We are all products of a world which trends ever more towards mechanization, and since the latter part of the 20th century, digitization. As far back as I can remember, we embraced technology as the way to achieve a better quality of life. Even though in retrospect it is clear that the transformation has occurred at rapid speed, as we strolled along day-to-day into the future, the change was almost imperceptible.
As more and more things move from analogue to digital, we seem to be losing touch with physical objects and processes that, while perhaps not the most efficient, did contain satisfying elements that we are now finding irreplaceable. The more they disappear, the more obvious their absence is becoming, and I would suggest that a tipping point has recently occurred. While mass production has given us adequate facsimiles, for a whole range of goods and services there is simply no replacement for what’s made by hand, with dedication, intuition, experience and care.
From butchers and bakers to candlestick makers, there is renewed interest in quality hand-made goods. In fact, being a maker of things has become a desirable career path. Many young people are leaving corporate jobs or taking apprenticeships after college and becoming carpenters, bakers, goldsmiths, restorers, et cetera, to meet the growing demand for hand-crafted goods.
On the other hand, we are lucky that a few old-world businesses withstood the barrage of mechanization long enough for a new generation to pick up the reins. A classic example of this is the Vienna workshop of Rudolf Scheer & Söhne (Son), a company that has made shoes continuously since 1816.
Fronting onto Bräunerstraße 4 in Vienna’s first district, Scheer maintains two entrances, the original and the new. I like to use the original and take the same path customers have trod for just short of 100 years.
Designated imperial court cobbler in 1878, Scheer reached the pinnacle of prestige early. Later the business weathered two world wars, and the dramatic social changes that followed. Each generation reinvented the business to meet the changing needs of its customers, while maintaining the highest standards of craftsmanship.
Now in its seventh generation, the current Scheer at the helm is 41 year old Markus, who started working as an apprentice for his grandfather at the age of 18.
In the late 1990s when his grandfather retired, Markus started to put his mark on the family business. He initiated an update of the brand, including the addition of a new showroom and distinctly modern entrance reflecting the mood of the next phase of the business.
I head over to Scheer’s new retail space to wait for Markus. A tiny passageway links the old and the new showrooms. To make the passage a small changing room had to be sacrificed. But true to form, everything original was left intact. I noticed a small window on the side of the old changing room which did not seem to serve any purpose, so I enquired. The story goes that when the emperor came for fittings he would change in this room, and the window allowed him to wave a hanky to signal that he was ready.
The new showroom displays classic shoes, handmade belts and other accessories. One of my favorite pieces was a handmade leather picnic hamper, fully outfitted with an espresso maker. It’s the perfect product to represent Scheer’s dedication to craft and function.
Markus has ingeniously treated the new showroom walls by exposing layers of old paint and wallpaper, reflecting the style of ancient frescoes. With the walls juxtaposed with clean lines of metal, glass and leather, the effect is altogether modern.
A glass banister staircase leads customers down to a cellar suggestive of an old grotto. Making our way down the staircase we enter a large hall with arch-shaped window. Special lighting in the windows makes it appear as if daylight is filtering down from the street above.
A long table with simple benches extends the length of the room. On the day of our visit, leather samples of all colors and textures were spread over the table waiting to be selected by customers, to be made into shoes.
Back on street level, in the reception room, original wooden glass cases display the wooden shoe moulds of various Austrian monarchs. With each owner’s name attached their mould, it’s a veritable who’s who of Austrian history. An arrangement of original Thonet chairs occupies the center of the room, providing the place where customers have always been received for their appointments.
A stairway leads up to the first floor into a private reception room where Markus takes clients through the process of determining their particular shoe needs. The floors creak. The walls are lined with shoes and boots from past and present. At the center of the room is a shoe-fitting stool: a simple, utilitarian piece of furniture that you might find in any shoe shop. But in this case it was made exclusively for Scheer by classic Austrian furniture maker, Thonet. It’s a beautifully functional piece of furniture and a real treasure.
For those who have not yet experienced the making of custom shoes, you may be surprised to find that it is much more involved than simply forming a nice piece of leather to your foot and attaching it to a sole. As I found, it involves craft, engineering and surprisingly, a great deal of psychology. A big part of Markus’ skill is drawing out of his customers things you might think unrelated to shoes. Things like their goals and aspirations, and what kinds of things they would like to do in their new shoes. Markus takes the time to get to know his customers. He then expresses what he’s learned – in form, comfort, materials, and color. It all seems magical, but, really, it comes from years of practice and the dedication to learn from generations of experience.
It takes around six months for Markus to produce a pair of shoes, which includes at least three fittings. Successive pairs can be produced much faster.
A pair of Scheer shoes can last for 30 years or longer. But as with all things of value, proper maintenance is key to making them last. Just like your own skin, leather needs to be cleaned and moisturized. Your shoes shouldn’t be worn every day; every other day they need a rest. And bringing them in once a year for servicing will greatly increase their life expectancy.
One of Markus’ assistants passes by and I couldn’t help checking out his shoes. I expected that everyone working at Scheer would have great shoes, but these stood out. It turns out that they were an experiment in restoration. Markus took apart an antique pair of shoes and reworked them onto a new mould and gave them a new sole. It brings the idea of recycling to quite a different level.
Beyond the Salon is the workshop, with the room, wall coverings, furniture and most of the tools dating back generations. It feels like a museum or movie set, untouched by time. The only concessions to modernity are modern, high-end work lamps suspended over each shoemaker’s work station. In times past you would have seen a “shoemaker’s lamp” consisting of a glass sphere filled with water with a candle behind. The sphere of water focused the candle light to a spot precisely measured on the other side of the sphere, the glow of which would illuminate the shoemaker’s work into the dusk, which in the winter comes early in Vienna.
These rooms, now dedicated to production, used to be the Scheer’s family residence. It’s a bit like a maze these days, filled with tools of the trade, stacked wooden moulds for various clients, leather patterns and workbenches, all of the things essential to produce a perfect shoe.
There’s an air of intensity in the production room – concentration and skill combined with smell of wood leather and wax. It’s strange to think that 98 years ago it would not have been that much different … except for the lamps.
Visiting Rudolf Scheer & Söhne it’s easy to see why people are becoming more attracted to the idea of mastering a craft. It’s fascinating to meet someone like Markus who embraces his work with such a passion for perfection. I think it must be the only way to sustain a craft tradition, shepherding it into the next generation. Work at this level in any discipline is an inspiration. I would encourage any aspiring craft aficionado to make a visit.
Of course there are no shortcuts to this process, so a weekend visit won’t really do you much good in terms of a new pair of shoes. But you can still pick up a little bit of Scheer with one of their beautiful accessories, or some of Scheer’s fine shoe-care products. My suggestion would be some of the custom blend shoe cleaner products. A great souvenir to bring home from your trip.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.