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Mapping the Narrative of Romanian Design / Mirela Duculescu

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

This study - which constitutes an initial attempt to draft a narrative of Romanian design and to evaluate the contemporary design scene in Romania - examines the emergence, development, and practice of Romanian design from the early twentieth century to the present within a wider social, economic, and political context.

Decorative Arts in Romania (1900-1944) A Precursory Stage in the Assertion of Design as an Autonomous Profession

The earliest discussion of the importance and usefulness of the decorative arts in Romania dates back to the late nineteenth century, and took the form of theoretical and public debates that centered on the relationship between the arts, industrialization, social reform, national statehood, and modernity.

This discussion was also paralleled by concrete developments with a European economical and socio-political context, including the foundation of a series of Romanian arts and crafts schools in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement. The first Romanian school of this kind was founded in Iasi in 1840, and was followed by the foundation of another school in Bucharest in 1857. These professional schools, however, were not considered part of the country's higher education system, and the training they provided centered on the production of furniture items, wooden toys, and so forth. The first attempts to establish a decorative arts school that would be part of the country's higher education system took place circa 1900, when Romania's participation in the Universal Exhibition in Paris increased the local public's interest in the decorative arts, in Art Nouveau principles, and in the relation between art, decoration, and the creation of a national identity. An alternative course of professional training in the field that would later come to be called "design" appeared in the aftermath of the First World War with the foundation of the Decorative Arts Academy (1924-1929), which was established under the supervision of the Latvian designer Andrei Vespremie and was perceived as a symbol of modernity and of European synchronism.

During the interwar period, the most important promoter of the modernism in Romania was the architect and artist Marcel Jancu, who featured his own designs for modernist furniture, as well as theories of international modernism, in the avant-garde publication Contimporanul.
In addition to the modernist spirit advocated by the artistic avant-garde between 1920 and 1940, modernity in Romania during this period included important developments in the field of engineering and various types of related inventions, such as the aerodynamic automobile created in 1923 by the Romanian engineer Aurel Persu (1890-1977).

The two decades after Romania became an independent kingdom in 1918 were characterized by openness to the principles of modernism and a new social order, and were marked by significant official propaganda concerning the nationally specific nature of the Romanian decorative arts, which was especially notable in the context of the universal exhibitions. At the Architecture and Decorative Art Salons (1929, 1930), for instance, Romania exhibited tapestries based on Byzantine iconography, alongside fabrics featuring national symbols.
At the 1939 Universal Exhibition in New York, Romanian architects created pavilions, furniture, and decorative items ornamented with folkloric motifs, such as a wooden chair upholstered in leather or the restaurant and bar chairs designed by Octav Doicescu.

The utilitarian items bought and used by the urban population prior to the communist era were either imported or locally manufactured based on foreign models or on local innovations and patents. Two noteworthy exceptions, in this context, were the first Romanian automobile, which was produced in 1945 at the Resita plant owned by Nicolae Malaxa (based on the design of a team of Romanian engineers coordinated by the engineer Petru Carp), and the automobiles designed by Lucia and Horia Creanga and Bubi Georgescu.

Changing Approaches to Design, 1945-1970

During the era of the Cold War, design was seen as a sign of socialist modernity, which was conceived of as an egalitarian utopia. Yet in contrast, for instance, to the German Democratic
Republic, Romania - one of the socialist states that made great efforts to become industrialized after 1945 - had no modernist design tradition.

One of the main characteristics of the postwar period, which was marked by the nationalization of private property, was the focus on heavy industry as part of the state's Five-Year Plans, as well as the production of consumer goods and household items. Some of these items were original creations, while others were copies or modifications of foreign items or ones produced on the basis of product licenses (such as the Dacia Renault, which was produced based on a license officially bought from France in 1966).

The Birth of Romanian Design, 1970-1990

Like socialist design in general, Romanian design constantly related to its capitalist "competitor," Western design, as a tool for economic development in the context of industrial modernity.

