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Vienna, Bitter Sweet

Monica Singer and Marie Rahm, the duo behind POLKA, have already created successful and iconic designs for renowned manufacturers. At Hotel Altstadt Vienna, they have completed their first interior design work. In the following interview, you'll learn why they were inspired by Viennese ambiguity, among other things. Experience rooms #51 and #37 in the following video. As the interview is in German, you can read the whole text version below.

The full Interview as text version to read

Doppelzimmer Large #51 - POLKA Room - Boutique Hotel Altstadt Vienna

When and how did you start your collaboration with Altstadt Vienna?  

It all started with a phone call from Otto Wiesenthal: “Don’t you want to design a Hotel room?” There were no specifications. We just had to do it.  That is probably the best vote of confidence that a customer can show us.   The furniture that we designed for Wittmann actually caught his attention. He liked it a lot, so he researched who was behind it, then offered us his cooperation. And since you get this scenario quite rarely, where you can blindly trust that person and do exactly what he says, have no budget requirements, and choose between two rooms… we chose the room with the beautiful view. 


A bit later, you were asked to design another room?

A year later, we got asked the same question again, if we wanted to make another room. We were highly interested, since it meant that we could work again on the atmospherics of a room. And I believe as designers, we work differently on a room than on another product. A bit less architectural and more on the smaller details, where you could really notice the finesse in the work. In hotels you have a compact room, a kind of black box, that you can fine tune from the inside. In this particular room there are quite a few of our pieces, some of them were specifically made for this room. A bit as if we would have designed an entire stage.

Doppelzimmer Large #51 - POLKA Room - Boutique Hotel Altstadt Vienna
Doppelzimmer Large #37 - Chocolate Room - Boutique Hotel Altstadt Vienna
Doppelzimmer Large #37 - Chocolate Room - Boutique Hotel Altstadt Vienna

Your usual topic is industrial design, and this was your first interior design project. When you received the phone call, were you excited about it, or did you need some time to think about it?

We wanted to do it immediately. It’s a beautiful task, and from the first moment we were excited about the house, about it’s atmosphere. We were sure that we will do a good job.

We worked on many various products, on different types of themes. In that field of work it is always important to have a process, a blueprint or an idea in mind. Be it for an object, a product or a room. Hereby the designing process is always seen similarly as the brainstorming process.

And it orientates itself strongly towards people, as we the people tend to observe things. How do people interact with objects and things, and what kind of possibilities would open up. Here we wanted to offer the guest the possibility to put him/herself in the room, and to also change it. Using this curtain system that we have installed on the ceiling of the room, one can manipulate the viewing angles in the room and thus create a sort of intimacy. It was important to make the open bathroom separable by curtains, so that one could bring in a small bathroom to the room, rather than have it as two separate rooms. Like this there would be no limitations to this room, and would thus create a more flowing, relaxed and pleasant tone, which was the main motive that we wanted to give the room.

The colour mood of the room is rather quiet, muted, and mostly colourless. And yet the bathroom shines in a rosé colour and gives a strong spatial effect.


If room 51 was your first design project, did you tackle the construction of the room differently a year later?

No, not really, since the room was completely different to what we thought, and we anyway wanted to find a completely different theme. It was rather important for us, and that’s also in the idea of the spirit of the hotel, that we do not implement the same idea, but rather find an interesting vantage point, and thus we dedicated the second room towards the sweet side of the Viennese lifestyle. Like this we wanted to give our guests an insight, give them a few hints to what our specialities are, such as cakes, Punschkrapfen and various other sweets that Vienna has to offer.
And then the Chocolate room was created, which has chocolate-like leather upholstery on the headboard of the bed.


An ideal add-on for the Otto Cake.

Yes, the idea went on quite graphically. In room 37 there are red cherries, just like in the cake, so cherries are the garnish. They exist as wardrobes and as door handles. On the cake packaging they are usually seen as a red pointy circle.

