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Viennese Modernism from an Interdisciplinary Perspective

The Viennese Café and Fin-de-Siècle Culture was published in January 2013 by Berghahn Books. In the statement below, the editors explain the rationale for the collection. 

AshbyVienneseInstead of thinking of modernism as something that happened in the hustle and bustle of the urban street, why not consider it as the product of the places where people actually met, thought, and worked? An interior space might not look, at first glance, as dynamic as the street outside. It might not encapsulate as dramatically the confrontation between the individual and the pace, dislocation, and danger of the modern world. But the space for reflection, relocation, and connection represented by the café played a vital role in shaping and articulating cultural responses to the city and modern life.

This book represents the new ideas on this topic generated by a three year research project focused on the Viennese Café and fin de siècle culture. It grew out of the long standing interest in Viennese modernism in the work of Simon Shaw-Miller and Tag Gronberg and new approaches to theorising the relationship between interior space, society, and culture pioneered by the Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior at the Royal College of Art.


Viennese Modernism has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention in recent decades. For the most part, literary scholars have focused on literature, art and design scholars on art and design, social historians on social history, and so on. This study of the Viennese café as a space and social institution offers a point of intersection for these different disciplinary axes. This interdisciplinarity parallels the key role played by the cafe itself. Its place in the city exemplified the shifting ground of Viennese urban modernity, as it provided a key location for the blurring of time-honoured social hierarchies and conventions. In Vienna archaic and restrictive social mores prevailed in many places, but the café stood out as an institution at the heart of the city where such rules could be bent. This was, in part, a manifestation of the café’s identity as a casual site of recreation. Though far from free of regimentation, tradition and the observance of class, and race and gender boundaries, the perceived informality and triviality of coffeehouse life allowed it to become a space within the city where such boundaries could be temporarily transgressed. This is one explanation for why the coffeehouse became such a beloved and essential feature of Viennese life. The ambiguities and allowances of café life allowed urban modernity to creep into a city torn between a glorious past and the anxieties of an uncertain future.


Charlotte Ashby is a Lecturer in Art and Design History at Birkbeck, University of London and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She was Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Viennese Café Project at the Royal College of Art. In 2008 she curated the exhibition Vienna Café 1900 at the Royal College of Art and co-convened the conference The Viennese Café as an Urban Site of Cultural Exchange.


Tag Gronberg is Tutor for Postgraduate Research in the Department of History of Art and Screen Media at Birkbeck, University of London. She was a member of the curatorial team for the exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World 1914–1939 (2006). She is the author of Vienna – City of Modernity, 1890–1914 (Peter Lang 2007) and Designs on Modernity: Exhibiting the City in 1920s Paris(Manchester University Press 1998).


Simon Shaw-Miller is Professor in the History of Art at the University of Bristol. He is an Honorary Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, London. His publications include: Visible Deeds of Music: Music and Art from Wagner to Cage (Yale University Press 2002),Samuel Palmer Revisited (co-edited, Ashgate 2010) and Eye hEar: The Visual in Music (Ashgate 2013). He won the Prix Ars Electronica Media.Arts: Research Award in 2009.