We today (think we do) know what design is; we know his clients, his chroniclers and his audience, but the future rujem I believe that we must consciously include it in the exhibition and direct it through the exhibition, not just follow it.
Round anniversaries are usually a good occasion to look back on the past in order to find a better direction for the future. Two decades give us just about enough time to reflect on the past, our vision of the future newly tinged with nostalgia. Our point of reference on this occasion are the memories contained in ten exhibition catalogues for the Exhibition of Croatian Design. They offer us an overview of the key circumstances and events that helped what used to be a small exhibition in the Forum Gallery, presenting a discipline that was at the time almost entirely unrecognized in Croatia, transform into one of the largest national (bi)annual exhibitions. They also show us what enabled Croatian design to not only establish its “name” by self-organizing and promoting itself, but also to carve out a status for this profession, something that had been entirely unthinkable 20 years ago. Nevertheless, much remains unresolved. With this text, I will therefore briefly recall the sequence of most important topics, problems and efforts that have contributed to the affirmation of Croatian design over the past two decades, how they have developed or persisted over time, and call to mind some unfulfilled aspirations. At the same time, I would like to raise some additional issues and offer reflections on the task of regularly reviewing ideas and activities within the profession. In particular, I will focus on the question of how to exhibit design in the decade ahead.
In addition to providing an overview of the projects and categories that were selected and awarded, and which over time were recognized, questioned and developed, the exhibition catalogues of these Croatian design reviews also contain forewords that offer an excellent insight into the development of the profession. The authors of each of these forewords comment on a particular selection of works in the context of a specific time period, and define the discipline’s current discourse through their conclusions and the questions that they feel should be asked.
Mladen Orešić’s foreword to the 01 exhibition catalogue begins, entirely expectedly and necessarily, with the status of design at the time, as an insufficiently recognized independent discipline that is, as a rule, subsumed by the context of the “more mature” related professions. It is therefore necessary to try to articulate it not only through the existence of design as a new, independent field of study, but also through a national review of design. This review needs to provide both geographical and generational involvement. By the time the next exhibition takes place, Željko Borčić no longer feels the need to question the necessity of a national exhibition. Rather, he shifts the focus to the disproportion between the impression offered by reality and the works selected, in which the number of projects that belong to the cultural sphere almost completely outweigh the modest contributions from the economic sector, which is still reluctant to embrace creative design. He also draws attention to the desired increase in the prominence of product design, which was just barely present at the first exhibition. In the foreword for the 03 exhibition, Feđa Vukić raises the question of the (im)possibility of defining the term “Croatian design” in relation to the identity of some other national reviews. His contribution to the perception of the local situation is based on the context of transition. He provides an insight into the early stages of the profession’s development within the socialist framework, and its transformation in a new social and political environment. He interprets the fact that visual communications were represented more prominently than product design not only as a consequence of the economic situation, but also as a striking search for identity – be it personal, social, political or corporate.
The 040506 and 0708 exhibitions, according to Ira Payer, indicate the more concrete emergence of product design projects and the fact that the profession has found its affirmation. Despite the fact that this goal has been achieved, a strategy for development is still lacking. She advocates for the establishment of a dialogue with economic entities and state institutions. She likewise argues that the various players on the design scene must self-organize. Writing about the 0708 exhibition, Željko Serdarević points to a tendency towards the establishment of objective selection criteria. He discusses the categorization system and the accompanying publication types, while recognizing the establishment of generational diversity. Writing for the 0910 exhibition following the tenth anniversary, Dejan Kršić offers a methodical review of past achievements and failures. He raises some essential terminological questions, and confronts the issues relating to transition using a proactive approach, calling for networking and for designers themselves to form groups, projects and teams that are able to create work, the design scene and production. In the editorial for the 1112 exhibition, Marko Golub highlights the key advantage of Croatian design exhibitions: their firmly set structure, which is at the same time flexible and adaptable to the times. He notes that the profession has received additional affirmation through influential projects that include design as a distinctive layer. He also emphasizes the quality and presence of product design, which was achieved, among other things, by focusing on small and effective tactical moves, as had been suggested by Kršić two years earlier.
