Grand Ferdinand, Vienna


Tyler Brûlé, or someone that looks remarkably like him from the rear is holding a glass of something that looks remarkably like Rose´, and clutching something that looks remarkably like a Blackberry, close to the bar in the downstairs restaurant at the Grand Ferdinand. He’s listening to two of the guests at this evening’s function, where the group congregating at the entrance to the hotel, beneath the Lobmeyr chandeliers, have swelled and spilled into the bar area and the main restaurant. There, tables of white linen await, laid with Wiener Silbermanufaktur cutlery. This figure, who might be Tyler Brûlé, wears a navy blazer, jeans and loafers. If it is him there is likely to be a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust clamped to the wrist beneath the cuff of that blue-and-white striped shirt. He has seldom been without it since buying the watch in Switzerland in 1983. The two men with him are talking to impress, convince or sell, and the man that might be Tyler Brûlé has the tilted posture of someone who only appears to be listening with avid interest.

Beyond the restaurant a tiny clearing that, for the sake of this evening’s event will double as a dance floor. A drink or two in, and circular trays of canapés are flying above the throng like drones. The revellers among those gathered keep one eye on the dance floor; the other scans the room, a drone seeking its target, finally settling on the man that might be Tyler Brûlé. Is it him? They want his attention - an introduction. They want to be where the two guests are now, each one mouthing into an ear. They want to dance. Some chew, rock and sway to the music, as a sound from 1991 sweeps the room. We’re going to dance. We're going to dance. We’re going to dance and have some fun.

This is the opening party for the weekend of The Quality of Life forum, staged by Monocle magazine. Vienna is the chosen city, and ideal as it's been nominated by the magazine as the best city in Europe for its quality of living. This may or may not have contributed to the boost in the Vienna's regeneration plan. The Grand Ferdinand opened last October, in a former palace that, following the wartime bombing that almost destroyed it, became a secret service HQ from the 1950s. The hotel manager, Florian Weiter, says what interests him is tradition, identity and beauty: 'A line in Austria's national anthem goes, "A nation blessed with beauty". And it is this beauty that we're bringing back to Vienna's magnificent Ringstrasse’. The pages of Monocle refer to the regeneration of the city led by the Grand Ferdinand as ‘the empire strikes back’. It’s a coup for the hotel to get the magazine gig, as it is not solely the venue for the forum's opening night party but where a number of the speakers, attendees, and magazine staff will be staying. If that’s Tyler Brûlé will he be sleeping here? Will it meet his standards? The Emperor’s soup. The devilled eggs. The mince meat fritters à la Metternich.

Back in the year 2000, at London’s Design Museum, I spotted an installation Brûlé had chosen for an exhibition which struck me as inspired at the time. At his request a replica of a room from his favourite hotel had been constructed. These days he favours Murata Ryokan, on the island of Kyushu, in southern Japan. He has homes in London, St Moritz. There’s a summer house on a tiny Swedish island. The nerve centre of his empire is in Marylebone, London - an island of sorts, where the creative, wealthy, well-connected, gravitate to eat, drink and socialise. Housed in a former school off Baker Street it's HQ to both Monocle and his design consultancy Winkreative. The operation expands to newspaper kiosks, a radio station, a clothing line and coffee shops. Conceived in 2007 the magazine reaches out to the high-end global lifestyle market. It has a circulation of 80,000, and a value of £115 million. Such mighty success has become something of a habit for its creator. His previous major foray into publishing, Wallpaper*, was sold for $1.63m in 1997 the year after it was launched. This success as an entrepreneur sprang from his love of the beautiful thing. The stuff that surrounds you, as the tagline on Wallpaper* goes. It began the summer of his fourteenth year with his first trip to Europe. With money earned cleaning yachts throughout the holidays he made his first major purchase: an 18-carat Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust.

The Tyler Brûlé brand began to colonise Marylebone long before the postcode attracted the beautiful people. The nearby florist was commandeered to house the first Monocle shop. The Tyler Brûlé boyfriend had a boutique there. The Tyler Brûlé beard is tended by Vincenzo the barber, and Blandford’s is the quaint cafe where Tyler Brûlé picks up his flat white. The cafe is the kind of place that Monocle sniffs out as part of the local colour in cities and far-flung places listed in the magazine. The operation has been compared to a cult. As with a cult there are acolytes who are evangelical in their belief in its credo. They are united by their cosmopolitan outlook; their internationalism. Their leader is all these things too; his half-Estonian; he spent an itinerant childhood in Canada’s major cities. Like him they harbour a passion for cities, hotels, travel, aviation. In short, The High Life. Beauty is paramount, according to the cult’s leader: 'I am certain that anything you do can be done beautifully. Everything that is built can be built beautifully. Beauty is in no way a matter of money, or design, or a creativity competition. It's simply a matter of attitude’. So apt that he should currently be pitched up in a country that, in Weiter’s words, is blessed with beauty.

