Factory Tour
J. & L. Lobmeyr

Since its founding six generations ago, Lobmeyr has tended to follow its own compass rather than listening to the whims of the market — in other words, it’s never been afraid to be a little bit different. It’s why the company moved from its original role as glass merchants to manufacturers; what inspired a relationship with the radical designers of the Wiener Werkstätte; and why the company today collaborates with designers like Polka, whose 2008 beer glasses boast an engraving based on the goals scored during a 1978 soccer match between Austria and Germany.

In Lobmeyr’s case, different works. Its chandeliers hang in New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Kremlin, its drinking sets have been designed by everyone from Josef Hoffmann to Max Lamb, and its glittery, three-story emporium, on one of Vienna’s main shopping drags, is the kind of place tourists make a point to visit. But very few have had the opportunity to see inside Lobmeyr’s crystal-making workshop, where the company fits and fabricates each piece by hand, using the same methods that were employed during each glass or chandelier’s original production. A chance meeting at the Milan Furniture Fair with Marco Dessí, the Italian-born, Vienna-based designer who has been collaborating with Lobmeyr in recent years, netted me a visit; together we met with Leonid Rath, who with his two brothers now runs the company’s day to day.

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Our tour began on the third floor of Lobmeyr’s Kartnerstrasse showroom, which acts as a museum of sorts for the company’s extensive back catalogue. Glass cases filled with tumblers, drinking sets, and dishes line the perimeter of a narrow circular walkway, and in the middle is this copper-wheel engraving lathe — the first to be used by the company in the early 19th century. It’s almost exactly like the one that’s used today. “It hasn’t really changed in the last 300 years,” Rath laughs. Its variously sized spindles and discs are used to create a variety of textures and line effects on the surface of glass.

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A first-generation tumbler design. “In the beginning, Lobmeyr mostly dealt in traded goods from Bohemia but slowly we began doing our own designs,” Rath says. “This is said to be the first tumbler really designed by Lobmeyr as a product.

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The factory, which is actually a warren of small workshops, is a 10-minute walk from the showroom. This machine is the first stop for blown glass newly arrived from the Czech Republic. A first rough cut is made by pressing the glass against a diamond wheel; a finer cut is then made on a neighboring machine with a sandstone wheel.

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Cutting wheels are typically made from industrial diamond or sandstone while polishing wheels are made from carborundum, latex, felt, or cork. Lobmeyr has about 200 unique cutting stones in use.

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“A more complex glass would require about 8-15 different stones, for all of the different stages,” says Rath. “Pre-cutting, fine cutting, and then you need different profiles for polishing.”

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For polishing, a chalky substance is mixed in a basin with water and then applied to a textile wheel against which the glass is pressed. “Most of the big producers who do hand-cut crystal will cut with a diamond wheel and then acid polish,” explains Rath, who says he dislikes the shiny surface acid polishing imparts. “We cut with a diamond wheel, then fine cut, and then there are three steps of hand polishing. It’s more precious to hand polish, but it’s also 50 percent of the working time.”

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Rath holds up a beer glass from Dessí’s 2009 Grip series. Its ring of engraved vertical lines was inspired by Adolf Loos’s famous 1929 Drinking set no. 248, which boasted a similarly haptic texture around its base. Such ornament, Dessí says, also prevents scratches.

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“We’ve been working with the detail of this cut,” Rath says. “How the profile looks, how deep it is. When a series is fresh, the workers need to constantly be looking at it.”

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A marker pen is used to delineate cut points and to apply patterns for engraving.

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Dessí apprenticed with Lobmeyr for two and a half years after his studies. That — and the fact that he lives just a short bus ride away — has yielded a good number of hours spent experimenting on-site. Earlier this year, on the sandblasting machine shown here, he developed Alphablast, a series of glasses that debuted at this year’s Salone del Mobile.

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The glasses were produced for a food-themed exhibition with Apartamento magazine and DesignMarketo. Dessí took as his starting point the Alpha set of glasses designed by Hans Harald Rath, wrapping them in orange netting and sandblasting the ghostly geometric pattern onto delicately hued tumblers.

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Dessí, who spent time as a dental technician before turning to design, likens the sandblasting process to a medical procedure. “I used to think I had lost time, but more and more I’m bringing the two disciplines together,” he swears.

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Depending on which way the glass is held and the amount of pressure Dessí uses, a different pattern appears on each surface.

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This is how the pattern looks when applied to glass.

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This is how the pattern looks when applied to Dessí's iPhone.

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Lobmeyr’s glass is blown in the Czech Republic and Germany, and the wooden molds shown here, made from beech tree, are fabricated there as well. But they’re designed here in the workshop using a papercut, whose silhouette is transferred to wood.

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Lobmeyr keeps detailed customer records dating back to the second day the company was open. Families with a specific monogram or crest often reorder the same products generation after generation; this helps Lobmeyr keep track. Each order has a drawing and a pencil rubbing of its engraving.

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Lobmeyr has recently begun working with the young Austrian designer Sebastian Menschhorn, whose Flower of Life drawing shown here…

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…is applied to Josef Hoffmann’s famed Patrician vase.

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Lobmeyr is known for the kind of detailed handiwork that used to be quite common but is now beginning to vanish. Lobmeyr will often purchase the tools from a workshop that’s on the verge of closing, and on rare occasions, the company will incorporate a one-man workshop wholesale — the machine, the tools, and the worker. This is one of those workshops, led by a man who specializes in the French bronzes of Versailles. “It’s something we weren’t able to do before, and we’re now very good at it,” Rath explains of the occasional mixing of bronze and glass for trays or other products.

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Lobmeyr’s other specialty is in the assembly and repair of crystal chandeliers. Next door to the glass workshops is a building devoted to chandelier making with metalwork manufactured on the ground floor and assembly on the second.

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When I visited, a Jugendstil chandelier, originally designed by Josef Hoffmann for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, was in the process of being built. This is the center band, which will later be attached to tiers of crystal beads.

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At the end of my visit, Rath invited me into Lobmeyr’s archives, to which Dessí revealed he was also a first-time visitor. Above the file cabinets hang chandeliers that ought to be in museums: In the rear is the original Parisian chandelier, designed by Oswald Haerdtl for the 1937 World Expo in Paris, and at right is one produced for the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva.

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Rath saved the best for last — original drawings from the 1887 Alhambra series, inspired by mosques in Spain…

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…and another for Hoffmann’s 1914 Art Deco–style B series. If you are in New York, you can see drawings like these on view at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum exhibition Ted Muehling Selects: Lobmeyr Glass from the Permanent Collection until January 2, 2011.