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Exhibitions > Past

Industrial Design in Slovenia / Špela Šubic

Up until the Second World War, manual crafts and industrial production in Slovenia centered on the creation of textiles and wood, glass, and ceramic objects. As was the case throughout Europe from the late 18th to the mid-20th century, industrialization led to the manufacture of functional, everyday products at affordable prices, whose appearance continued to be modeled upon that of hand-crafted artifacts.

The rise of a new political system modeled upon Soviet socialism in 1945 resulted in a total shift to industrial production. Most pre-war designers or "applied artists" (as they were called at the time) lost their bourgeois clientele and stopped working in their areas of specialty. In the late 1940s, socialist Yugoslavia turned away from the Soviet Union towards the West. Local factories began catering to the Western market, placing a new emphasis on design and on the mass production of affordable and useful items.

The early 1950s were an important turning point for designers in Yugoslavia, and more specifically in Slovenia. Some pre-war factories were restored and nationalized; with the exception of factories that underwent a process of total restructuring, the skills and expertise of their master workers were preserved. One such example is the Stol factory, which had specialized in the production of bent wood furniture since the early 20th century. During this period, Stol hired Niko Kralj, who established the first design and development department in a state factory, and later defined himself as the country's first professional industrial designer. This department shifted production at the factory from copying and moderating already existing models to the development and manufacturing of original designs. Kralj was a recently graduated young architect familiar with the history of furniture, as well as a skilled cabinet maker who had trained in his father's workshop. This background, combined with his curiosity about world trends in furniture design, led to a highly successful collaboration with Stol.

Another specialized design department was established around the same time at the Iskra factory. This electronics manufacturer, which was created by merging a few smaller factories, specialized in producing electric meters, clocks, telephones, film projectors, and various home appliances. For several decades, it was one of the few companies that understood the importance of developing new products through joint collaborations with scientists, technology experts, and designers. The credit for this innovative approach goes above all to the head of the factory's design department, Davorin Savnik, who is best known for creating the most widely copied Slovenian product - the ETA 80 telephone. Savnik's approach to design as an integral aspect of the manufacturing process, rather than as an external form of packaging created once the product is developed, was central to the factory's international success. In addition, Iskra also offered an opportunity for professional practice and development to many graphic and industrial designers, including Zmaga Gale, Ljuban Kloj?nik, Marijan Gnamuš, Albert Kastelec and many others. During this period, however, most Iskra designers remained anonymous even when their designs were highly successful.

Only a small number of designers in communist Yugoslavia worked as freelancers or owned their own companies. One of them was a designer of microphones and other electronic devices named Marko Turk, who worked on his own creating high-quality products in his small workshop. Amazingly, this one-person operation was as competitive on the international market as Iskra, which had several thousand employees. Turk's products were both exceptionally precise and visually stunning, and their owners still refuse to give them away despite the advent of newer, more technologically sophisticated products.

In addition to Skol and Iskra, Slovenia's two pioneering factories, a major factor that contributed to the transformation of the design world was the appearance of plastic, which became a major presence in homes and in the public sphere during the second half of the 20th century. Whereas its uses for the production of home appliances and toys were obvious, Saša Mächtig's use of this material to create a brightly colored kiosk resulted in a striking presence on the gray streets of socialist cities. Mächtig later used plastic to create phone booths, trash bins, and other items, yet Kiosk K67 remains the most iconic form of street furniture associated with Yugoslavia in the 1970s. Although the kiosk is no longer produced, it is still in use today. Plastic also fascinated Oskar Kogoj, who similarly used it to create furniture on a slightly smaller scale. The Gondola plastic lounge chair - which was influenced by contemporary design trends in Italy - was likely the first plastic furniture item introduced into Slovenian homes in place of wooden furniture.

Despite its restrictive aspects, the political climate that ruled the country from the 1950s to the 1990s offered designers a secure work environment. Today, working in a factory design department remains the unrealized dream of many designers. Over the past twenty years, the field of industrial design, which is inextricably linked to the economy and to industrial manufacturing, has undergone an intense testing period. The products designed during these two decades are more than just efficient, functional objects: they are also the result of political and economic changes, as well as of the ability of designers and manufacturers to adapt to these changes.

