Carefree Greetings from Apathy by: Željko Serdarević

The disastrous effect of the pandemic on the economic sectors from which most of the clients commissioning Croatian design come is not yet in sight. Croatia, as presented in the 19/20 exhibition, is still a country of “carefree greetings”, i.e. a country characterized by charming creative initiatives and a lively institutional culture, sophisticated hotels and gastronomic offer for connoisseurs. The design scene proves vital in this edition of the biennale despite the absence of a number of well-known names, which should be attributed to the apathy that marked this year.

Over the course of twenty years, starting as a small-scale professional review of graphic and industrial design only to become an immense exhibition covering a wide range of categories, with its eleventh edition, the biennial review of Croatian design introduces a new mutation. A combination of epidemiological circumstances and the damage that the Museum of Arts and Crafts suffered in the earthquake have resulted in a provisional change in the way it has been realized; this year’s exhibition was thus conceived following the model of “pocket” versions of the previous editions, when only award-winning projects were presented on host exhibitions outside of Zagreb.

An insight into the comprehensive corpus of selected works is presented in the printed catalogue retaining the routine dimensions and high presentational standards. However, the main focus of the 19/20 exhibition is on the online edition, which is great news despite adverse circumstances that led to that change. The exhibition has thus opened to an audience that was previously unreachable allowing a more detailed presentation of design projects given the limitations of the physical catalogue.

Preparation of this year’s exhibition was overshadowed by the pandemic and the selection of works thus had to be realized with the help of various internet tools. At the same time, this brought about the solution for hiccups resulting from passivity that all too often manifested in the selection when the decision whether to include a particular project was left to a member of the commission perceived as the most adept in a particular field. Individual evaluation of applications thus meant that each selector had to articulate his or her personal opinion on each of 497 applications.

In the end, 294 projects reached the threshold value of points, of which 47 were student projects. As in previous years, the Visual Communications Design category is the most comprehensive segment of the exhibition with 161 projects selected. This category is followed by the categories Spatial and Graphic Interventions and Systems with 30 projects, and Product Packaging Design with 28 projects. Industrial/Product Design category is presented with 18 projects, Digital Media Design/Interaction Design with 17 projects, and the Complete Product category with 15. The category of bearing an ambiguous name – Concept/Initiative/Critical Design includes 14 projects, while the category Fashion and Garment Design includes 11.

While writing about the selection of works in the category of visual communication design for a number of earlier editions of the biennial exhibition, I was able to summarize the key formal features of current production in one or two sentences. In the case of the 19/20 exhibition, that is not possible; this year’s exhibition captures the Croatian design in its most eclectic phase so far. Some of the many approaches in circulation may even seem contradictory, but we will by no means experience them as opposites. The time when one understanding of design was simply superseded by another is over.

Not only have obsolete oppositions such as the modernist vs. the postmodernist been discarded, but even the division between the traditional vs. the experimental has gradually lost its meaning as well. When we talk about the “experimental”, we usually talk about various procedures that have been established in design practice for decades. The word “traditional” does not bear a lot of meaning either. The seemingly conservatively equipped annual report of the Grand Park Hotel Rovinj (Bruketa&Žinić&Gray) with its excessive volume eliminates any semblance of traditionalist restraints. Even if there is no experiment, there is still room for excess. If it is advisable to look for polarities in the interpretation of the presented material, then it is in the way of organizing the work.

If polarities are anywhere to be found in the interpretation of the material presented, then it is in the way work is organized. The differentiation of projects created as part of the collective model (agencies and larger design studios) and the individual model (designers who work as freelancers or as part of various smaller enterprises) reveals the most significant novelty of the last several exhibitions of Croatian design. For more than a decade, the only agency-type collective with a continuous and notable presence was Bruketa&Žinić&Grey in its various incarnations. Over the last few iterations of the exhibition, this exclusive position has been somewhat toppled by the rise of Señor and Sonda (but also the nominal tandem of Šesnić&Turković, the Imago agency and others), who flooded the exhibition with corporate projects, transforming it to a certain extent.

