Designers’ Readiness to Take Responsibility for Their Products’ Lifespan

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Thursday June 28th marked the opening of the group and sales exhibition of the first Croatian design brand and sales exhibition “Sense & Sensibility” under the auspices of the international online magazine for design innovation DesignAgenda, Tatjana Bartaković is both the editor and exhibition curator. Both the occasion and the significance of the exhibition mark the emergence of the first ever Croatian design brands and the surfacing of a culture of design, a culture that west European countries have been acquainted with for over 60 years. After exhibiting at the Belgrade Design Week, the exhibition will, following Zagreb (June 6-July 8), move on to the Loggia Gallery on Hvar.

The exhibition set-up is designed by Svjetlana Despot, a Rijeka-based designer from Data by Despot, while the exhibition’s message resounds loud and clear: the exhibition doesn’t show prototypes, but finalized products, developed and sensitized for users and the market. We talked to curator and project organizer Tatjana Bartaković on the occasion of tomorrow’s opening:

You present Croatian design as a business model at the CSS exhibition. Can you detect its weak points in its (past) positioning towards both the Croatian and foreign market, supposing the business plan was established now?

The established business plan refers to the Common Sense&Sensibility exhibition which gathers independently developed projects into several aspects: finalized product development for the market, a sensitized product for users and a ready-made model, at least the initial product distribution in Croatia. At the same time, these prerequisites and former weaknesses conditioned by the unproductive Croatian context, low or almost non-existent investments in research and product development. This unproductive context and natural demand for innovative product ideas by businesses seriously impacts technology and the process of material treatment by Croatian product designers as it’s the main cause for the lack of experience in such matters. This practical non-experience in product development and lack of contact with the market is reflected in the dysfunction of the product, for example in using unsuitable material for transporting the product or too-high costs of manufacturing which increases the final cost of a new product of a beginner’s brand, while the connection still isn’t established within the adequate market niche.

All of the above has left the former movements of Croatian product design devoid of common sense, and nearing abstraction. If you take a look at the product design category at all former Croatian Design Exhibitions from 1999 onwards, until Kvadra emerged last year, the only example of industrial design (and a market immanent product) was the motocultivator and Labinprogres tractor  (design: T. Jelić and T. Kraljević). The development of the Revolve sofa and the 3angle system is precious to its designers as it happened in a real business situation – at a plant, with interaction of technology and Kvadra’s development team. Take note, this is a phenomenon in contemporary Croatia, and for the sake of motivating others, organized visits should be scheduled to Kvadra’s department of research and development, the same way Museum Night is organized and visited. As this approach and interaction of professions is the only thing that provides a competitive approach to the market, and that’s exactly the thing that holds our future on a thread in Croatia.

On the one hand, rare are the designers, such as Numen, that dared try their hand in international brands or presentations at important fairs. Internationalization is the only way for affirmation, not just for the designer, but the production companies as well, as the Croatian market, unfortunately has low buying power. However, on the other hand, designers abroad are in the same boat, faced with killer competition. Up until now Croatian designers failed to continuously present themselves at fairs and festivals in design-friendly environments, where demand for design is high. Ana Tevšić showed that breakthroughs happen if you appear, for instance, at the Clerkenwill Design Week, accept professional reviews from the environment that knows how to valorize design, and it motivates you to launch your own manufacture, a completely run-of-the-mill approach to functioning, especially in the era of online retail.

You’ve decided on an exhibition format that will be a retail-based sales exhibition, along with a selection of 14 exhibitors/presenters whom you’re collaborating with. Why did they make the cut, did they have an a priori clear business plan or was it formulated during the duration of the CSS project?

I earlier pointed out the key prerequisites in terms of the exhibitors’ selection, what ties in with the usual criteria of good design I stand for. However, as I’ve been participating in projects aimed at facilitating development of Croatian design for years on end, and have been promoting it since 2003, I’ve witnessed the developmental path of all its exhibitors. Also, this past year a certain level of maturity became visible within designers themselves – product finalization, launching their own production or in collaboration with a manufacturer. What transpired is the designers’ readiness to take responsibility for their products’ lifespan, they’re ready to invest in their production. However, what actually gave rise to a broader social significance of product design in Croatia is the emergence of Kvadra – a company that seeks out designers for collaboration and to whom design is a market direction. This example provides design throughout the whole country with credibility, and that’s the only way for design to actually exist, precisely through companies that use it.

