Coffee houses here tend to cherish a slower pace of life. But the city has its fast-living urbanite alternatives, too. The Espresso at Last exhibition at the Jewish Museum highlights the life of the man who helped introduce Italian coffee flair to post WWII Vienna.
- Rediscover the biography of Alfred Weiss, coffee entrepreneur
- Also covers the story of the pioneering Arabia am Kohlmarkt café
- Runs May 25, 2022 – Mar 19, 2023 at the Judenplatz museum site
- Curated by Sabine Apostolo & Michael Freund
- See also:
Café Arabia on Kohlmarkt
(Interior of the Arabia am Kohlmarkt © ÖNB, Photo: Lucca Chmel)
The Espresso at Last exhibition commemorates a key moment in Vienna’s café culture and the life of the man behind it.
Alfred Weiss (1890-1973) was a successful entrepreneur, most notably importing, roasting, and distributing coffee, as well as selling it direct through his own outlets.
After fleeing Vienna and losing his company to the Nazis, Weiss returned after WWII to reclaim and rebuild his business. He went on to create one of Austria’s more popular post-war coffee brands: Arabia.
Weiss also helped introduce the city to a new and, frankly, terrifying concept: the (Italian) espresso and the associated fast-coffee culture.
Up until then, the only time you commonly found the words fast and coffee in close proximity was in a dictionary.
As one of the pioneers of this explicitly modern approach to the Viennese beverage of choice, Weiss opened the Arabia am Kohlmarkt café in 1951.
The modern, stylish, colourful interior brought a dose of Latin flair to Vienna’s city centre, shaking up the coffee house establishment.
An advert in the 1958 Neue Welt described the café as (my translation):
…the Mokka Mecca for Coffee Lovers
(Mokka is the Viennese word for a small black coffee very similar to an espresso.)
Many consider the café a 1950s design classic.
Architect Oswald Haerdtl designed the premises and just about everything within: from the cups to the clocks.
Haerdtl’s approach proved a catalyst for a subsequent espresso café style that contrasted (and later integrated) with Vienna’s more austere coffee house tradition.
All the sadder, then, that the Arabia am Kohlmarkt was allowed to be demolished in 1999.
(Vienna can sometimes be idiosyncratically selective in its preservation of art and history.)
Visit the address today and you’ll find the likes of Fendi and Gucci in residence on a street dominated by luxury brands.
A former coworker of the great Josef Hoffmann, Haerdtl’s other works include renovation of Palais Auersperg (then owned by Weiss) and the design for the Wien Museum on Karlsplatz (now a construction site as the building undergoes major renovation and expansion work).
Espresso at Last brings the story of the Arabia am Kohlmarkt and Alfred Weiss to life through photos, documents and objects.
(Exhibition view; press photo © David Bohmann)
One room introduces Weiss and his company. This includes two intriguing thematic excursions:
- Logo design and how we have (thankfully) moved away from some of the colonialist images and stereotypic representations of the past.
- Corporate brand identity through packaging, presentation and even architecture: another area where Weiss was ahead of his time through his cooperation with designer Joseph Binder.
I will admit to moistened eyes at one innocent-looking document…
A 1938 letter from the Arabia company, stamped with Nazi insignia, informs its customers of its sale (actually aryanisation) into the hands of (my translation) “purely German Aryan ownership”. Imagine the pain of having to put your signature to that.
Another room presents Café Arabia.
We see Haerdtl’s draft designs for those cups, for example, as well as sketches of the floorplan and counter, numerous photos, some of the original furniture, and the same model of espresso machine that would have been used in the café.
The patterned colourful fabrics and Carmela Prati’s designs for staff uniforms give you a hint at how different the café must have felt to the established norms. And how it might have helped Vienna emerge from the dark shadow of war and fascism into (literally) a brighter future.
A third, smaller room addresses Weiss’s grandson, Andrew Demmer, who played a major role in the success story of two current Viennese business icons: Demmer (tea) and Trzesniewski (small open sandwiches).
The exhibition reminds us that coffee house traditions are never constant and highlights once again how ingenuity and industriousness can see success grow out of despairing times.
Dates, tickets, & tips
Enjoy a historical coffee journey from May 25th, 2022 to March 19th, 2023. A ticket for the Jewish Museum includes the exhibition (a ticket covers both museum sites on Judenplatz and Dorotheergasse).
A visit to the exhibition might whet your appetite for a 2020s-style coffee. The area around Judenplatz has a fair few cafés and similar. But try these suggestions for some of the more famous and traditional locations in the centre of town.
How to get there
Follow the travel tips at the bottom of the Jewish Museum page for the Judenplatz location.
Address: Judenplatz 8, 1010 Vienna