODUCTS collection, where young Austrian designers work together with traditional furniture and tableware companies. That could be a good way to create an innovative infrastructure with international appeal.