Slovenia's independence led to a transformation of the country's social and economic systems, and required rapid adjustments to new conditions. The field of industrial design had to react, in a very short time period, to the loss of the Yugoslav market and to the collapse of major manufacturing companies. Development departments, which usually employed designers and were an integral part of these companies up until the late 1980s, were among the first casualties of their restructuring and reorganization in the early 1990s.

One of the most distinct processes that took place during this time - in both the manufacturing and the creative and development sectors - was the emergence of new, smaller companies. Slovenia already had a well-developed tradition of industrial design, design criticism, and professional promotion, and this tradition encouraged the development and operation of new and independent design studios following the Slovenian declaration of independence in 1991.

In the early 1990s, many older, established designers actively defended their status as the country's design authorities - either in their own design work or in their role as professors at the fledgling design department of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design (known by its Slovene acronym ALUO) at the University of Ljubljana, and their influence was crucial in the development of a younger generation of designers.

The social and economic changes taking place in Slovenia during this period thus coincided with the inception of the professional careers of the first generation of graduates from the ALUO design department, which was founded in 1984. These young designers, who were not entrenched in the old system, were able to respond more quickly to the new work environment, and soon garnered success as independent entrepreneurs or designers working together in small companies or associations. Among the first studios of this sort were Asobi and Gigodesign, which were soon joined by many others. Their distinctive presence in the marketplace, their investment in their own promotion, and their regular collaboration with major manufacturers resulted in high-quality products that have won numerous foreign and domestic design awards in recent years.

At present, only a very small number of companies still have in-house design departments, and only a few of the country's large manufacturers - such as Gorenje - have managed to survive through a process of reorganization. Several other companies have been able to sustain their manufacturing divisions and brands, yet have closed down their development or design departments and now work instead with emerging design studios. Elan and Alpina are among the companies that have preserved and re-established familiar brands while entering into long-term collaborations with young design firms - the former with Gigodesign, the latter with the Jure Miklavc Studio.

A number of ambitious young companies, such as the lighting producer Intra Lighting, have recognized that remaining competitive in the marketplace requires cutting-edge design, and have started collaborating with a range of young designers. The Gwig lighting fixture is one of the many successful products created in collaboration with the Asobi studio. The Arcadia Company has had a similar success story with a group of lamps designed by the architectural duo Bevk Perovic.

Despite the decline of the Slovenian timber industry, the traditional use of local materials continues to yield excellent results in the area of furniture manufacturing and craftsmanship. Wooden coat racks, shelves, and chairs are traditionally "warm" yet contemporary furniture elements whose manufacture persisted during the first twenty years of Slovenian independence. The designers of these wooden objects, who are members of different generations, each return in an original way to this perennially fashionable natural material, which is so characteristic of Slovenia.

Slovenia's long tradition of producing high quality blown and mechanically produced glass has similarly been preserved. Although the bulk of production is now intended for international consumption and is marketed under foreign brand names, the country's two remaining big glass factories, Hrastnik and Rogaška, have managed to sustain ongoing collaborations with designers, and have won both critical and commercial recognition abroad.

Indeed, the past two decades have also been a time of intense globalization, so that designers such as Lara Bohinc, Dan Lenard, Robert Lešnik, Nika Zupanc, and several others are no longer thought of as exceptional Slovenian designers, but rather as successful transnational professionals. The Lolita lamp by Nika Zupanc, for example, emblematizes this designer's principled adherence to her own design concept, which has won her an international reputation thanks to her collaboration with a global company. By the same token, in the absence of an international market it would be impossible to imagine companies such as Akrapovic, Gorenje, Kuzma, Pipistrel, and Seaway, which understand that their development plans, would have no future without design. Igor Rosa's aspirators were created at the initiative of, and in collaboration with, a foreign company. The Krpan post-office bicycle - the official bicycle used by Slovenian postmen - has proven to be an international success story, and is now used by the national post offices of five other European countries.

The abundance of more or less useful objects created by post-war industrialization has raised numerous questions concerning mass production. Whereas the creation of handcrafted objects was neglected and relegated to the sphere of intimate domestic use from the 1950s to 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century has been marked by a true revival of manually crafted items. The growing popularity of cultivating one's own vegetables and knitting one's own sweaters is matched by an increasing preference for creatively designed products made in small workshops over industrially manufactured objects. In this sense, the diversion of attention from industrial design to manually crafted objects amounts to coming back full circle to the world of pre-industrial design

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