And the Punschkrapfen (a Viennese punch cake) was our greatest source of inspiration for the bathroom, from its colour scheme to its sweetness.

Als Bauherr haben wir euch tatsächlich viele Freiheiten gelassen. Dennoch ist uns immer ganz wichtig, Wienerische Komponenten und das Wiener Lebensgefühl in das Zimmer einfließen zu lassen. Ist dieses Süße etwas, was sehr verbunden ist mit Wien?

Ich glaube es ist eine Mischung, die man in beiden Zimmern vielleicht spüren kann. Es ist so eine gewisse Ambiguität, die Wien sehr auszeichnet. Es ist so süß, aber dann doch auch ein bisschen herb oder hantig oder kantig und es ist offen aber doch auch geschlossen. Also ich glaube diese Widersprüchlichkeit ist auch das was Wien so spannend macht und auszeichnet. Dass es viele so undefinierte Zwischentüren gibt und man reißt was an und man macht ein Zitat. Und dennoch gibt man trotzdem viel Interpretationsspielraum für  den Benutzer oder Betrachter sich da drin zu finden. Und dadurch, dass wir beide in Wien arbeiten und leben und die Stadt jeden Tag atmen, hat man das intus.

Es färbt so ab, Wien färbt ab auf die eigene Arbeit. Man hat ja selten eigentlich in einem Hotel so einen wahnsinnigen Patz in der Höhe zur Verfügung und das merkt man bei all den Zimmern sehr stark.  Die Neubauten sind ja um einige Meter, Zentimeter tiefer. Hier gibt es so ein großzügiges Fenster, so eine Flügeltür. So ein Hotelzimmer einrichten zu können, das man mit einer Flügeltüre öffnen kann… Es ist grade für Leute die von außen kommen hier sehr stark spürbar, dass es eben ein Zinshaus ist und kein Neubau. Oft bleibt dann die Fassade stehen und dann entkernt man. Hier bleibt das alles so schön praktisch und stylish und gleichzeitig kommt der Flair von dem alten Haus in allem noch sehr gut zum Vorschein. Und das merkt man an den Zimmern auch, auch viel von dem Vorhandenen trägt dann bei zu diesem Wiener Flair. Wir haben es halt so eben gestaltet und den Rahmen gegeben.


Was möchtet ihr denn vom Interieur des Zimmers hervorheben?

Also unten im Chocolate Room sind es zB. die Tortenlampen, die extra für das Zimmer entstanden sind. Die Lampen hier im Zimmer 51 haben wir für eine englische Firma entwickelt und haben diese hier adaptiert mit eigenen Stoffen, also eine Sonderedition gemacht. Der Stuhl „Alma“ ist von uns für Wittmann entworfen worden. Die Möbel, der Schrank, die Ablage, Fernsehschränkchen mit Vorhang auch, die haben wir extra für hier entworfen, auch der integrierte Kühlschrank, die Minibar im Schreibtisch und unten im Zimmer 37, die Lampen und der Teppich in Tortenform.

Doppelzimmer Large #37 - Chocolate Room - Boutique Hotel Altstadt Vienna

We left you with a lot of freedom when it came to designing the rooms. Nevertheless, it was important to us, that you incorporate Viennese components and the Viennese lifestyle into the rooms. Is the idea of Sweetness linked to Vienna?

I believe that it’s more of a mix, which you can feel in both rooms. It’s a sort of Ambiguity that defines Vienna. It’s sweet, but also a bit tart, tangy or even edgy. It’s open, but at the same time closed. I believe it’s this contradiction that makes Vienna so exciting and distinguishable. That there are many undefined intermediate interpretations as you rip something off and you make a quote of it. And still, there’s more room for interpretation for the user to find him/herself in it. And because we both live and work in Vienna, breathe its very air.

That’s how it’s reflected in our work. You rarely have lots of space in a hotel, and newer buildings are quite lower. People notice the difference and the grandeur of buildings like this one., They notice an older building, and often the façade sticks out until one notices the practicality and stylishness of the older style, and that it comes well to light. You notice that the rooms as well, the existing attributes of the room contribute very strongly towards a Viennese flair. We designed it that way.


