As I drive to the Südbahnhotel, an hour south of Vienna, Austria, a large rainbow arches over the view that Emperor Franz Joseph I was known to adore. The rainbow bends over the Semmering mountain pass, and it feels like I’m following it to a treasure at its end — I’m going to get a glimpse of a famous chandelier inside the hotel.
The Südbahnhotel, built in 1882, was long a hotspot for royalty and high society. Fin de siècle writers and artists gathered here; its guests included Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Adolf Loos. It’s been a landmark for Austrian culture, for the novel ideas that have spread from this country to influence the world. It’s a fitting home for the first electrical chandelier, designed in 1883 through a collaboration between Thomas Edison and Austrian artisanal glassmaker Ludwig Lobmeyr.
Lobmeyr made the first of his First Electrical chandeliers for Austria’s Imperial Palace. The design spread from there to the Südbahnhotel and all over the world, marking a major change in chandelier design.
I see the chandelier hanging in the Südbahnhotel lobby. Its brass frame with king’s-gold finish shimmers subtly amidst its hand-cut crystal drapings. It’s about a metre tall and almost as wide. I appreciate the ingenuity we now take for granted, the process of creating an elegant piece that contains all the wiring needed for the first hanging light bulbs.
Back in Vienna, I walk down the fancy Kärntner Strasse and enter J. & L. Lobmeyr. The late morning sun shines through the big shop window onto Leonid Rath, one of three co-owners of J. & L. Lobmeyr.
He recalls the words of his ancestor, Ludwig Lobmeyr: “Never do what is important; only do what is of utmost importance.” It’s a motto that has carried the company through generations of superlative commissions.
The ‘Sputniks’ — a skyrocketing design for the Met Opera
J. & L. Lobmeyr provides tableware to Austria’s president for special state visits. It’s a tradition, with the tableware always following the same design the company created in 1835 for the Austrian Imperial Court.
The company’s chandeliers have hung in multiple palaces and famous sites, including the Russian Kremlin and mosques in Mecca and Medina. Leonid’s grandfather, Hans Harald Rath, designed the Starburst Chandelier for the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. The first ovation in that building was not for a performance, but for the dramatic unveiling of 31 of these chandeliers, which rose to the ceiling on its opening night, Sept. 16, 1966.
With space travel all the rage at the time, the chandelier was nicknamed “Sputnik.” Thousands of crystal beads on metal rods emanate like rays from a central point. Each chandelier is like a cosmic phenomenon, and you especially get that sense from the largest of them, which is 18 feet wide.
Leonid is proud to carry on this illustrious 200-year family legacy. “We were born into it and completely immersed in it, immersed in a love for what this company does,” says Leonid. “We are part of the history of art.”.
Shining the light of wisdom for one’s descendants
Josef Lobmeyr Sr. founded the company in 1823. Josef’s son, Ludwig (1829–1917), was a pioneer in the crystal-making industry, and he became the Purveyor to the Imperial Court of the Habsburgs — the ultimate distinction of quality at the time. Ludwig died childless but left the company to his nephew, Stefan Rath Sr., Leonid’s great-grandfather.
Leonid and his two brothers, Andreas and Johannes Rath, are the sixth generation heirs, and they keep J. & L. Lobmeyr shining in 2019. Andreas takes care of the flagship-store on Kärntner Strasse. Johannes is in charge of the chandeliers, and Leonid prides himself on his work with the diningware.
The family’s dedication to quality has been key. Each piece of crystal from the Lobmeyr manufactory (also located in Vienna) arrives at the shop on Kärntner Strasse for inspection before it’s sold. A single glass passes through at least 24 pairs of hands, and the last pair of hands always belongs to a family member.
More than 400 chandeliers, including older Lobmeyr chandeliers being restored, leave the Lobmeyr manufactory every year, along with more than 40,000 pieces of handmade tableware.
Leonid says that his ancestors bequeathed not only many designs of utmost beauty — many of which are still produced and sold today — they also lit a path for their descendents with their shimmering personalities. “They were all very curious people who tried to live what they themselves believed and not just follow the markets — and they were mostly successful with it,” he says.
Leonid says of the delicate craftsmanship: “The inner form of the glass, the beauty of the form, its weight, the beauty of the edges, an immaculate base plate, and the overall balance — all that needs to be right.”
Delicate yet strong, and formed with great care
Lobmeyr’s Muslin Glass is especially difficult to create. It’s named after the finely woven French fabric, muslin, and is practically as thin. A glass made of Muslin Glass can have edges as thin as 0.7 mm. Even for outstanding glassblowers, Leonid says, it takes years of experience before they manage to create Muslin Glass.
The hot glass is first blown into wet wooden moulds. The resulting steam is like a cushion between the mould and the glass, and it creates the incomparable shine of the finished glass. Stem and foot are joined freehand by a master artisan. Then the glass needs to be cooled with care, a process called annealing. If annealing isn’t done well, residual internal stresses can make the glass more prone to shattering.
The polishing process itself is a true work of art. The polishers have at hand more than 500 different tools, and use up to 15 for one glass. “The industry often adjusts the design to the tools,” Leonid says. “We work the other way around; we adjust the tools to our models.” If the customer has requested engraving, that is the last step. The requests are varied — initials, dates, symbols, pictures of animals. It can take up to 8 hours to engrave a single piece.
Most of the products are still sold in Austria. The domestic market accounts for over 50 percent of Lobmeyr sales, which total about 5.3 million euros per year. Germany, Switzerland, and the United States are the next biggest markets. Lobmeyr also has a following in Japan. “Tradition plays an important role there,” Leonid says. “We like that.”
American design expert Murray Moss once said of Lobmeyr’s glasses, “When you go from a normal glass to this, it modifies your behaviour. You become more graceful, and that’s an extraordinary thing.”