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Issue #6
November - May 2013
My First Dragon
Michal Benzvi-Spiegel & Amnon Zilber / November 08 2012

Leading up to the opening of the "Common Roots" exhibition in mid-November, we hosted young designer Alena Trafimava at the Museum with the support of the Polish Institute. During the exhibition the Education Department will be holding Flying Dragon (Smok Latajacy) workshops, an award-winning product designed by Trafimava. Just before she left to be photographed with her dragon in other countries, we held a short interview with her.

How did you become a designer, and how did you come to be in Poland?

I was born in a small town in Belarus called Rogatchov. I always liked to make things, so from a young age the natural choice was to enroll in an arts academy. When I graduated from high school I discovered the Academy of Arts in Minsk, and was the first from my town to study in an exhibition design and industrial design program. After four years of studying for my degree I thought about how I wanted to continue. One possibility was to study abroad. I shared my thoughts with an acquaintance, Dmitry Sursky, who is the president of the Belarusian Union of Designers, where I volunteered and executed a number of projects, and when the opportunity matured I was chosen to go and study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland. As part of an agreement between the Union of Designers and the university I began third-year studies in the industrial design track without having to pay tuition fees.

What was the move to Krakow like? Can you point to differences between Belarus and Poland?

There is a difference between the two countries - Belarus and Poland - both in culture and in everything associated with design. In Poland the issue of entrepreneurship is much more developed because it's closer (culturally speaking) to Russia, compared with Belarus, where the state doesn't support entrepreneurs. This of course also affects people's way of life. For example, in Poland people can engage in several things at the same time, they can have hobbies, whereas in Belarus life is very monotonous - get up in the morning, go to work, watch the news on TV, go to bed, day in, day out. In terms of university studies as well - in Minsk the curriculum is quite strict and it's difficult, for example, to transfer from one course to another or from one specialization to another. In Krakow students are given the freedom to choose their specializations and the courses that interest them. Another striking difference is that as the economic situation improves in Poland, the sphere of design also develops, in contrast with Belarus, where it's hard to find many people with whom you can strike up a conversation on design. This is because Belarus has been in its current situation since separating from the USSR in 1991. People were used to living in the same situation (under Communist rule) for so long that change is happening very, very slowly. A design week was held there only recently.

My Little Dragon | Design for Kids

The story of the Flying Dragon is very interesting...

Yes, it was an assignment during my third year of studies as part of an Alternative Planning course with designer Professor Mieczyslaw Górowski (1941-2011), who was an award-winning Polish poster designer. Inexpensive toys were very popular at the time, and the aim of the assignment was to draw inspiration from toys on show at the museum in Krakow, and design an alternative toy. Since I'm not local and wasn't familiar with the streets in Krakow, and much to my embarrassment couldn't find the museum... I sat in the library and researched the subject independently.

Was it your choice to use cardboard?

The material was part of the assignment definition: design a cardboard toy. But the idea, the processing of the material, the shape, and the design were all mine. The first prototype was made from very thick corrugated cardboard, and then when I discovered that there are much thinner boards, I started working with them.

Did the design emerge from the material, or did you want to design a dragon from the outset?

My point of departure was movement, which led to the idea of an animal, and finally a dragon. I tested the optimal structure needed to create the toy's movement, and only after I found the solution and made sure it worked, I drew the two-headed dragon on the cardboard. The truth is that in the first stage I created the same structure, but in the form of clapping hands. When I presented it together with the dragon form in a few exhibitions, I discovered that the hands were less successful than the dragon, so I shelved them.

And the routine project from your studies turned into a source of employment and income; how did that happen?

At the end of the course I put the dragon aside for a year, like any project you work on during your studies. During that year I graduated and worked at a job that wasn't really my heart's desire... The whole time I knew I wanted to engage in design, and then an opportunity came my way - an EXPO exhibition on ecology for which the designers were asked to present products that could be prepared on the spot. Of course the Flying Dragon toy met the requirements. It was very exciting because it was the first time I'd designed a product that somebody actually bought! A place of honor is reserved in my picture archive for the picture of the first buyer.

