When you visit places for a living, apathy can set in. Another extraordinary and priceless Habsburg artefact? Yeah, whatever. The MAK, however, left me feeling young and invigorated again. (Or maybe it’s just the pills kicking in).
Anyway, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, to give it its full name, is a particular delight among the many museal treats in Vienna.
- Museum tracing the history, present & future of Austrian applied arts
- Permanent exhibitions cover everything from baroque glassware to industrial design awards
- Known for excellent temporary exhibitions
- Look at the ceilings (lovely neo-renaissance design)
- Adult tickets currently €14* or one-time free entry with a Vienna Pass
- Selected current exhibitions:
- See also: Museums in Vienna | Contemporary art in Vienna
What’s the MAK?
It’s hard to come up with a glib description of what the MAK is all about.
It’s a design museum. An art museum. But also a history museum. And one of the few museums that’s made me really think about the places we inhabit and the items we use at home and work.
Also, they do one or two things a little differently there. Things that make me go, “goodness, that’s cool” (bear in mind I’m over 50, though).
The museum traces its roots back to 1864 and the opening of the Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry, intended as Austria’s equivalent to what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Today’s modern successor – the MAK – focuses on applied arts in the context of different eras, materials, and disciplines.
The museum’s content reflects this remit, being split into three main physical and/or topical areas:
- The permanent collections and exhibitions
- The design lab
- The temporary exhibitions
The MAK is also its own work of art. Heinrich von Ferstel designed the museum building, which opened in 1871. (He also designed the main University of Vienna building.)
Just beyond the entrance, for example, is a beautiful pillared atrium that you could just gaze at for a while and feel you already got your money’s worth. Gorgeous neo-renaissance designs and motifs cover the ceilings. So just lie back and think of…Italy.
And, if you visit after dusk, the MAKlite installation lights up the windows when viewed from the outside in a sequence of bright colours.
Incidentally, the MAK actually manages several locations around the world, though the main building is the one of particular interest for visitors to Vienna.
The permanent displays
Wonderfully, each permanent exhibition area has a different layout and display concept. This gives each section its own unique and appropriate context and avoids the ennui that a never-ending sequence of identical display cases sometimes induces.
The MAK’s Asia rooms illustrate this creative approach perfectly. Wooden scaffolding and glass combine to form giant display cabinets, with item descriptions written directly on the glass or walls.
The history element of the museum comes to the fore in the permanent displays, tracing design through the recent centuries and displaying various highlights from the MAK’s archives and collections.
Glass, tableware, lace and furniture dominate in rooms devoted to Baroque Rococo Classicism, the Biedermeier period, Historicism Art Nouveau, and Renaissance Baroque Rococo. As a novelist, the glorious antique writing desks induced a fair degree of envy.
Chairs are a big theme. They dominate, for example, the Historicism Art Nouveau room, a concept much enlivened by the screens running down the centre of the hall (so you see a beautiful strip of silhouettes). Here you can view the world-famous steam-bent wooden chair Model No. 14, designed by Thonet in 1859 and sold in its millions.
A carpets section offers woven masterpieces from the Ottoman and Safavid empires, Europe, and other regions, with each item suspended at a different angle around the elongated room to create the impression of a webbed cocoon.
Even if you’re not into carpets (cough…me…cough), the result is quite impressive.
Finally, the Vienna 1900 display covers that period of artistic endeavour that stretches from the late 19th century to just before the arrival of the Nazis. This is the time of Klimt, Wagner, Hoffman, Loos and others from an era that includes Viennese Modernism, Art Nouveau and Secessionism.
The design lab
The Design Lab rooms explore the interface between art, design, and industry, tracing patterns of development and exploring the conflict between the needs of society and those of the individual.
So you’ll find previous winners of Austrian industrial design awards, a reconstruction of the Frankfurt kitchen that was the precursor of today’s fitted kitchens, tableware through the ages, chairs and stools (someone likes chairs at the MAK), and much more in a dynamic, eclectic mix.
All-in-all, the MAK feels like you stumbled into the secret mansion of some immortal collector, who spent the last couple of centuries travelling the globe to accumulate items from across design genres for his unfeasibly large drawing room.
Tickets & visitor tips
- You can visit both the shop and the coffee house / restaurant without actually going into the museum proper (or paying for a ticket).
- The shop was packed with books and (no surprise) neat little design objects.
- The restaurant is not your standard museum cafe, but a full-blown, rather stylish, gourmet eatery. So not a quick snack type of place, though the coffee prices are fairly normal.
- A free cloakroom (with lockers, too) flanks the main entrance immediately inside.
- Some information displays are in English, and you can borrow free guidebooks which provide English descriptions of items in the permanent collections
- At any one time, one or more temporary exhibitions normally provide some remarkable treats. I was, for example, particularly impressed by the Beauty exhibition back in 2018/19.
How to get to the MAK?
The MAK sits on the Ring boulevard that surrounds the centre and is well-served by public transport. It’s also not too far to walk to it from the very centre of town, being around 10 minutes from the cathedral.
Look left as you leave the MAK and you’ll see the Stadtpark, a nice little city park that houses the famous golden statue of Johann Strauss (the son). The coffee house opposite (Café Prückel) is one of Vienna’s revered traditional establishments.
Subway: take the U3 to Stubentor and then just cross the road.
Tram: take line 2 to Stubentor and you can see the museum out of the tram window.
Bus: take the 74A to (you’ll never guess)…Stubentor.
Address: Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna | Website