Vienna often tops the quality of life poll. London doesn’t even come a poor second, or third, or fourth. This year, it's unlikely to make the top twenty. Why? After all, so much is made of its diversity, multiculturalism. Isn't this ideal for the itinerant urbanist? If not London, then brand London. A city removed from the experience of a number of its inhabitants. Noticeably the older natives surviving in a city they no longer recognise, as its landscape and demographic changes, and rich and poor foreigners or migrants surround them.

The Monocle Set's experience of London is largely cosmetic, as is its experience of other cities. The undergrowth is delved into to highlight the hidden beauty of its folksiness: dying crafts, skills and cuisine suitable for an essay or a podcast. It's the predicament of the creative young braves that bothers Monocle’s big chief: ‘….we have people who might be from Wellington or Vienna, super-talented, and they are by the standards of anywhere else in the world making a very good living but they still can’t make ends meet. There is a problem if they are having to commute 90 minutes or living in a place without proper plumbing.’ Brûlé has been in their shoes, as an educated young foreigner in an adopted country. He moved to Britain in 1989 and trained as a reporter with the BBC, before writing for broadsheets. His story of being shot in Afghanistan has become the stuff of myth and legend. While recuperating he formulated the plans for a new design magazine. One that was perfect for the times, just as a Blairite revolution was bubbling in the affluent living rooms of Islington, Hampstead and Notting Hill. Decades on, London continues to be one of the first ports of call for the young, creative alien he once was: 'It happens because of the natural forces, that we're English language, that we're in the EU.’

The various accents that echo throughout the former classrooms at Monocle HQ are evident among the throng of guests hovering in the ground floor restaurant at the Grand Ferdinand, or circling the makeshift dance floor. In a city that houses an Esperanto museum the indecipherable noise could itself be a form of Esperanto, that on closer inspection would form two words which do not sound like one particular language, or even one particular thing. It could be a bird, a plane, a watch, a dish. In fact, one of a whole number of beautiful objects: Tyler Brûlé

Who actually buys Monocle? No scrap that, why wouldn’t you buy it ? It’s a thing of a beauty after all. But who actually reads it? All of it. Judging by the demographic here tonight it’s largely young, slim, suited, bespectacled, gay men who resemble Viktor & Rolf. Apart from the older, larger ones taking the lion’s share of the canapés who look like they’ve eaten Viktor & Rolf. They're smarter, more stylish versions of the figures you spot on the fringes of EU summits, cradling ipads. There is diversity here; a melting pot of nationalities rather than ethnicities. What brings everyone together is status, pedigree, and - money. Even the cash poor with the long commute and the plumbing issues are well-bred. Perhaps the great leveller is that love of beauty, tradition, identity that Florian Weiter champions. Weiter, or someone that looks remarkably like him, is currently in the reception area, surrounded by white-coated staff, dwarfed by the life-sized silky, stuffed black stallion that immediately caught my attention on arrival, as it does every guest that enters the Grand Ferdinand.

I arrived two days ago. It’s my second visit to Vienna in a matter of months. My first with an official guide; the spectre of Stefan Zweig. The Vienna-born author, one of the most popular writers in the world between the wars, committed suicide in 1942. In his autobiography 'The World of Yesterday', he laments the passing of the Austria he knew as a child and fears the Europe on the horizon as Hitler warms up in the wings. All hopes his generation had for the future were shattered by the events of the war that was ultimately the reason he and his wife took their lives. Of that generation, he writes: 'They honestly thought that divergences between nations and religious faiths would gradually flow into a sense of common humanity. So that peace and security, the greatest of goods, would come to all mankind.'

The vision seems as doomed as that of a universal language which, according to the artefacts and the history within the Esperanto museum, petered out around the same time. After the war there were measures to create organizations that unified Europe, in the belief that this would prevent nationalism rising to the surface and creating the kind of war and suffering the world had recently witnessed. Among these, the monolith that has become the European Union.

Yet here we are, decades on, several years into a new century and that divergence between nations and religious faiths has not flowed into a common humanity, with the greatest goods coming to all mankind. Cracks and fissures appear to be deepening, and the very institutions once established to cure and fix these are thought to be somehow responsible, and are being held to account.

