Slovenia’s Silent Revolution

LJUBLJANA–Ljubljana’s Gigo Design + Communication is exactly how I picture a design studio to look:  there are prototypes for fold-up bicycles, skies lined up against the wall (Slovenian ski manufacturer, Elan, is a client), large windows to let the sun stream through and long minimalist tables where several designers are typing away on their desktops. There’s even a cool kitchen area with a sleek coffee maker and wooden tables with benches, strewn with newspapers and arts magazines. If I was ever creative enough to be a designer, this is the kind of place I would want to work. Luka Stepan agrees. He worked here for a year and a half before heading off to London to do an MA at the Royal College of Art. He ended up staying on for three more years but was lured back to Ljubljana last autumn because he says he felt there was more of an opportunity to get hands on experience back home. “For me the major difference between here and London is that in Ljubljana, modern design is still quite fresh,” he tells me as we sit in Gigo’s cool kitchen.  “In London, each studio is renowned for what they do, but on the other hand they are quite restricted [because] of that. In Slovenia, it is not specialized, so for me, it is interesting to have so many different projects from so many different industries.  You do not really feel stuck doing the same products all the time. I almost feel like there is more creativity going on here.”

That creativity in Slovenian design is gaining more international attention these days thanks to a variety of factors including individual designers like Nika Zupanc and Franc Kuzma making marks on the global scene, design studios helping Slovenian companies create unique design solutions and moves by individuals within the design community to draw more attention to the scene. October is the Month of Design in Ljubljana and there have been a slew of activities including design awards and an expo highlighting some of the most innovative products created in the country. Stores across the capital that sell Slovenian-designed pieces also have signs outside their premises noting their support for local design. Meanwhile the travelling exhibition “Silent Revolutions: Contemporary Design in
glasses-1024x1024Slovenia” is promoting Slovenian design across Europe. The show debuted at London Design Week last month and opens again on 22 October in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week. The show highlights everything from fashion—with pieces from Lara Bohinc and Leonora Jakovljevic—to Tanja Pak’s glassware and Igor Akrapovic’s motorcycle exhaust system. The show is the first large-scale international showcase of Slovenian design since the country became independent 20 years ago and gained successful reviews during it’s London leg. The Independent critique of the show noted that the country’s “thriving design scene” has recently been turning out “some excellent contemporary ideas.”

The concept for the show—which was organized by Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design and supported by various government ministries—came from a handful of designers who felt that there was not enough focus on the importance of design. “Government does not understand what design or things connected with design can do to be more competitive economically,” Miha Klinar, who, as one of the founders of Gigo, was an integral person behind the “Silent Revolutions” show. “Things have changed slightly but the leading position on design has been made by companies.  The government follows very shyly, they do not understand what they can do about it. So in general we have a lack of any strategic plans.” That’s different from their CEE neighbor Poland, where design has been recognized as a strategic sector for investment. While Poland—which along with Slovenia is an important manufacturer of furniture—came to understand that building a brand around design was important from an economic point of view, Slovenia have been slower coming to that realization. It goes back, in part, to the early days of independence.

During the Socialist days of Yugoslavia, in-house designers were the norm in companies. “Most large companies in Socialist times had design departments and that was the only way people were employed as designers,” Matevz Celik, the director of the Museum of Architecture and Design, tells me over coffee in his office. “And yet on the other hand, that is how good design evolved in Slovenia.”  However when Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia (its biggest trading partner) and became a free market economy, many companies were forced to close their development and design departments. For the short term, it worked, but in the long run it meant declining competitiveness. “We had a very good starting point in the 1990s compared to others, we were self-assured we would do well,” says Celik.  “This may have been an obstacle to be more progressive and that hits us now after 20 years. For the first two decades after independence, it was very easy to make money, money was everywhere and most of the companies that emerged were looking for quick success [including] in the production process. It was a wild time but we are getting sober now.”

When I asked people to describe and define Slovenian design, I got a plethora of answers. Luka Stepan says its
folding-chair-662x1024centered around resourcefulness while Maja Vardjan, who curated “Silent Revolutions” and kindly gives me a guided tour across Ljubljana’s design scene, thinks it has to do with diversity. There are big companies like Gorenje and Elan that have created state-of-the-art products while there are also a lot of entrepreneurs who have developed and designed products that grew from their personal interests. Franc Kuzma was a big music fan and turned his hobby into a company after the turntables he was designing became big hits in the US, UK and Germany. Igor Akrapovic, meanwhile, was a former professional motorcycle racer who patented a new exhaust system that used a hexagonal shaped muffler and new pipe diameters. “I think it may take a long time before Slovenian design becomes a name, before it becomes a brand,” says Celik. “But I think we are heading in the right direction.”


Photos 1) : Black Cherry Lamp, by Nika Zupanc; for La Femme et la Maison by Nika Zupanc, 2010, photo credits: Dragan Arrigler 2) Flow Water Set, by Tanja Pak; for Glesia, 2008, photo credits: Boris Gaberščik 3) Sitty Folding Chair, by Gigodesign, 2009, photo credits: Dragan Arrigler