It is 9 o'clock on a frigid December morning and the merchants are just beginning to unlock the doors and turn on the lights along Kärntner Strasse, the high-fashion pedestrian shopping district in the heart of Vienna. At 26 Kärntner Strasse is a discreet gilt-etched sign for J. & L. Lobmeyr, a company that for six generations has been producing some of Europe's finest hand-cut crystal. (The chandeliers hanging above the audience at the New York Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center are from Lobmeyr, gifts of the Austrian government.) The store's director of sales and marketing has come in early today to meet with an important customer who is helping to better acquaint Americans with Lobmeyr glass: Renée Price, the director of the Neue Galerie, the three-year-old Manhattan museum devoted to early-20th-century Austrian and German art and design.
Price, who was born in Vienna, travels back here six times a year to scout ideas for exhibits and order the very best Austrian tableware for the museum's tiny, exquisite gift shop. I'm tagging along on this three-day trip to learn about her favorite haunts for art, design and food. "I love the Baroque architecture, the old glass shop signs with the paint peeling off the glass," says Price, as she adjusts the placement of a potted Christmas tree outside Lobmeyrthe tic of a museum director who likes things placed just so.
Inside Lobmeyr, which is more of a glass museum than a wedding-registry destination, Price takes a tour of the displays. Many of the pieces are reproductions from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), a collective of more than 600 artists and artisans who, for a short but fertile period (1903 to 1932), designed every manner of household itemnot only textiles, utensils and furniture, but even wastepaper baskets and ice cream scoops. Some of the objects are exuberantly ornamented; others are austere and reduced to the simplest lines, and still look modern today. The Wiener Werkstätte was ultimately a commercial failure, because, as Price explains, "Even though their mission was to design for the masses, they were really making very high-end things for a very elite clientele." Today, original pieces can command six figures at auction.