As anyone who likes art and design in equal measure knows, it’s very difficult to fuse the two successfully in your home. Too often you end up with a white-walled gallery-like space filled with great art, but a predictable check-list of design classics and none of the emotional paraphernalia that real life brings – or you get the furniture and fittings right, yet the art looks wrong. However, Francesca von Habsburg, a member of the aristocratic von Habsburg dynasty that ruled Austria and much of Europe for 600-odd years, has spent her life surrounded by both and takes living with them to another level.
The daughter of German steel magnate Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, founder of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, von Habsburg grew up with Canalettos and Cézannes, Rembrandts and Renoirs on her walls, so for her, taking up where her father left off and moving into the realm of 21st-century art was a natural progression.
In 2002, she rented a four-storey palace in Vienna’s UNESCO-protected first district, set up home there and opened TBA21, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation, in the same building. Until her arrival in the former imperial capital, the von Habsburg clan had been barred from the city since it lost its grip in 1918, and the fact that such a vivacious, wild party girl had married into the family became regular tabloid fodder.
But that’s all behind her these days, and now she attracts attention mainly with her avant-garde activities. Last summer, she organised ‘Küba’, an exhibition by Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, in which he interviewed residents of the Istanbul slum Küba. It took place on a barge that sailed down the Danube from Romania to Vienna. And, at the last two Venice Biennales, on Habsburg has colonised the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni with a beautiful slatted wood art pavilion designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and British architect David Adjaye. This is the first of a series of art pavilions that she would like to open. They are still at the concert stage, but could include an eco pavilion in Rio de Janeiro, to be designed by Foreign Office Architects; another on the Croatian island of Lopud by Adjaye; a third on London’s South Bank, by Adjaye and artist Matthew Mitchie; and one in Iceland by Eliasson.
‘Art and architecture work really well together. It’s a natural partnership, and learning to live with art is important,’ says von Habsburg, who had a head start in that department. Her father owned the world’s second largest private art collection after Queen Elizabeth II, and Francesca spent much of her time in her father’s house, Villa Favorita in Lugano. She remembers, as a teenager, visiting the Hermitage in St Petersburg with him. ‘It was 1982, the height of the Cold War, and we were in the basement with torches, looking at Matisses and Van Goghs, all these fabulous paintings that no one had seen for years. My father persuaded the Russians to exhibit them in Europe in exchange for lending them his collection in what was the country’s first European show since the Revolution. Thyssen is a name engraved in marble in Russia.’
Gestures like this typified the baron’s attitude towards his art, and von Habsburg shares her father’s desire for her collection to be seen, rather than hidden away in storage. ‘It’s not just about having a collection, but about what you do with it,’ she says. To this end, she regularly switches pieces between her apartment and gallery where she puts on about five shows a year. Her staff of eight and a full-time curator manage her collection of around 250 pieces, and these days she prefers bankrolling four or five projects a year with her favourite artists – Eliasson, Ritchie and Canadian Janet Cardiff among them – to buying from auctions.
Many of these one-off collaborations have been absorbed into, or made specifically for, her apartment. Ritchie’s drawings and motifs appear randomly all over the walls, while the kitchen is a psychedelic swirl of red and orange floor tiles and 40 ceiling lights by Cuban-American artist Jorge Pardo. Two of von Habsburg’s three children sleep in bright, futuristic ‘pods’ designed by Swiss artists Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann; the luxurious bathroom is an organic mass of sparkly Bisazza tiles; and in the hallway next to her bedroom is a film projector rattling out a 1974 performance piece by Dennis Hopper, in which he surrounds himself with dynamite and lights it. In the attic, a giant, gloopy sculpture made of nylon stockings by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto hangs eerily among giant wooden beams. It’s fantastically atmospheric. ‘In summer, we go and hang out up there with a bottle of wine,’ says von Habsburg.
Yet despite the kooky stuff and the Freuds, Pollocks and Mapplethorpes in the walls, the apartment manages to feel like an unfussy, lived-in place, buzzing with a sinuous stream of guests, staff and children. ‘I hate the elitist element of art. People want to experience it rather than be taught about it, that’s what I’m aiming for.’
As originally featured in the April 2007 issue of Wallpaper* (W*98)
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Emma O'Kelly is a contributing editor at Wallpaper*. She joined the magazine on issue 4 as news editor and since since then has worked in full and part time roles across many editorial departments. She is a freelance journalist based in London and works for a range of titles from Condé Nast Traveller to The Telegraph. She is currently working on a book about Scandinavian sauna culture and is renovating a mid century house in the Italian Lakes.
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