This summer Britons will vote in a referendum on the country's membership of the EU. Should they stay or should they go? It’s assumed, by the media and parliament, that the ‘remain’ team will triumph. Those calling for the opposite are, in some quarters, overtly dismissed as ill-educated at best, and xenophobes and nationalists at worst. They themselves perhaps fear the tradition, identity and even beauty of their country, its capital, is being eradicated by a loss of sovereignty. For this, they hold the EU responsible. Or rather, the mindset that supports it and has the most to benefit from it.

It’s an attitude those gathered at the Grand Ferdinand abhor. These are, after all, citizens of the world. As I say, they define themselves more by status and aspiration than nationality and ethnicity. And all things bright and beautiful. 'You’re in this like-minded environment,’ the king has said of his ever-expanding empire, 'but it’s not exclusive. Everyone needs to be on the same page’. Never was this more so than than on the issue of the EU. To vote to go would be bad form, bad etiquette, bad taste. Ugly, even. Perhaps the greatest of all sins for the devout party faithful. Unlikely that anyone here would even come into contact with dissenters intent on voting to leave. Which only adds to the complacent assumption that there is no chance this will happen; other countries won't follow with further referendums; the EU will not ultimately implode and collapse. Good sense and good taste will prevail. But what if the unthinkable happened? What if the peasants revolted? What then?

The king and his cohorts are, inevitably, prepared for every eventuality. Brûlé has said he could not envisage the nucleus of his empire anywhere but London. Yet in the wake of Britain leaving he EU he would move it if necessary: ‘The questions is where?’ He dismisses the Scandinavian countries that rank so highly in the magazine’s quality of living league, and where previous forums have been staged. They are simply ‘a bit too socialist’. So how about the current holder of the prize? Vienna.

The empire is striking back, after all. It is again closer to the city that Stefan Zweig remembered from his youth: ‘what a crime it was when an attempt was made to force Vienna - a place combining the most hetereogeneous elements in its atmosphere and culture, reaching out intellectually beyond national borders - into the new mould of a nationalist and this a provincial city.'

Heading to the hotel on the day of my arrival I was stopped by an elderly man keen to show me the statue of Goethe on the Ringstrasse. He told me that it was perfect that the figure should be seated. I didn’t ask why. Instead, I asked for directions. He insisted on accompanying me. He said he arrived from Tel Aviv after the war. He had been a physician, but was now - according to the card he handed me - a collector of vintage motor cars. Within minutes we came across his own physician who joined us as we headed along the Ringstrasse like the trio on the yellow brick road. When it came to finding my way to the Esperanto museum I interrupted a man speaking German to his friend. His English, syntax, grammar were sharper than mine. ‘I thought you were Austrian’, I said. He told me he was actually from Munich. ‘But your English is so good - and so posh!' He laughed, and all but apologised, confiding that years before he learned the language by watching episodes of Jeeves & Wooster featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. He mentioned the EU and asked how we would survive if we left as we were ‘only an island’. I mentioned Angela Merkel and the immigration crisis of months before. He said she made him feel less like a German and more like a proud Bavarian. This crisis had also been the subject of a conversation on the train to Vienna from Budapest. Two well-off, middle-aged Austrian women in sunglasses, subtle black and unsubtle jewellery and make-up, initiated a conversation when they heard my accent. They too were concerned that Britain might leave the European Union. They feared that major companies would desert us and we would become the desolate, isolated island the Munich man alluded to. In this conversation the issue of Merkel and immigration materialised, and further mention of the reaction of certain politicians in Vienna and, more notably, Budapest. It’s having an impact on the areas in this city that The Monocle Set rarely write about, let alone visit. Beyond the Grand Ferdinand, the majestic opera house, Cafe Central (where at different times Stalin and Hitler visited), the ailing theme park where the ferris wheel from The Third Man continues to turn, the metro takes you across the Danube to an expansive brutalist housing estate, similar to many throughout Europe, where the words ‘Refugees are welcome’ is sprayed in graffiti across a stairwell wall. It’s a view that isn’t shared by a number of the long-standing residents within those estates, where the quality of life isn’t in keeping with that championed by Monocle at this weekend’s forum.

But to mention this, here and now, would be as ugly as suggesting that Britain should leave the European Union. The canapés have been eaten. The tables are cleared of the Silbermanufaktur cutlery. Beneath the Lobmeyr chandelier the dance floor is filling up with more revellers. The man that might be Tyler Brûlé joins them. He’s going to dance. He’s going to dance. He’s going to dance and have some fun. The blazer is removed, the cuffs of that blue and white shirt retreat as he claps and punches the air to the music. But there is no sign of a thirty-year old 18-carat, Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust.

It isn’t him. It's an imposter. This man is not Tyler Brûlé. But like so many of those present, he wishes he was.