Romania's modern design-education system, which was established in the 1970s, is related to a number of postwar international developments; at the same time, it was created as part of the so-called "thawing" initiated by the Romanian Communist Party between 1964 and 1974. Integrating design into the higher education system alongside the fine arts, architecture, or various applied sciences was a difficult and complex task. The first "department of industrial forms," later renamed "the design department," was opened at the Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest in 1969, and offered three areas of specialization: product design, ambient design, and graphic design; a similar department opened in Cluj in 1973. Design departments also opened in 1969 at the high schools for the arts in Bucharest and Timisoara, adopting the Bauhaus educational curriculum, while a department dedicated to the "study of form" opened at the Ion Mincu Institute of Architecture in Bucharest in 1968-1969.

The "department of industrial forms/design" in Bucharest was established by a group of dedicated practitioners, architects, and artists (especially painters), who honed their skills in this field alongside their students. Among them was the architect Paul Bortnowski (who taught at the school's stage design department), and the painters I. Hainoroc Constantinescu, Vladimir Setran, and Ion Bitzan (who became the school's dean between 1971 and 1997). Students were encouraged to apply their skills and knowledge in the industry and at the institutions that needed designers, in order to demonstrate the necessity of this profession. Following their graduation, however, young designers were forced to accept jobs within the design centers affiliated with state-owned factories or the so-called "creation centers" affiliated with various ministries such as the Brasov Plant for Wood Processing, the Industrial Center for Leather, Rubber, and Shoes, or the Institute of Industrial Creation and Aesthetics of Products at the Ministry of Light Industry.

The political and socioeconomic framework of communist society constituted an all-encompassing grid during the Cold War era. The centralized economic system was based on non-competition, meaning that design was deprived of targeting both producers and users. The voices and demands of users were completely overlooked, and quality objects were exported both to socialist and capitalist countries while the country's citizens were forced to conform to a uniform aesthetic style and lifestyle.

In the 1970s, a new debate developed concerning the use of design in socialist society as a factor contributing to the formation of the "socialist personality." In this context, one may note the subtle tension between architects, who identified themselves with the professional and cultural elite, and artists, who identified with the creative elite whose social role was to serve the masses.

The word "design" (sometimes spelled dizain) entered the daily Romanian vocabulary in 1974, when the National Seminar of Design was organized to bring together, for the first time, designers, architects, engineers, professors and economists in order to draw up a utopian Plan of Development for Romanian design. Up until that moment, the English word had been rejected, and was replaced by various expressions such as "industrial aesthetics" (derived from the French esthיtique industrielle or the Soviet tekhniecheskaya estetika), "industrial art", "industrial forms" or "useful forms." The professional designation for a person practicing design had its own meandering history; a designer was called either an "artist-decorator," an "artist working in industry," an "industrial creator" or a "draftsperson" or "constructor," and the design profession was not included in the official record of professions.

The theoretical vocabulary of design made use of Western notions such as "standard" or the concept of "good form" (from the German die Gute Form, translated into Romanian as forma buna), while using the phrase "socialist design" - a regional concept particular to the Cold War era. Socialist design (which included aspects such as centralized planning) was viewed as superior to capitalist design, and was contrasted with Western consumerism. The key themes of socialist design were durability, economy, and equality in work between men and women.

One definition of the designer described him as "a professional, neither a painter nor an architect, sculptor, engineer, economist, or ergonomist, but a little bit of everything - a creative person similar to a conductor or director, the one that organizes, conducts and models otherwise separate elements." As this definition noted, such a person was "still very rare" in Romania, even though he had an important "place" and "liability in the production process." Some young Romanian designers, such as Alexandru Ghildush and Mihai Panduru, publicly referred to the paradox of the designer's exclusion from the list of officially recognized professions, even though "the higher education system is training designers and the national economy needs them."

In this context, "material goods for consumption" were listed according to their complexity and affiliation with the category of either heavy industry light industry. Since the socialist economic model was focused on heavy industry and productivity, light industry enjoyed less attention. Heavy industry was concerned with the production of industrial equipment, automobiles (such as the famous Lastun, the so-called "car for everyone to have," whose body was designed by Radu Teodorescu), electronics, and so forth. The domain of light industry was dedicated to the production of clothes, shoes, and domestic articles such as refrigerators (the famous Arctic), vacuum cleaners, lamps, telephones, TV sets, domestic furniture, packaging, and so forth.