Following my participation in the exhibition I was interviewed for an ecology magazine and the orders started coming in. I discovered that the dragon aroused interest. At that time my employment contract came to an end. Although I started looking for another job, I didn't really devote too much effort to it. Finishing the job actually freed up some time for me to sit and think what and how I should do with the dragon next. And then I received a call from the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, where I'd moved when I graduated from the Academy of Arts, inviting me to hold a workshop. Three hundred people attended the workshop! I was very excited, considering the fact that this was the first time I'd lectured before an audience or held any kind of workshop.

A few months after the workshop, I discovered to my surprise that my Flying Dragon had won first place in the Ethnographic Museum's 2011 Ethno Collection Award.

My Little Dragon | Design for Kids

What motivated you to start industrial production of the dragon?

After I won the award I realized I had to shift to industrial production in order to have a sufficient supply, and so people would know where to buy the dragon. So I approached a factory and paid a lot of money for the die cutting template and to manufacture the parts.

How do participants in your dragon workshops react?

Everybody really enjoys them. The greatest satisfaction was meeting people who had attended a workshop more than a year ago, and told me that even though the dragon had become a bit crumpled with time, their children still play with it!

My Little Dragon | Design for Kids

Considering that nowadays children play mainly with computers and digital products, what's the secret of the dragon's success in your opinion?

I think it stems from the fact that it's a creative activity. You can build, fold, change, draw, and decorate it. The product develops imagination, fantasy - because it's a dragon. And the fact that today most toys are made from colorful plastic in contrast with cardboard, which children aren't familiar with in the world of toys, but yet familiar with as a material in everyday life.

My Little Dragon | Design for Kids

How do you promote sales of the product? Do you do everything yourself? We saw on an internet film that you can get the dragon by mail, in an envelope.

I do everything myself. I don't have the support of a company. Until now I didn't really engage in promoting the product, because everybody approached me... In terms of marketing or sales promotion - there are a few shops in Warsaw that offer the Flying Dragon for sale and it can also be ordered on Facebook or on the dragon's dedicated website. I always have a certain stock of dragons that I keep for a rainy day, in case I have to exhibit the product.

Do you intend to develop the dragon in additional directions?

I was asked if I'd ever design a flying cow too (laughs). I've got a friend who's engaged in a project associated with real cows in Tajikistan and she came up with the idea that I design a flying cow for her to give her clients. I still haven't achieved the optimal shape, because at the moment the proportions of the product are less suited to a cow, which is plump. The design has to remain faithful to the original idea of one strip that folds and to the present structure, especially because of the cost entailed in producing the die cutting template.

What are your plans for the future?

I've got two ideas for the future - one, to introduce colorful dragons to the market, and two, to invent a story, or join forces with an author of a book about dragons and to create a combined package for the book and the Flying Dragon. When the dragon sits on the shelf in the store just like that, people don't go up to it because they don't understand what it does. The combined product will be successful because the book will heighten awareness to the dragon, and the dragon will give added value to the book as well.
Apart from that, I'm not resting on my laurels. I can't be involved in just one thing! In addition to working on the dragon, I hold workshops alternately in Belarus and Poland. I've got more and more ideas all the time, and it's hard to choose what to focus on. And then more and more ideas come up...

We understand your dragon is traveling around the world.

So far the dragon is making a dream of mine come true. Inspired by the movie Amélie - every person's dream is to visit all the corners of the world - my dragon visits different countries around the world, with me or with my friends, and has his picture taken in each place he visits. The pictures can be seen on his Facebook page. The latest photo to be added to the collection is of the dragon at Design Museum Holon.

My Little Dragon | Design for Kids

During the "Common Roots" exhibition Flying Dragon workshops will be held at Design Museum Holon. For further details call the Museum box office: 073-2151500.

The interview with designer Alena Trafimava was held on October 23, 2012.
* All the photographs are provided courtesy of the designer.

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