C. Bühlmayer

Golden times and holy halls –
A visit to C. Bühlmayer, the imperial court gilder

If you are interested in handmade quality in Vienna, the WIEN PRODUCTS city map recommends C. Bühlmayer at Michaelerplatz 6 for gilding.
I am interested in what a gilder can do, so I meet the boss, Elisabeth Haider in the shop, which is located in the passageway from Michaelerplatz to Habsburgergasse.
Hundreds of picture frames greet me in a golden glow, hanging neatly on the walls under vaulted ceilings. A couple from Japan is picking out a frame and admiring the fine workmanship, which is patiently and thoroughly explained by Haider’s son.

I look around–it is an El Dorado and King Midas would have been delirious with excitement if he could see all of this.
The business has an almost 200 year history in gilding–starting in 1820 with C. Bühlmayer, who initially worked exclusively for the imperial family and lived through turbulent times over the decades. Bühlmayer was already highly respected in the 19th century and at times employed up to 70 carvers and gilders in his workshops. At that time, the Viennese middle class was very interested in fine picture frames.

Still today the company makes all styles of frames and upon request will gild furniture, chandelier arms, and entire walls. The best kind of family business–Elisabeth Haider and her partner’s children are fully integrated; each has his or her special focus in the business.
Since I am curious about the workshops, we leave the store and walk the few steps to Habsburgergasse, where the “holy halls” of the woodworking and gilding workshops are located behind the walls of the Salvatorian Monastery.

Picture frames are still custom made in a variety of styles in the woodworkers’ workshop. A frame is meant to enhance the painting and fit the style… They know about art history and can guarantee the best advice for the frames that are made here.
Next door I meet Elisabeth Haider’s daughter-in-law, who practices her craft at a high level as a trained gilder. There are many steps before a frame gives off a golden glow. The first is choosing the gold–here there are different gold leaf colors that range from white gold to red gold, their effect unfolding accordingly.

Before the gold leaf is put on the frame, a great deal of work is necessary. Poliment is applied–a paste that makes the gold adhere perfectly; at Bühlmayer they have a family recipe for it. The color plays an important role as well, I discover–the gold glows in different warm tones depending on the poliment. It is then sanded by hand until the surface is completely even–the prerequisite for a consistent shimmer. As soon as light falls on unevenness, any mistake is immediately visible. Small pieces of sandpaper are stacked on the workbench–it is pleasantly cool in here on this hot summer day, “sanding makes you quickly break a sweat,” the young woman laughs…

She shows me a gorgeous baroque border with red poliment that has already been laid with gold leaf. I wonder how this paper-thin gold leaf is attached to the prominent wood ornament. “We do it with a gilder’s tip made of squirrel hair,” she explains. With time you become practiced and can easily apply the gold leaves cut to fit.
You can forget a fan in the heat–no air can be stirred when the ultra thin beaten gold is applied. Overlapping pieces are removed with a soft brush, and then it’s time to burnish.
Ah ha–and how does that work?
With an agate stone.
When she noticed the question on my face, she showed me the agate stone burnishing tool, which looks almost like a brush and is sanded very smooth.
She demonstrates by working on the gold surfaces on the frame; slowly they start to shine.

Unbelievable–not only does one need extensive knowledge of materials, skilled craftsmanship and gold to gild, but gemstones as well. I am impressed.

Obviously the customers of C. Bühlmayer are too. Elisabeth Haider tells me that regular customers have been coming to them for decades to have the appropriate frames made for their valuable artwork. Galleries and museums also trust the company’s experience and expertise.

In the past, they produced entire furnishings–now the focus is on frames and mirrors, lighting and smaller fixtures. But when a larger order does come in, they are certainly prepared. The family business is well equipped for the future, the next generations will continue running it and preserve the traditional craft. So we know in the future as well–quality is certainly worth the walk to Michaelerplatz 6.