The enterprising Englishman Michael Birch has plenty of highly effective competition to keep him on his toes – including the Viennaline brand originating in Austria. Wilhelm Anger, the founder of the brand, was every bit as colorful and hard-driving as Birch.
Anger was further aided by the design genius of a fellow named Udo Proksch, who was eventually imprisoned for life after destroying a ship and killing six people with a time bomb as part of an insurance fraud plan. Once again, the history of retro eyeglasses is shown to be anything but dull, thanks to the highly idiosyncratic personalities often involved either as creators or wearers of famous styles. Viennaline eyewear was also associated with the exciting cloak and dagger of the Cold War era.
Viennaline was founded in the 1950s as a branch of Anger OHG, which had already been in existence for around a decade as a welding goggle company. The eventually murderous Proksch supplied many of the most striking vintage eyeglass designs, as well as possibly the name as well. At the time, Viennaline was as evocative and exciting as more exotic names are today. Vienna’s reputation was a heady cocktail of high culture – opera, music, ballet – and an exciting city near the Soviet Union, and thus a center for international spying and intrigue.
Today, Vienna seems like a quiet central European city with some pleasant architecture, but to the popular imagination of the Fifties, it was one of the world’s hotspots, a sophisticated and dangerous meeting place of East and West straight out of a James Bond film or novel – and this, as much as the quality of the vintage glasses themselves, was a powerful springboard to the commercial triumphs of the retro eyeglasses made by Viennaline.
Ballet and retro eyeglasses from Viennaline
Anger and Proksch managed to transform their eyeglasses business from a stodgy industrial supplier into one of the most glamorous retro eyeglasses fashion houses in Europe in a single year with the introduction of two immensely popular designs – the Gigi and the Alt-Wien (Old Vienna). Appearing in advertising photos in front of dramatic pictures of performing ballerinas, these glasses were extremely popular worldwide, with the Gigi alone selling in excess of fifteen million.
The Gigi glasses were not cat’s eye in shape, but Viennaline helped to popularize cat eye glasses as far away as the United States with their mid-1950s cat eye creations. Initially, these glasses were fairly plain, with only a slight upward tilt at the outer corners and heavy brows of the same thickness across the whole width of the eyerim (though with a delicate bridge that prevented them from being a “unibrow” design).
Other designs, however, soon developed an elegant, pronounced “butterfly wing” shape that was technically cat eye glasses, but not as elongated as some American or British types. The brows of these glasses were slim at the inner end, and flared wider towards the outer end, producing a bold but feminine look that women of the time enjoyed wearing.
The experimental spirit and Viennaline retro eyeglasses
Like many companies in the Fifties and Sixties, Viennaline was involved with materials and technology experimentation which was to affect production everywhere once the techniques spread. Wilhelm Anger and his scientists pioneered use of Optyl, a plastic that was strong and rigid enough not to use metal supports, which was also up to a third lighter than Zyl frames.
Some of the Viennaline cat eye glasses also harked back to an earlier era with filigree silver or gold frames with delicate but richly Baroque decoration. Other than their modern plastic nose pads, these vintage glasses look like something from fin de siecle Vienna of the late 19th century, showing that eyeglass designs always stand a chance of being resurrected and modernized.