The essence of this shift is not so much that the selection has become more permeable to superbrands (this time these are Coca-Cola, Franck, Jamnica, Ledo, Nike, Pipi, Radenska, Varteks and Vegeta), but rather that for the first time it is not prominent individuals, mostly designers from the cultural sector and designers of visual identities, who make up the crux of the design scene, but rather agency-type collectives. At the moment, they really do deserve this paramount position within the total domestic production – the sophistication of the design of the Carefree Greetings from the Adriatic campaign for Pipi beverages (Imago) or the branding for Ledo (Sonda), as well as for Jamnica and Franck (Señor), places these achievements at the very pinnacle of contemporary Croatian design.

On their rise to the top, agency-type collectives have taken on board the lessons of the domestic typographic curriculum and have become the main buyers of new typefaces (such as the Maister Sans typeface by Hrvoje Živčić, commissioned by B&Ž&G). However, the commendable fact that today the annual reports of the largest Croatian companies are designed according to relatively conservative postulates of this curriculum has provoked a reaction on the other side of the scene. Designers who work according to a model that differs from the one adopted by agencies have begun to move away from this approach, and are working more and more freely.

The scope of their activities in this era during which the collective model is gaining momentum has remained extensive: cultural projects, social initiatives, development of smaller brands, city identities, book design, packaging and signage design or specialization in typography… This is not exactly a negligible range. The most impressive achievements in the medium of posters are still works of individuals (Vanja Cuculić, Dario Dević, Zoran Đukić, Andro Giunio, Oleg Morović, Oleg Šuran), and the same goes for the design of books (Rafaela Dražić, Damir Gamulin).

An extremely valuable part of the production presented are works created at the intersection of the individual and collective model of the organization of work, in small women’s design and art ventures that implement demanding projects of institutional and independent culture (Bilić_Müller, Nji3, Oaza) or work on their own no less demanding initiatives. The primary drive expands as needed by mobilizing colleagues from the design scene. Some of the most lucid works at the exhibition are the result of such project associations, such as the identity for the 25th Sa(n)jam knjige book fair in Istria, which is the result of a collaboration between Mauricio Ferlin and designers from Oaza.

The exhibition also presents seven professional typographic achievements, six of which are shown in the visual communications category and one (Omo Type) in the concept category. Marko Hrastovac’s Nike Air Type continues the respectable series of Croatian typographic projects for big international clients, and is, within the 19/20 exhibition (along with Dević’s graphic design for the Collapse On Hold programs), a rare example of the rave aesthetics, which is the last of last century’s “forbidden-fruit” styles to take took root again. Configured in as many as 72 cuts, the Dino Mode typeface by Nino Bodač is an experiment in exposing the typographic form to extremes, a topic that has become one of the central themes in modern typography due to the popularity of variable typefaces.

The same captivation with the extremes of the typographic form is shown by student projects such as the 30 Letters for 30 Years of the Design Study Program, a collective work achieved through a process that begins with a sort of Yi Jing session with the machine. Student typographic works, included in almost the same number as the professional ones, are interesting both in the way they are presented and in the span of cultural references that they rely on. This span is best evidenced by the Riah Neve typeface by Marija Zidić, complemented by the refined Čovjek znači čovjek (Human Means Human) humanitarian campaign. Zidić embarks on a demanding study of the Arabic script, focusing in her design on discrete differences in the treatment of seemingly related elements of Arabic and Latin letter forms.

Typographic works are the most numerous and also present the most valuable group of achievements within the category of student design of visual communications. The category includes several examples of ingenious experimental book design and several well-placed series of theater posters, but with the exception of the booklet Srednjaci – priče s kvarta (Srednjaci – Stories from the Neighborhood) by Monika Vodopija, these achievements generally lag behind the quality of typographic projects and, overall, they introduce less novelty than the student works in other categories.