We have the same example at the Maistra and the Design Hotel Lone, and the Design Hostel Golly&Bossy – which all show that acceptance and realization of the authentic project depends on the management system and trust in the architects, designers and other collaborators.

You decided to set the exhibition on three fairly different locations: Belgrade Design Week, the Forum Gallery in Zagreb and the Loggia Gallery in Hvar. Three completely different contexts. What were the deciding factors when opting for these three venues, what are your experiences from Belgrade, and what do you expect from Zagreb, and an elite tourist destination such as Hvar?

First of all, the project was realized with very modest funding, eons removed from the required budget. Within this framework I created the best tactic towards existing capacities. The goal is internationalization of Croatian design products, support for gaining credibility on the international scene and facilitating sales. We have Belgrade Design Week happening in Belgrade, visited by key foreign media for design and architecture – the same media outlets that are near impossible to get to in Milan and Koln, especially if you’re a beginner. It seemed logical to present this content in a more laid-back atmosphere where they have the time to notice you, and preferably remember you. We were surprised by the large amount support we received from the Serbian media and Belgrade inhabitants who looked at and tried out all the products with much enthusiasm. This is the start of an international design diplomacy that isn’t reduced to just exhibiting, but encourages and promotes personal communication and presentation of certain brands. Communication is the most important part of the Sense&Sensibility project.

That’s precisely the reason we organized the first Design Business Forum jointly with the University of Applied Sciences VERN and the Croatian Chamber of Architects, in order to initiate a dialogue and broader cultural specter between the new generation of entrepreneurs, architects, designers and other professionals.

Exhibiting at the Forum Gallery has a certain symbolism to it – the first Exhibition of Croatian Design was held there in 1999, an initiative by the then-president of the Croatian Designers Association, Mladen Orešić. The Sense&Sensibility exhibition is actually a commentary and statement regarding the shift that’s finally come about in the meantime – we are starting to note a budding culture of design beginning to develop in Croatia.

Hvar is a sort of culmination of the project’s first phase, as it intentionally leads us towards interaction, and we hope towards product sales to Hvar tourists who come precisely from countries with a tradition of design culture. The exhibition in Hvar is also a sort of research of various target audience’s interests, as well as raising awareness of Croatian design, and at a highly isolated place where people stay anywhere from 7 days to a few weeks. We can say that we’re ready to establish temporary cohabitation with young Croatian design brands in Hvar. The idea is that the exhibition continues its guest appearances in European cities, however, that’s a completely new phase of the project that requires serious funding and engagement of state institutions.

Can we talk about Croatian design as an ambassador of Croatian identity – if so, can you state some of its main points? On the other hand, Droog’s founder Renny Ramakers, for example, refuses to accept that design can embody the identity of a nation. What’s your take on that?

I’ll follow up on my last answer – design in general, and especially product design (as well as architecture) is an ambassador of national cultural production, a reflection of its competitiveness, knowledge-based society, and cultural heritage in all its many shapes and forms. Design is a narrative in and of itself, and if authentic elements from its living environment aren’t used in shaping products, all I can say is that the advantage obtained through originality is lost. And for example the Hotel Lone and Golly&Bossy Hostel are each in their own way a reflection of quality designed storytelling.

And last but not least, did the ReAktor fulfill all expectations, can you remember the beginnings of its activities and compare and contrast the collaboration with institutional channels then and now, at the height of the recession? What’s your take on this, as you’re one of the initiators of the ReAktor platform, which deserves high praise for its role in facilitating a vehement “breakthrough” of Croatian design both in the media and in public awareness (we hope).

The Reaktor has, as it’s been envisioned, provided key encouragement to product designers to lean on themselves and on available resources. It realized its initial goal as far as that’s concerned. However, as that was all a part of Koraljka’s, Nikolina’s, Ivana’s, Andrea’s and my own volunteer work, without adequate funding, we were realistically forced to halt all activities. On the other hand, each and every ‘reactor’ started working on large projects that each in their own way contribute to Croatian design. The Sense&Sensibility exhibition is one of them.