On the occasion of the 1314 exhibition, Ivana Borovnjak continues the discussion on a more constructive and radical revision of categorization, which the range of projects submitted invites. She perceives that Croatian design’s long-desired recognizability is no longer an unattainable goal but rather something that has to a certain extent been accomplished at the national, regional and international levels. In the 1516 design review, Marko Golub, along with further efforts to develop a more intelligible categorization, highlights the introduction of an essential element: explanations that accompany the selected works and make the various design decisions and the contexts in which the projects were created more coherent. Design is unequivocally established as an intellectual discipline. For the same exhibition, Ivana Borovnjak evaluates the growth of the Croatian design scene; the selected works now clearly reflect the existence of several strong educational institutions. She sees the affirmation of the profession as a goal that has been achieved, but she notes that this simultaneously generates a new problem: there is a lack of cohesion and close communication within the professional community, something that had existed in the period when the profession was just beginning to take shape in Croatia.
In her foreword for the 1718 exhibition catalogue, Maša Milovac emphasizes the lack of development strategy for design and appropriate planning documents at the state level, which are necessary for sustainable development both within and outside the discipline. However, she also points to the broad spectrum of activities organized by the CDA, ranging from gallery and publishing activities to educational ones, which complement the public discourse and form a system of professional thinking. In the selected works, she recognizes further affirmation of the profession through projects in which designers are equal members of interdisciplinary teams. Building on her conclusions, Marko Golub notes the achievements of the selected and awarded projects while once again tackling the topic of the (insufficient) links between the review and the true status of design in society and on the market. We now encounter the same award-winning designers who used to work exclusively for clients from the independent or cultural scene involved in far more “mainstream” tasks, which indicates the extent to which quality design has expanded and found confirmation in our environment; nevertheless, we still wonder to what extent the exhibition reflects an objective picture of the state of design in the past two years. Furthermore, Golub makes a constructive contribution to considering the correct categorization of activities within the field of design, which I believe is a topic that awaits our design community in the future, and which is necessarily followed by the need to more clearly define our professional terminology, reconciled with the period of market and technological transitions.
Taking the format of a large group exhibition, regular reviews of national design are an exceptional stage for establishing what is common in the profession largely based on the work of individuals or smaller groups of creative individuals. Such a review provides an insight into the current achievements, trends, shortcomings and successes of various players, both with respect to the public and within the profession, which is as constructively competitive as it is educational for designers.
In an interesting text entitled Exhibitions as Apparatus, Julian Myers-Szupinska writes: “Exhibitions allowed the group that produced them to imagine themselves as a field of shared concern, or a class, while at the same time separating individual members of that class into the field of competitors.”[i] I believe there is a need to create a picture of the design scene and its coordinated efforts to develop both creative individuals and design as a discipline. In this sense, the exhibition is a tool for documentation and presentation, but it is also undoubtedly a tool for development. Such an exhibition should not allow designers to escape from the real world into a gallery. Rather, it should establish a framework in which both the creative work and its “real world” are introduced, and become intelligible and comparable.
Because what is design without its functional context? For example, we know that it is difficult to define the correct way to set up an original “site-specific” artwork in an art review, while for works that are intended to be independent, the exhibitions themselves provide sufficient context. Or we can consider the case of architectural reviews, where the presentation of a project, which was envisaged and drawn for circumstances that very often simply cannot be translated into the context of a (group) exhibition, is as a rule incomplete. From a similar perspective, design is usually commissioned for some real purpose, real people, and real time; as such, one should try to avoid considering it, in the case of product design, through the prism of functional sculpture, or in the case of graphic design, through the prism of the functional image.
