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Exhibitions > Preface

Central European Design: A Shared Legacy / Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka

From the catalog of the exhibition "Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe"

The Slovakian designer Tomas Kral, who was educated at the prestigious Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne (ECAL) in Switzerland, and the Polish designer Karina Marusiסska, who studied at different schools in her hometown of Wroclaw, independently took on similar design projects at almost the same moment in the second half of the ought's they both decided to work with jars - those common, virtually invisible, utilitarian containers - and to transform them into decorative items. In both cases, landscapes contaminated by industry have born unexpected fruits in the form of useful objects - vases that resemble industrial chimneys or hangers reminiscent of high-voltage electric wires. The Latvian studio Rijada and the Polish studio Aze have also built on surprisingly similar sources of inspiration more than once. The folk craft of weaving inspired the designers at both studios to create unmistakably contemporary wicker and straw lamps that build on traditional weaving techniques, and thus support local artisans and create jobs for those who still practice this dying craft. Folk embroidery, another traditional craft, has also served as a source of inspiration for Polish and Latvian designers as well as for Estonians and Slovenes, Slovaks and Hungarians. And there are many more examples.

These and other fascinating similarities have led to the creation of this exhibition, which is devoted to Central European design. At the heart of this project is the belief that it is pointless to think of contemporary design within the framework of national categories. In today's world, the identity of designers is much more complicated and complex than the one described by their country of origin. Should Tomas Kral, for instance, be thought of as Slovak or Swiss? And how would we define a design project created by Kral for a Korean company? In a world shaped by globalization, trans-emigration, and the "cultural supermarket," we are clearly in need of new definitions of identity.

At the same time, despite their differences, Central European countries belong to a clearly defined region shaped by shared historical and cultural experiences. From this perspective, the term "Central European design" may be used independently of political, national, or other divisions. Yet what exactly are the borders of this design world, and what criteria may be used to define it?

From a broad geographical and historical point of view, Central Europe lies in the area between Germany and Russia, which greatly influenced this region in a range of both positive and adverse manners. According to some definitions, Germany, Austria, Belarus, and the Ukraine should also be included in this category. Central Europe's southern and northern borders, however, are indisputable: the Baltic Sea in the north, and the Adriatic in the south. Following the division of Europe into Eastern and Western blocks in the aftermath of the Second World War, Central Europe essentially ceased to exist as an entity in its own right. Western Germany and Austria became part of the Western Block, while the countries to the east became part of the Communist block behind the iron curtain.

Forty-four years later, following the dissolution of the Soviet block, Central Europe was reborn once again. Having studied numerous definitions of this entity, the one that seems most convincing to me is the one that encompasses all the countries that underwent similar political and cultural changes at the same historical turning points: annexation to the Eastern Block in 1945, separation from the USSR in 1989, and membership in the European Union beginning in 2004 or 2007. This most recent development has significantly altered the relations between these countries and the rest of the world, while transforming them from closed, backward, poor countries into open, dynamically developing countries that are worth paying attention to.

Among the ten countries in this group, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary has traditionally been defined as Central European. Yet the new, broader definition of Central Europe extends further north than it previously did to include the Baltic States - Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - while also reaching further south to embrace Romania and Bulgaria. This definition also clearly excludes the Ukraine and Belarus, which - despite having more or less freed themselves from Soviet influences - are struggling with serious economic issues that have effectively put a brake on the development of local design.

The art historian Piotr Piotrowski, who specializes in 20th-century Central and Eastern European art, has suggested (in an interview published in the quarterly magazine Herito) to replace "Central Europe" with "postcommunist Europe" - a term that is at once more political and more neutral. Yet while this latter term describes a historical experience common to all the countries in question, it is important to remember that there was no one type of communism, and that the degree of political pressure and level of indoctrination exerted by this regime varied from one country to another.