Besides catering to the needs of the socialist economy, design professionals were constantly preoccupied with people's real needs. The diverse workshop tasks allotted at schools, for instance, were related to actual social needs (modular furniture, lighting fixtures for the kitchen, cutlery, medical instruments and equipments, vehicles), as well as to the industry's needs (such as reorganizing the work space in various factories). Designers (such as Decebal Scriba) were also concerned with urban design and street furniture, yet even in the best case, such projects did not go beyond the sketch or prototype stages.

During this period, design continued to be related to industrialization as a sign of Romania's modernization. As Decebal Scriba, a graduate of one of the first Design graduates in Bucharest (1973) has remarked, "design was compared with a mirage, the miracle recipe of the Romanian industry." The Romanian design world's aspiration to be viewed as an independent field culminated with the establishment of the National Center for Design in 1979, which was supposed to promote Romanian design abroad and to procure orders from the foreign markets.

Romanian design officially attempted to synchronize itself to international developments, while unofficially coming to terms with the fact that design cannot compensate for the technological deficiencies of a socialist economy, which addressed a collective user without attending to his real needs, and without being able to rely on a unified design cycle involving a creator, a producer, and a user. Even under these harsh conditions, however, Romanian designers during the communist period managed to undertake remarkable projects, such as those undertaken by Alexandru Ghildus, Cezar Suteu, Constantin Marinescu, Mihai Maxim, Alexandru Alamoreanu, Emil Ragusila, Dinu Dumbravician, Radu Teodorescu, and others. Other designers emigrated and continued to pursue their professions abroad, including Marcel (Putureanu) Klamer, Ionut Setran (who now works in the Pininfarina Extradesign division), Nicolas Ciuchindel, Decebal Scriba (who immigrated to France after 1990, and now works mainly as a graphic and visual identity designer), Rozalia and Stefan Dunst, Alexandru Manu (who immigrated to Canada in 1978, and who now promotes humanitarian design solutions).

Design in Romania after 1989

Romania's recently created contemporary design scene, which is made up of highly creative professional designers and architects, is a consequence of the country's evolving economic and sociopolitical history. During the 1990s, some of the most experienced designers active during the communist period (such as Alexandru Ghildus, Emil Ragusila, and others) tried to create and produce limited series of functional objects with postmodern accents, in an economic environment characterized by a highly unstable market and an industry that had hardly changed.

Today, contemporary design in Romania draws on a range of influences, including traditional materials, skills and prototypes and modern technology and production processes. Noteworthy in this context is the fluid boundary between architects and designers, especially in the fields of furniture and product design. Architects (such as Radu Teaca) have been especially prolific in the fields while other designers (such as Marius Marcu Lapadat and Razvan Luscov (have excelled in the fields of graphic design and poster and book design. Over the past decade, Romanian design schools have produced a new generation of design graduates (such as Radu Zaharescu, Arnold Esteban, and others) who have become highly successful in the fields of graphic design and advertising, typography and stenciling (such as Radu Manelici and Alexe Popescu, both students of Dinu Dumbravician). The designer Alexe Popescu recently proposed prototypes for several ingenious furniture items) such as coffee table and chairs). Others (such as Stefan Barutcieff, Emilian Dan Cartis) have preferred to develop a successful career abroad.

Considering the recent colonization of the Romanian industry by multinational producers, and the relatively poor state of the national economy, Romanian design has recently undergone some remarkable developments that are manifested through a return to traditional crafts and materials, reconceptualized and reinterpreted in experimental ways so that they may be integrated into contemporary households. One such example is the 2008 tripod chair created by the architects Serban Sturdza, Iulian Ungureanu, and Amur Busuioc, which was inspired by a traditional tripod chair from North Oltenia.

Such creative reinterpretations of vernacular design, together with the use of local materials, represent an attempt to revitalize the field of Romanian object design. Yet the lack of a local industry and qualified workers, as well as the lack of interest regarding original Romanian projects and the competition with foreign designers and producers, make the attempt to revitalize the field of Romanian design into a seriously challenging task.

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