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Tiny New Nordic Country: Post-Independence Design in Estonia / Karin Paulus

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

The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, which began following Mikhail Gorbachov's election as head of state in 1988 and ended with its dissolution in 1991, awakened a range of civic movements and acts across the USSR. In 1989, the Baltic States symbolically declared their unity by means of a human chain that stretched over more than 600 kilometers to commemorate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In Estonia, reactions ranged from an environmental struggle for the protection of natural resources (the Phosphorite War) to the awakening of a national heritage movement, the creation of Rahvarinne (the
Popular Front), and the spontaneous eruption of huge song festivals devoted to national songs. Even the leading knitted goods company Marat, which produced both underwear and fashionable sports clothes, printed t-shirts emblazoned with the words Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness).

The declaration of Estonian independence in 1991 led to a range of new developments in the local design world: manufacturers that had been a source of local pride during the Soviet period continued to garner success. Among these companies was Standard, which offered office furniture and more fashionable home-office furniture (such as the 2002 workstation@home designed by Katrin Soans). Two additional companies that are worth mentioning in this context are TallinnVeneer and Furniture Factory (the former Luther factory), which produced several innovative plywood items designed by
Maile Grunberg. The Visu skis produced by the Viisnurk factory are proudly worn by Estonian skiers. The Mang family business, which was established in 1990, began producing furniture that continues to be associated with fine taste and success, and which is compatible with minimalist, neo-functionalist architecture. Mang's  designs hark back to the pre-Soviet period of Estonian  independence in the 1920s and 1930s, and the elegant armchairs and sofas designed by Tiina Mang (such as the 1997 Pear and Snob models) are at home in glamorous villas and Nordic interiors.

Newcomers such as Balteco (established in 1990), whose head designer is Aivar Habakukk, and
Aquator (established in 1996), whose designers are Sven Sץrmus and Villi Pogga, have both come to prominence thanks to their outstanding bathtubs. Balteco is one of the leaders in hydromassage bath development and manufacturing in Northern Europe, while Aquator's achievements were recognized by the jury of the 2007 Design Management Europe Award. The growing popularity of several Estonian spa towns, such as Parnu, Haapsalu, and Narva-Joesuu has put further emphasis on the design of water-related products - although designer jacuzzis are currently associated less with a healthy lifestyle and with hydromassage and more with gossip magazine pictures of naked women and alpha males drinking champagne in the water.

Indeed, following the end of the Singing Revolution, with its displays of solidarity and non-violent protest, it has become increasingly obvious that the long-yearned freedom associated with the capitalist model has also led to growing inequality. At the same time, the past two decades have been marked by increasing displays of individuality and a new courage to take risks. Some Estonian
designers have garnered international success, winning prestigious design awards. Three recent recipients of Red Dot awards are Martin Parn, who received the Best of the Best award for Martin, a practical folding table created in 1997; Julia Maria Kunnap, who was awarded a prize for Mari, a
leather-upholstered highchair with tubular steel legs designed in 2009 which - in contrast to most children's furniture - is at home with modern architecture; and Kaidi Ploomipuu, who won a prize for the innovative rag carpet Bog 4053 (Narma 2011 collection), which was woven with the help of a computer.

Parn, for one, is a key figure in the world of contemporary Estonian design; he currently works at the Iseasi design studio, and teaches design at several colleges and universities. He has designed both medical equipment and furniture, including outdoor furniture for Finland's capital Helsinki and high-tech furnishings for the Plenary Chamber of the Estonian Government, which has successfully
marketed Estonia as an "e-state." In his own words, his objectives include "stunning clarity" and "amazingly self-evident" design, rather than a focus on "problems such as style or market demand."

Although Estonian designers have been collaborating with several international companies (one
example is Bjorn Koop's collaboration with Kia), most of them have yet to become internationally
known. Among these designers is Tarmo Luisk, who creates witty and artistic lights and clocks and whose colorful personality and raciness have cast him as the enfant terrible of Estonian design. His neo-pop wall light Bubble (2007), for instance, depicts a baby blowing a bubble of gum that is actually a light bulb, while his morbid Tik Tak clock resembles a 19th-century Gothic cross with a scythe for a hand.

Margus Triibmann, Tarmo Luisk, Ville Jehe, and Pavel Sidorenko at the design studio Keha3 have enriched the local landscape with urban furniture: a chair that can be positioned in numerous
ways, bicycle racks, rubbish bins, and lights such as Buoy and Sea Buoy - plastic spheres inspired
by buoys that can be used indoors, on terraces, or even floating on water.

Jaanus Orgusaar, who first attracted public attention as a fashion designer who created amazing mannerist shoes, has become known for his signature laser-cut plywood furniture, which is inspired by sacred geometry and bionics.

Under the management of Mare Kelpman, a professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts, textile designers have begun using increasingly advanced technologies and inventing experimental "smart" objects. The dots on Kelpman's beach towel are transformed into a floral pattern in sunlight, while her laser-cut window treatments, room dividers, and 3D woven fabrics have all received much attention.
Kart Ojavee's pillows play music and glow, and may evolve further so that in the future we can use them as phones. Ojavee is trying to reduce the general public's fear of rapidly changing technologies by replacing sophisticated hightech design with a "slow life" aesthetic that has a non-threatening appeal. Monika Jarg, meanwhile, has developed a novel approach to integrating old and new design techniques, as well as wood and textile: She "embroiders" wool rope through wooden floor or wall planks to create sparse "carpets" with floral folk-art patterns. Another experimental designer is
Tonis Liivamagi, whose cone-like LCD Viewfinder (2008) has proved to be extremely popular among professional and amateur photographers alike. This device can be attached with magnets to a SLR camera, and assists photographers in finding a better angle and shooting more steadily under difficult conditions. As the success of this device reveals, consumer demand leads to the creation of increasingly specific lifestyle goods.

Last but not least, the most notable example of innovative technology applications designed in
Estonia is the Skype development team in Tallinn. In our highly individualized global society, people
are accustomed to perceive the world as a container full of disposable objects, and view every
item and even human beings as replaceable. Useful design produces obviously help to resolve our problems, yet we rarely notice how these things design us, and participate in the construction of our identity, self-image, and memory. A comfortable chair can improve our mood and change our train of thought, a smartphone may transform us into addicts, a car that has broken down can immobilize us. In the words of the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, "The thing is the provocation of the nonliving, the half-living, or that which has no life, to the living, to the potential of and for life."

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