Until recently exhibited as part of the visual communications category, packaging design has evolved into one of the most extensive categories of the exhibition. As expected, a third of this year’s selection consists of olive oil and wine packaging, but the sizeable span of projects ranges from toilet paper to gramophone records. Designing these no longer involves merely addressing the traditional challenges of packaging and branding, but also requires taking into consideration the new imperative of photogenicity. The designers of the Farina flour (Size) formulated this brutally simply: the product must “look good on store shelves, but also on Instagram“.

However, just a glance at the olive oil packaging group shows that “looking good” is only half the job – and the other half at that. To design a successful packaging, one first needs to come up with an interesting story, and any memorable detail can be of service in this endeavor. In the case of Latini oil (Tumpić/Prenc), for instance, this is a shirt pattern from the family vault, with Olivica (Señor) it is a motif from Liburnian mythology, and with Nai 3.3 (B&Ž&G) a rare meteorological phenomenon. Only the brand Sv. Ivan takes the very concept of packaging by Katarina Perić as the starting point of its story – the designer added an oil serving pad in the shape of a millstone to the ceramic oil bottle.

In the above examples, the selection of materials, typography and style of illustration are dictated by the function of premium quality signifiers. The same goes for the elegant design of Bee’s Magic propolis products (Design Bureau, Izvorka Jurić), Fructus Flores liqueurs (Kazinoti & Komenda) and Pietro & Pietro truffle packaging (Octopus Ink). Packaging for the wines Kota (Vanja Cuculić), Vislander (B&Ž&G) or Voštinić Klasnić (Size) is also designed according to premium aesthetics, which the branding concept for the Untouched by Light sparkling wine (B&Ž&G) brings to its extreme.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are products whose market recognition is built on a conscious departure from the expensive materials of the premium aesthetics. An example is the raw one-color branding of the Oink cured meat product range made from black pork (Studio 33), based on illustrations made with linocut and printed with a deep layer of black. The trick is sometimes in the magic of transformation – the cardboard part of the packaging of Brachia Kids olive oil (Design Bureau, Izvorka Jurić) opens into a coloring book with a set of pencils, and the packaging of Violeta toilet paper (Publicis) becomes a useful waste bag by simply adding a string.

 

We first saw works in the field of spatial and graphic interventions and systems at the Croatian Design Exhibition in 2008, when they suddenly appeared as a micro-phenomenon within the mega-category of visual communication design. At this year’s exhibition, it is a separate category of as many as 30 works, with multimedia, interactive strategies and virtual reality technology playing an important role in their conception and implementation. Observing them as a group, one gains insight into the work of an entire scene of designers dedicated to the design of exhibitions and museum exhibits, memorial areas and various “interpretation points”.

Some of these designers can be found in other segments of the exhibition, but some of them (for instance, the tandems Bachrach & Krištofić and Bilić_Müller) achieve the best results in this field, while in the case of the collectives with the largest number of designs within the category (Clinica with three, Brigada with four, and Rašić + Vrabec with as many as five) we are witnessing a surprising level of specialization in this area. It is not unusual to see the names of architects on the list of included designers since the selection also contains several works that we can call architecture without hesitation, such as the interiors of the multi-purpose building RiHub (Ana Boljar, Ida Križaj Leko) and of the Brač Small Format Gallery (Nera Nejašmić Kozina and Petar Kozina).

The system of information boards of the Botanical Garden on Lokrum (Šesnić & Turković), fused with its natural environment, is the only example of signalization in the narrower sense of the term. Solutions such as the Pula City Pool (Trumpić/Prenc) or the Drveno doba (The Wooden Age) exhibition (Bilić_Müller) expand the basic signalization task with playful surfaces of clean graphics, while the design for the Salone Archaeological Complex (Lana Gruić) enriches the orientation information with vistas of the original state. They are obtained by stepping on marked points in front of transparent surfaces with drawn contours of demolished buildings at their full height.