The exhibition Common Roots - Design Map of Central Europe is composed of two parts: the first centers on the period following the Second World War, from 1945 to 1989, and focuses on the "landscape" that shaped the work of modern designers in these countries. The design conceptions developed during this period represented an idealized world that had little to do with the appearance of actual houses and apartments, while the objects produced were unavailable to most people. Yet the most important point in this context is that the aesthetic awareness of Eastern European designers under communism did not significantly differ from that of their Western peers. The most notable difference between Eastern and Western European designers was the dearth of opportunities available to designers in the Communist block, so that the objects they designed often remained mere prototypes or samples produced in small series. Nationalized industries were not concerned with quality or faithfulness to design concepts; the fact that the objects designed during this period have survived, and that the identity of their designers is known to us today, is due to the great service rendered by a small number of individuals with sufficient awareness of the value of protecting this cultural heritage.

The colorful and attractive array of objects featured in this exhibition is thus in some sense deceiving, while the accompanying photographs reveal the pervasive grayness, mediocrity, and poverty that were the lot of the majority. Although beautiful furniture was made during this period, the average citizen did not spend time deliberating about what kind of sofa to purchase, but rather focused on how to lay his hands on any sofa whatsoever. This reality of material scarcity was shared by people in most of the countries in question. It was also the formative experience of many of the designers whose works are presented in the second part of the exhibition, which is concerned with the post-soviet period, from 1989 to the present. The early experiences of the youngest among these designers were shaped, among other things, by the rise of new and spontaneous capitalist economies.

The experiences of both the communist and the post-communist period have forced people to adapt themselves to various situations involving a scarcity of material means. This condition has shaped an ability to think practically - an essentially positive trait which, in the context of a demoralizing political system, often led to living on the edge of the law. Practical thinking results in the repeated reuse of the same items before they are discarded, and in an infinite number of repairs that alter the function of things, at times transporting them from the realm of the sacred into that of the profane (or, at the very least, of the useful). In the contemporary design world, such behavior is labeled "sustainable thinking," and is praised as being "ecologically responsible." During the period in question, however, the incentives shaping this type of behavior were altogether different.

Such tactics, which often exceeded the limits of the law, involved the substitution of one material for another, often at the expense of quality. For example, tools that should have steel parts were made with aluminum parts, and thus quickly fell apart, only to be replaced by other parts obtained from various sources. Such behavior may be viewed as the positive legacy of those unfortunate times, which led to a highly creative approach and an ability to improvise, respond to change, and find alternatives to conventional material and technological solutions. It involved seeing the potential inherent to junk and to seemingly useless items such as packaging, single socks, and torn sweaters, and the assurance that any problem could be solved one way or another - if not with a stretch of string then with a paper clip, a stick, or something borrowed from something else.

One result of this ability to make do can be seen, for instance, in the Fidu technology created by the Polish designer Oskar Ziךta, who envisioned a process of shaping metal with high-pressure water - a technology used in the automotive and aviation industries. When this technology failed to produce the required results, Ziךta began experimenting with compressed air and in effect became a designer-inventor - a rare creature in the contemporary design world.

Central Europeans have not yet completely forgotten these acquired abilities: Carpentry, joinery, and woodworking more generally, as well as embroidery and plaiting, sewing and weaving, are all skills that members of the new generation can still learn from their parents, while slightly older designers most likely still acquired these skills at school. And contrary to the mandatory study of Russian that was imposed throughout the region, these skills and habits have remained deeply rooted in people's lives. Contemporary designers are thus capable of creating prototypes and testing materials in their own workshops, of using traditional methods to experiment with non-traditional materials, and of rethinking design conventions such as the number of legs required to sustain a table or the minimum weight or price of a chair. After decades defined by mediocre quality and the use of substitute materials, the beauty and nobility of traditional materials seems to take on a new meaning, while re-defining traditional, conventional objects.