The national design review’s exhibition strategy could perhaps be upgraded so as to include a more complex explanation of the circumstances relating to individual projects. This would provide a necessary framework for their better understanding and evaluation. For example, I do not think it is sufficient to provide a broader context only for categories such as “concept” or “whole product”. A framework should be developed to explain that design work is a consequence of real circumstances, instead of casting it aside in the eyes of the average visitor as merely an intriguing art exercise. Design certainly has its place in galleries, but relevant information about its development or business background must be included. Only a careful and comprehensive understanding of a design task, no matter how complex it might be, will save the profession from being gradually erased by the automation of the craft, which offers seemingly pleasing patterns and trivial solutions.
Context is by all means necessary and this certainly does not undermine self-initiated works, if they have methodologically departed from the logic of our profession. Design has every right to ask for its client’s thinking, but an essential part of design is the production of some new value or knowledge. In other words, it is not sufficient to simply produce some kind of visual material using design tools or methods. In my view, Rick Poynor is both right and wrong in the text entitled We need more galleries that exhibit [graphic] design.[ii] Design is certainly characterized by “cross-fertilization between disciplines” where the “fusion of art and design” remains available only to a limited number of designers. At the same time, that kind of design does not make the design scene, as Dejan Kršić clearly explains in the foreword to the 0910 exhibition catalogue, noting a problematic practice according to which professional designers tend to “escape into the safety of art, a certain type of installation, contemporary art, which is itself increasingly using the language and strategies inherent to design”, which is all too frequently simply an alibi for avoiding creative engagement.
This does not mean that regular national design exhibitions should take a more elitist stance in the selection process. They should rather leave behind a reflection of both design at a particular point in time, and of the time that commissions and directs design. A more systematic approach to the documentation of the context or circumstances in which a creative work came about does not imply that design is only defined by its relationship with its client. Quite the contrary, it opens up the possibility of presenting this relationship as only one of the axes of the development of a particular design product or opinion. Such a layered approach to presentation would enable a more comprehensive interpretation and understanding of design projects and provide a more complete picture and story about a particular time period in design to future students and/or researchers.
In his foreword written for the review of French design in 1990, ‘To intrigue or the graphic designer’s paradox’, Jean-François Lyotard concludes (with respect to the presentation of graphic design, but I would argue that this is applicable to design in general) that “the [graphic] object is essentially circumstantial. Inseparable from the event which it advertises, therefore of the place, the moment, the public where the thing happens.”[iii] If the initial reviews of national design intended to separate design from the so-called “mature” related professions, define its “name” and demonstrate the necessity of its existence, or document the expansion of designers’ activities in relation to various tasks and markets throughout the second decade, in the third decade design should return to related disciplines and offer to engage in a dialogue with the other players on the scene – clients and other kinds of designers – as an established profession that develops through an interdisciplinary approach to developing ideas and products.
In ‘Notes on Design’, Maddalena Dalla Mura accurately observes that “the exhibition is a powerful communication device. In order for this engagement to develop into an opportunity for advancing the practice and discourse of design in novel direction.”[iv] These days we (think we) know what design is – who its clients are, its chroniclers and its audience, but as for its future… I believe that we must consciously include it in the exhibition and direct it through the exhibition, not just follow it.
translated by: Sarah Rengel
[i] Julian Myers-Szupinska, “Exhibitions as Apparatus”, in: The Exhibitionist: Journal On Exhibition Making: The First Six Years, (ed. J. Hoffmann J. Myers-Szupinska, L. Glass), New York, 2017: 18.
[ii] https://www.printmag.com/post/observer-we-need-more-galleries-that-exhibit-graphic-design [accessed on: 19 October 2020]
[iii] Jean-François Lyotard, “Intriguer, ou le paradoxe du graphiste”, in: Vive les graphistes! Petit inventaire du graphisme en France, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1990: 9, 10.
[iv] http://www.maddamura.eu/blog/language/en/graphic-design-exhibiting-curating-4-designing-as-exhibiting/ [accessed on: 19 October 2020]