The most striking impression, however, is left by projects dedicated to the most difficult topics – a dignified Memorial Room dedicated to the people of Karlovac who died in the Homeland War (Nikolina Jelavić Mitrović) and an evocative exhibition of the Holocaust in Croatia (Damir Gamulin, Antun Sevšek). Both cases demonstrate that the actual personal identity document overpowers any stylization.

In texts published alongside previous iterations of the exhibition, the mention of the category of industrial and product design has almost always been accompanied by a slip into socio-economic themes. However, this year’s selection is too small in scope and at the same time typologically too diverse to draw any far-reaching conclusions on issues such as the fate of the Croatian industry in the globalized economy. If it is possible to recognize a unifying feature at the level of the entire category, then it is a preoccupation with “small” issues: the design of birdhouses and pet feeders (Filip Gordon Frank), glass door handles (Kristina Lugonja), handy hangers (Sandra Maglov) or fast food packaging (Ines Vlahović).

The selection also includes six impressive projects of the design of wooden furniture  with an expressive form (Maša Vukmanović creative studio, studio Ru: t and Nataša Njegovanović), which would have been promising candidates for awards in previous years. The selector’s enthusiasm, however, was reserved for less glamorous applications such as the Igram lamp collection (Grupa Studio), the Mobil multifunctional counter system (Franka Baranović and Antonio Šunjerga) or the Pluto portable disc (Kristina Lugonja and Filip Havranek).

If fifteen pieces in the professional selection of industrial and product design as a whole tell us little, three student projects in the same category tell us nothing particularly when taken as a whole. Here we are greeted by “small” themes – a collection of lollipops inspired by Croatian fairy tales (Paula Šantic), an experimental fire extinguishing system (Erika Filipan) and a witty cup with a hole as a souvenir of the thirtieth anniversary of the Design Studio (Ana Nikšić). More ambitious student product considerations are to be found in the concept category this year.

Student works in the category Concept/Initiative/Critical Design are more numerous than professional works and include the design of therapeutic systems (Nikola Heged, Eleonora Matijašević), intangible heritage preservation projects (Ana Mojaš, Meseldžić and Andreja Lovreković) and one fun stylistic exercise in information design on the intricacies of Croatian laws (Ana Pavičić). Some of the entries within this diverse group of concepts are the only examples of speculative practice covered by the exhibition.

The most striking of these is Equilibrium (Ivan Kunjašić), an artifact that is worn on the face and records biochemical processes caused by emotions. InkVisible electronic tattoos (Leopoldina Jovanovski), which serve to monitor biometric data, are on the same track. Unfortunately, the concept of the organically sculpted furniture system for pregnant women To be born (Valentina Sunek) must also be designated as speculative, although it is the result of the designer’s lived experience. The health care of pregnant women has unfortunately stopped developing with 19th-century metal instruments, and any attempt to devise it otherwise seems futuristic.

The professional part of the category includes three diverse publishing initiatives: a book by Luka Tomac on climate change (Tomislav Turković), a digital coloring book (Igor Kuduz) and an ambitiously designed pilot issue of the Vizkultura magazine (Nji3). There are also two social projects: a humanitarian action aimed at the interior design of a corridor in the Vukovar High School (Brigade) and the Centre for Everyday Design (Mia Bogovac, Marko Golub, Maša Milovac), whose programs connect local communities and creative professions. One product that is already widely used was also presented – Petar Reić’s Omoguru system, which is used by more than 20,000 people with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. With the specially designed family of typefaces, Omo Type (Marko Hrastovec), Omoguru allows the adaptation of screen text displays to the unique needs of users.

The difference between the exhibition’s professional and student works has always been most visible in the field of interaction design, which was interpreted by the naturally greater sensitivity of young people to a medium that is in its early stages of development. It was reasonable to expect this difference to disappear over time, but it seems bigger than ever at the moment – students and professionals seem to be dealing with completely different aspects of the same field. Nine of the twelve professional works in this category are websites, and only one is an application. The opposite is true of the student works: most are application design projects, and not a single website.

