For much of the world, Munich is likely to evoke one or more stereotypical images, among them the Glockenspiel in the tower of the neo-Gothic Rathaus, or city hall; the annual Oktoberfest bacchanal; and mustachioed men wearing lederhosen. Style, a word generally not associated with lederhosen, doesn’t spring to mind. But these days Munich, Germany’s third-largest city and the capital of Bavaria, is shedding its dirndls and feathered caps in favor of cutting-edge design.
Until my latest visit, I hadn’t thought much of the city. I had traveled there twice—once as a backpacking teenager lured by the promise of copious beer, and again about 10 years later—and in my more sober moments Munich seemed a bit of a bore. It was as if the Wittelsbachs were still holed up in the royal palace: the spires of Baroque churches soared above winding streets, throngs followed the pied-piping Glockenspiel to the Marienplatz (the historic main square), and the Odeonsplatz and tony Maximilianstrasse presided with Italianate decorum. Munich was charming, elegant, and postcard-perfect—but often as riveting as a boiled Bavarian potato. It was a well-preserved time warp rebuilt after World War II with a hint of self-satisfied, Disneyesque preciousness.
That’s no longer the case. “In some ways, Munich has always been a creative city,” says Christian Haas, a young local designer, over drinks at Heyluigi, a bustling boîte in the fashionable Glockenbach neighborhood, where a herd of wall-mounted plastic animals is the primary décor. “But it’s changed a lot in recent years,” he adds.
As Munich celebrates its 850th birthday this year, its historic center remains pleasantly intact—though it’s now also home to a new synagogue and a Jewish Museum, designed by German firm Wandel Hoefer Lorch and opened in 2007. They are signs not just of a reinvigorated Jewish community but of a burst of innovation, powered by a strong economy (companies like BMW and Siemens call Munich home) and by the global boom in contemporary design. Driving in from the airport, one sees the evidence immediately: there’s the Allianz soccer stadium, an illuminated doughnut completed for the 2006 World Cup by vanguard Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Closer to town are the BMW Museum and the glittering new BMW World, a car-delivery center accessorized with restaurants and shops. The swooping glass-and-steel leviathan, designed by Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, looks like a spaceship touching down.
Even the old center has received a design-driven jump start. Inserted with surgical precision inside a historic city block, Herzog & de Meuron’s Fünf Höfe (“five courtyards”) complex offers a Kubrickesque take on a 19th-century shopping arcade, its passageways and interior quadrangles distinguished by hanging plants, warped walls, and a sculptural sphere by the artist Olafur Eliasson. One night, I met Uli Tredup, a Munich-based interior designer, for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant called Brenner. The salsiccia was a bit dry, but the scene said it all, as bijoux-laden ladies and Gucci-swathed men navigated the minefield of high-end shopping bags by their chairs. More telling than the conspicuous consumption was the setting of the restaurant itself, which occupies the vaulted cavern of the city’s royal stables, now encased within a modern complex built behind a Victorian-era façade. It’s an 18th-century relic wrapped in 21st-century glass inside a 19th-century shell—an apt metaphor for the city’s hybridization. The new creative energy is welcomed by Tredup, who has designed smart galleries and shops in Munich—including the Nymphenburg porcelain showroom and the Talbot Runhof boutique—as well as a house for Boris Becker.
Locals describe their home, tongue-in-cheek, as Italy’s northernmost city. The pace is relaxed, and in summer the beer gardens are packed and the sky is pristine—an ideal habitat for the sun worshipers who stake their ground, full monty, in the R-rated section of the sprawling English Garden. “It’s an extremely pleasant city,” says Ingo Maurer, 76, the local designer who’s legendary for his poetic lighting fixtures. “The feeling is gemütlich [cozy],” he says. Originally from the German side of Lake Constance, Maurer, who lives part-time in New York, settled in Munich four decades ago. With its egg yolk–yellow buildings hemming a quiet courtyard, his compound just off Kaiserstrasse could be described as gemütlich as well. This month, Maurer plans to open his first-ever Munich showroom, where visitors will find his classics—say, an explosive chandelier of shattered china—along with exhibitions, lectures, and his latest work.
Munich is also home to designer Konstantin Grcic, renowned for the technological and formal innovations of his space-age products, and furniture maker ClassiCon, which produces several Grcic designs. The haute-modern kitchen manufacturer Bulthaup has its headquarters just outside of town. An emerging generation, including Haas and former Grcic protégés Stefan Diez, Nitzan Cohen, and Clemens Weisshaar, are bringing their energy and talent to the city just as surefire, imported names like David Chipperfield and Andrée Putman have contributed interiors for, respectively, the Rena Lange boutique and the historic center’s Blue Spa and Restaurant, at the Bayerischer Hof hotel.