When you take a stroll through Schottenfeldgasse in Vienna’s 7th District, the signs on the entrances of the buildings give away lots of little secrets. At No. 69, a sign reads: “Etui u. Kassetten Friedrich Fialka Fabrikstrakt” (Cases and boxes Friedrich Fialka Factory Wing).
So, this is the right place. I made an appointment with Mr. Fialka to visit his workshop a few days earlier – I would like to find out how the company that was established in 1923 makes its cases.
I walk through a courtyard and came to the second block, where the workshop is located on the first floor and the boss himself is waiting to welcome me. He is basically the last of his trade in Vienna and an ornamental cabinetmaker and a kind of bookbinder in one, he explains to me.
We are standing in his workshop where the basic frames of all his cases are made and I am told that it requires many hours of manual labor before they can be processed further. This is the room where the material is cut, dovetailed, glued together and prepared by hand with lots of sanding paper, until the surface is perfectly smooth and can be coated.
Of course, there are different qualities and expectations when it comes to the finished product – visible or invisible hinges, leather or linen – plywood or walnut. The possibilities are endless – the customers’ standards are very different – I am told. Hardly anybody can imagine how long it takes to make a case for a medal. A nice box simply does not cut it, no, it requires a bespoke interior, so that the decorations fit snugly into the case and can be presented perfectly.
Exquisite jewelry also requires the right case – Mr. Fialka is currently working on a special object made of walnut, which has been lined with deer skin on the inside and fitted with various compartments for watches and jewelry. The object that is made of special materials has been finished beautifully with clean precision – several open cases are stacked on top of each other – manufactured exactly down to the millimeter, and matched precisely to the safe in which they will soon be kept. This is definitely worth the effort – extraordinary workmanship.
Meanwhile, we have moved to the second room – a pot stands on an electric cooker to warm the animal glue. Natural materials are important to the case maker – he only uses chemicals in exceptional situations. The storage room is full of rolls of colored leather, special book cover paper and, of course, linen, as it is also used by bookbinders.
I watch as two little wooden boxes are joined together. This is done using a mechanical punch press that has been working reliably since the 1950s. A long belt with countless hinges moves piece by piece and with each step on the machine’s pedal one hinge is fixed accurately to the wood. Great. Much nicer than mass production – I think to myself and have Mr. Fialka explain to me how the box will be covered with various materials and decorated according to the customer’s request.
Several cases bearing the crest of the Province of Lower Austria are stacked on the table. Both the provincial government of Lower Austria and that of Vienna want special cases in which they can present decorative medals to special people.
The golden crest of Lower Austria is emblazoned on a blue background. There are more machines in an adjacent room that have been providing their services for many decades and that are used to emboss logos and letters – or crests, in this case – onto the surface. Wow – I am amazed.
Why aren’t there more manufacturers like Fialka, who make cases and boxes, I wonder. “The case and box maker trade had already ceased to exist in the 1990s,” says Mr. Fialka and adds that nowadays, many medals are made more cheaply in the Far East and they come in their own boxes.
“You need to be flexible, today,” he says and this is why he focuses on individual, custom-made articles, for which customers appreciate the workmanship and coin or watch collectors come to him to keep their treasures well stored.
I say goodbye and leave the workshop thinking that the quality of Fialka’s cases is definitely worth a stroll down Schottenfeldgasse.