The range of tasks addressed by the selected websites is relatively extensive, while the number of design approaches to these tasks is somewhat more limited – we live in a time of a highly homogenized web aesthetics. The Plan Hvar website (Kazinoti & Komenda) or the website for the academy of the curatorial collective WHW (Ana Labudović) demonstrate a refined approach, where clarity and informativeness are more important than creating an impression. Visually more complex solutions, increasingly relying on video animation, most often aim to create a “narrative” around a service. This group includes the website of the Maslina resort (B&Ž&G), the website of the Señor agency, but also the charmingly illustrated Design islands platform (Infinum), a site for the informal exchange of professional experiences of the design community.

There is no trace of “narratives” in student application design projects, they all have a very practical purpose. Digital ID (Pavo Bušić) turns a mobile phone into an ID card, Mjesto izvora (Tomislav Mravičić) serves as a guide through the heritage of Podbiokovlje, while UniSt (Tina Listeš) is designed as an information exchange point for students at the University of Split. An add-on called ctrl-shift (Elizabeta Lončar) fits into this group of works, both with its elegant unobtrusive design and practicality of purpose – when added to a browser, ctrl-shift provides detailed insight into user data collected by corporations.

In the non-interactive and partially interactive segment of the digital media design category, two projects of the Señor agency stand out. The first is the instructive web campaign Great Croatian Naives, developed partially through a series of animated TV spots. It is intended to raise awareness about internet scams, and starts with a series of witty portraits in the manner of Croatian naive paintings. The second project is a time-lapse TV spot for Jamnica Botanica, a product that holds the record for being included in most categories at the 19/20 exhibition (this range of flavored water is also represented in the category of packaging design and in the comprehensive project category). Wanting to emphasize the premium aspect of the brand, the design team chose to utilize a sensual visual language of perfume and fashion advertising.

Since its introduction in 2008, the fashion and clothing design category has been accompanied by complaints that the selection is too focused on fashion concepts to the detriment of ready-to-wear, protective clothing and other practical tasks. This can in no way be objected to this year’s refreshingly wearable selection, which includes three examples of ready-made clothing: Varteks’ collection of women’s and men’s clothing for spring and summer 2020 (Varteks design team), the Glitch collection (Imelda Ramović) and the playful sock brand Mix & Match (Hyper Socks), which are sold per piece rather than in standard pairs.

The fashion aspect of this category is represented by four designers (Nika Čuić, Patrizia Dona, Branka Donassy, Nataša Mihaljčišin), whose refined pieces of fashion design are intended for concept store sales and other exclusive marketing channels. The sophistication of student works does not lag far behind those in the professional selection – a look at the wealth of signs in the Polari (Dominik Brandinut) and 50’Athleisure (Matea Ribičić) collections would even bring a smile to the face of Roland Barthes’ costumes.

During the selection process, the discussion of assigning a work within the right segment of the exhibition was most lively when it came to entries in the comprehensive project category, which returned us to the dilemma that Marko Golub pointed out at the time of the 17/18 exhibition. Questioning the point and operability of the category at the time, he wrote that it “creates more misunderstanding than order”, which was confirmed by the experience of this year’s jury. The problem is in the too broad definition of the concept of comprehensiveness, equally applicable to the original product design concepts (Salt portable salt works, Cor grinder), large branding projects (EU2020HR, Jamnica Botanica, King ice cream in a cup) and complex interdisciplinary initiatives (Made in: Crafts — Design Narratives).

Things become even more complicated when this list of unrelated achievements is joined by – equally interdisciplinary and comprehensive – multisensory exhibition environments (Terra Panonica, Med dvemi vodami) and interior design conceived as an integral part of the visual identity of restaurants and other facilities (Ikador Luxury Boutique Hotel & Spa, Submarine burger restaurant). At this year’s exhibition, this problem is not as pressing, as the works will be shown independently of each other on the website rather than next to each other as part of the exhibition lineup. However, in the preparation of the next iteration of the exhibition, it would be advisable to define somewhat narrower propositions, so that the category still makes sense.