What do you want to emphasize about the interior of the room?

In the Chocolate Room that would be the cake lamps, which were specifically made for that room. The lamps here in room 51 were made for an English company, to which we adapted here using our own resources, so it’s pretty much like a special edition. The chair “Alma” was designed by us for Wittmann. Most of the furniture, the cupboard, and the shelves were specifically designed for this room. Also the cake shaped carpet in room 37.


You left your imprints not just in these two rooms. At check in every guest receives something you designed, our beautiful lanyards.

We wanted a striking and unique motif that we see well here. We then came across the idea of using badge ribbons. They were produced in masses in various beautiful colours, just here around the corner in a small back alley. We made some of our own, using our colours. Each floor has their own colour, or colour scheme, and then we designed our Altstadt lanyard, it’s the pink one, and the idea was to use these loops as key chains for the room keys with plaques. We found it so conclusive, after all, this type of old official badge is indeed quite Austrian. There were beautiful colours that we couldn’t use, and since they were out of reach, we decided to design our own colour combination for the rooms. Each guest is something special, therefore deserving a badge. That’s why, upon check in, not only do they receive their room keys, but also a badge.


You have taken it a step further, as we had adapted your beautiful ribbon design for our orientation system.

That was indeed our second step, where we were able to newly design your orientation system. The idea was to transfer the colour scheme from the key chains to the walls. It’s those horizontal stripes that partly open in arrows and then lead the way, one way. It’s exciting to find your way here, seeing that the room is so well hidden.


While designing the room, did you have any favourite guests in mind? Who do you think would feel comfortable in this room, and whose room is this?

Actually, that would be us. That was the way we tackled the idea, a rather personal one, as in, which hotel room would we feel comfortable? Well, we would like to have our ideal rooms.

And everyone would like to feel comfortable, and I don’t think that it would have been a good idea to work towards a specific person’s ideal room. You take the approach of, if it would please me, if it would please us, then surely it would please many more. Naturally, taste varies between many people, but hotels can tolerate it. It is in a hotel where one can do many things, you wouldn’t be able to do at home, in a generous way.

The mindset of mainly thinking about oneself, maybe even think selfish, I think it’s not wrong. On the contrary, we can’t do it right for everyone, and we don’t even want to. So you actually are designing for just you, and yet you dare implementing out-of-the-common things in the hotel. Is how you live quite differently than here?

Yes, of course. Personally, at home I believe that we have a mix between old inherited items, and newer ones. We had it quite colourful, but now we’re trying to make it a bit calmer, since the everyday hustle can rather be big. But of course I think that you would live differently at home, compared to the designed hotel room.

A hotel room is mostly just a room, a box so to say. In a house or an apartment it’s a cluster of rooms, especially in Vienna, as there are many older types of building one after the other. We live in a much more colourful room compared to this one, yes.


You travel a lot. What must a hotel have to become your favorite place? 

I personally find it crucial when staying in hotels, that you can feel your surrounding and the city at which you’re staying. There’s nothing worse than finding out that each of the other rooms are practically identical. I find that I’m most comfortable when I’m out and about, visiting the city, visiting friends; it’s always nice to bring a bit of the everyday life into it. I’m reluctant to being a tourist anywhere, and this works out very nicely for Altstadt Vienna, as you have the feeling that you are right in the middle of things, that you could live here.


Anything you’d like to add?

The good thing that I find about coming here, is that you receive a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere from all the staff members. It has integrated itself nicely in their work. It has a nice atmosphere, nice teamwork, you would always be welcome, even if you would just come here for a nice sip of coffee in sit down in the salon. That alone is worth a lot.

Thank you very much.

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Altstadt ViennaKirchengasse 41, 1070 Wien, Österreich, Tel. +43 1 522 66 66, hotel@altstadt.at