It used to be said that a visitor from the Communist block could be recognized by his shoes, his clothing, and his haircut. Indeed, even if the iron curtain was never truly impermeable, the only things those residing beyond it could afford were often poor imitations or fakes, which abounded in the absence of concepts such as copyright or intellectual property. Western style was equated with elegance. At present, however, the aesthetic divide between East and West lies elsewhere, and the concept of elegance is itself being rethought. Central European or post-communist designers are returning to tradition - to natural resources and to local, pre-war culture. This trend is especially notable in different regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the new search for elegance has led designers to return to the use of glass and porcelain, despite the crises suffered by these two industries. Yet the use of traditional forms is often accompanied, in this context, by a questioning of the meaning of different objects that were once a symbol of bourgeois elegance, and which have often survived from the pre-war period in petrified form. Heavy ceramic crowns, felt, porcelain filigree, crystal, or the rehabilitated jars mentioned above may all be read as an attempt to delineate new borders between elegant, unique objects and commonplace, mass-produced ones, between the modern and the newly democratic -- although, at the same time, it should be noted that these definitions do not necessary preclude one another.

This quest is shaped by humor and by a biting, sometimes slightly pathetic irony, which also seems to be a characteristic of this particular region. Commentary on social and political concerns, the manipulation of national, religious, and military symbols, and the irreverent recasting of various objects all amount to the testing of existing conceptual and traditional limits, as well as the limits of design itself.

Visitors to this exhibition may wonder about the small number of industrial design products. The answer, in this case, is simple: When we are interested in probing the question of identity, we must go to the source in order to trace the birth of new ideas. Industrial processes almost inevitably detract from the individualism of the designer, whose unique approach often becomes difficult to discern. An industrial product is the result of a group effort, and is subjected to objectification through the manufacturing process, the choice of materials, and the attempt to minimize production costs. These considerations may enhance the object's functionality, charm, and market value, yet they render the original underlying concept virtually indecipherable. Moreover, despite the prevalence of industrial designers and industrial design processes, analog thinking and traditional production methods are still a characteristic feature of design processes in this part of the world, and manufacturers will still look at prototypes, small series, and individual samples when selecting a designer to create hyper-industrial products.

The story of design in post-communist Central Europe will certainly not be exhausted by this exhibition. This account could undoubtedly have been told differently, or exchanged for an entirely different historical narrative. The characteristics examined in this context clearly cannot be exclusively related to Central European design. Similar ideas are explored, for different reasons, by designers from other parts of the world, in the context of their own experiences and attempts to define their identity. It may be said, for example, that Central European designers excel at carrying out the principles of 3 x R (reduction, recovery, recycling). Yet this trend was not born out of an unusually deep sense of social responsibility, but rather as a result of the exigencies imparted by the postwar history which I described in detail above.

As this exhibition reveals, it is impossible to neatly divide the featured designers into ten groups representative of their respective countries. Contemporary design, like contemporary art, is not centered on questions of national identity - although it can, to a certain degree, be defined by such questions. Rather, the outlook of each individual designer is shaped by the sum of his experiences, as well as of his cultural, national, and professional identities. Saying that someone is a Romanian or Estonian designer conveys little or no information about how he designs. In order to gain some understanding of his identity as a designer, we would be better off asking where he grew up, where he studied, where he has traveled, and so forth.

If one were to attempt to map out the various types of affinities explored in the context of this exhibition, it would become clear that the designers in question have drawn a new map of a region that may more aptly be defined as "post-communist" than as "Central European." The experiences of 44 years of communism, followed by 20 years of political, cultural, and economic transformation, are the legacy shared by these designers - a legacy that enables them to perfectly understand one another in spite of their linguistic and geographical differences. In some cases, this shared legacy is alluded to by means of a rather abstract and conceptual humor, which might not always be totally understandable to the outside world. In the process of working on bringing this exhibition to Israel, I have come under the impression that we might perhaps be better understood here than elsewhere; that, however, is a topic for an entirely different exhibition...

English translation: Taida Meredith, Robert Meredith

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