 

The disastrous effect of the pandemic on the economic sectors from which most of the clients of Croatian design come is not yet evident in this exhibition. As the 19/20 exhibition presents it, Croatia is still a country of “carefree greetings” – charming creative initiatives and a lively institutional culture, sophisticated hotels and a hospitality offering fit for connoisseurs. The few and far between that do reveal the dark underbelly are preoccupied with the migrant crisis or the prevention of peer and domestic violence.

Among the entries, one could still find a few reactions to the experience of the earthquake or reflections on aesthetic dimensions of anti-epidemic tools, but the Croatian standard of living has remained an untouched topic. The discussion of the national design strategy (made relevant with each new iteration of this biennial), when viewed through the lens of a challenging year in which much of our community had to rely on state funding, seems at the same time like wishful thinking and the most important burning topic.

This year’s exhibition does not include award-winning designers, particularly from the generation that established itself during the 2000s (Bralić, Dragosavac, Đurek, Jonke, Radeljković, Špoljar, Vučić and others) and was the backbone of many previous exhibitions. The reasons why they did not apply this time are not really important, although it can be assumed these include temporary exhibition fatigue, aversion to the concept of an online exhibition or simply apathy – something 2020 has given us a lot of reasons for. It seems more important to me to note that it is still possible to compile a relevant cross-section of Croatian design without their participation – which should be seen as a sign of vitality and persistent expansion of the scene.

This year’s applications point not only to the renewal of this scene with new names, but also to the opening of a new front, formed by works close to the sphere of experience design. As the existing exhibition classification does not include an appropriate category, such projects have largely been left out of the selection. These are, for example, gastronomic experiments, which of course include the appearance of the meal (its “sculptural form”, as one of the selectors called it in the discussion). Their primary novelty, however, is in devising a new dimension to our relation towards food – in the introduction of a discrepancy between what we see and what we taste – the element of the unexpected.

Of the projects covered by the exhibition, the sphere of experience design is most evident in the projects for the hospitality sector. Let’s take two examples from the production of Bruketa&Žinić&Grey: inscriptions that limited by the length of the view from the terrace of the Rovinj Grand Park hotel (Remember… the line of the horizon… the scent of the sea… the sun over Rovinj… the tranquility… Remember…), and the Maslina resort website, which offers “immersion in narration”. What drives this narrative in both cases is the imperative of the production of memory. The clients of hotel services are prompted to practice mindfulness by keeping a diary of their stay (Grand Park) or by working on turning the experience of their stay into a story that will remain a “legacy for future generations” (Maslina). It is no longer enough to design the atmosphere of a place; designers strive to fully program an experience that will last in memory and that is renewed through a narrative.

In these examples we witness the development of a new (for now relatively amorphous) form of designed communication, which is quite literally served to us and which sometimes pacifies us (prompting us with cues to enjoy the landscape), and sometimes activates us (urging us to take notes or to figure out what a meal is made of). I do not dare predict whether this field of design will require the establishment of a new category within one of the future biennials, but to those who are willing to speculate on the issue, I offer an illustrative anecdote.

“Please don’t dwell so much on this entry, it’s just food!” To the horror of the exhibition organizers, the liveliest discussion among the selection committee members was caused by Le Kolač desserts. The entry was eventually conservatively assigned to the category of visual communications (owing more to a solid graphic identity, rather than the imaginative design of the desserts themselves). It was impossible not to take part in the joy of the other selection committee members as, for a brief moment, our notions of the boundaries of design with which we approached the evaluation of the entries were destabilized. This short interval of joyful preoccupation with the unexpected speaks volumes about what we actually witnessed through the selection process and how much novelty the 19/20 exhibition of Croatian design has brought us. Roughly speaking, here’s the deal: a lot of new things, yet few of them never before seen.