Glassmaker Maximilian Riedel’s legacy of innovation

Sitting at the helm of a company with over 250 years of heritage, 11th generation President and CEO Maximilian Riedel prides himself on breaking with tradition

Words by Kate Hawkings

Maximilian Riedel

While most of us are primarily concerned with what’s actually in our glass, Claus Josef Riedel changed the game in 1958 when he introduced a range of wine glasses designed according to the character of the wine: the shape of the glass is crucial, he said, and it can change how a wine tastes. Riedel perfected the glass design we know today, encompassing bowl, stem and base, and now his grandson Maximilian Riedel is continuing that legacy of innovation. Here he sets out his vision for a future with “intelligent glass” – and explains why Riedel is still developing 100 new products a year.

Riedel is still wholly family owned. Can you briefly explain your history?
I’m the 11th generation. We date back to 1673 in Bohemia, which became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Our factory there was commandeered by the Nazis in WW2 (my great-grandfather Walter had invented the use of glass fibres in tele-communications) and then confiscated by the Czechoslovakians after the war. We lost everything. Walter re-established the business in Austria with my grandfather, Claus Josef, in 1956.

My grandfather pioneered the mass production of mouth- and machine-blown wine glasses which, unlike pressed glass, allowed the rim to taper in at the top. My father, Georg, then developed our varietal-specific glassware with the mantra borrowed from the Bauhaus movement “form follows function”. My father retires this year, and I am now the CEO.

How did you start in the business?
My father sent me to work at the family glassworks for two weeks when I was 12 years old, as his father did to him, then to Murano in Venice when I was 16. This was important – not only did it teach me the techniques, it connected me with the glassmakers and built trust and respect between us.

How did you make your own mark on the business?
I became a disruptor. I designed the “O” range of stemless glassware in New York in 2004. There were a lot of Austrian ex-pats working in the bar and restaurant industry, including the famous bartender Albert Trummer who wanted to use Riedel glasses for cocktails but found the stems got in the way on the bar. My grandfather was heart-broken – how dare I change his vision? His design? – but my father knew it would be a success, and it was. We made glass approachable for a younger audience.

Maximilian Riedel

What sets you apart from other such glass businesses?
At Swarovski, for example, who are good friends of ours, there are more than 60 members of the family involved so decisions take a long time to go through the board. At Riedel, we have only one decision taker.

Others, such as Waterford, failed partly because of the economic situation, but also because the family was not able to make the business interesting to the next generation. They specialised in tableware – bowls, vases etc. – but these are not of interest to the young.

My father had the wisdom to send me away for 15 years, first to Asia and then to the US, so I came back with my own ideas. My parents sold it to me as the best job in the world, and they were right.

How do you view your competition?
For me, a competitor is a brand with the means of production, a vision, and a concept. Most others in this industry have none of these. They copy us and thrive on our success; their job is to compete with Riedel. There are a few I do respect, but most are not creative, not inventive.

We are manufacturers of all types of glass so we have the flexibility to plan 10 to 15 years ahead. New brands are at the mercy of whoever manufactures their designs. Also, we are part of the wine industry; others have no relationship with wine. They may produce beautiful glassware, but they don’t function as well as ours.

We are constantly innovating and re-inventing – customers these days want what’s new. We’ve launched 300 new products in the last three years, and we don’t have a design department; all the ideas come directly from myself and my father and we work closely with our production team to make them a reality.

Progress can only be made if you break with tradition, and you do so without having fear

Are you still a disruptor?
Totally – I work in a very traditional family with a very traditional skill, but progress can only be made if you break with tradition and look beyond it, and you do so without having fear.

What is your vision for the future?
Intelligent glass – glasses that can tell you what wine you’re drinking, for example; a material that is much more advanced than glass. We’re working on this now.

Glassmaking is a craft that goes back more than 4000 years and it must never be forgotten. What works in our favour is that plastic will be forbidden in the future; glass is its organic counterpart, made from 100% natural materials, so I see a bright future for us all in the industry.