Newsweek: Wild, Wild East


by Ginanne Brownell

(originally published in Newsweek)

Almost two years ago London’s Victoria and Albert Museum held an exhibition titled Cold War Modern, examining how the U.S. and the countries of the former Eastern bloc were fighting a proxy war in the world of design. Besides the obvious geopolitical aspects of the show, I was most intrigued by how much of the region’s design I had never seen before. Well, that’s all over now. Designers from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have become increasingly ubiquitous, making creative waves in some of the world’s biggest markets. In April, London’s Mint gallery held a monthlong exhibition called Chez Czech, which featured Czech glass and ceramics. At Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in May, designers like Slovenia’s Nika Zupanc and Hungary’s János Hübler created some serious buzz with their avant-garde pieces, and the Polish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo features building structures made from paper cutouts—an ironic nod to iconic Polish folk art.

Design coming out of CEE is as varied as the region’s countries. But many designers draw on the artistic heritage of their homelands. The Czech Republic, for example, has long been known for its top-quality glassware, which many of its contemporary designers are focusing on. And Poland is producing some interesting furniture, in keeping with its rich history of furniture manufacturing. “To a certain degree there is a reinvigoration of heritage,” says William Knight, the deputy director of the London Design Festival. “Those cultural assets can be a competitive advantage.”

Just ask Borek Sipek, a Czech whose fantastical candelabras and dramatic chandeliers marry traditional ceramic and glass craftsmanship with experimental design. His pieces are collected and coveted the world over, and his international success has inspired young Czech artists, who have learned to take pride in their country’s tradition of glassware. Maxim Velcovsky, the cofounder of Prague’s Qubus Studio and a featured artist in the Mint show, creates porcelain vases with quirky, irregular shapes, making them incredibly tactile. Yet he decorates them with delicate painted flowers that hark back to prewar design. Jakub Berdych, also featured in the Mint show, takes surrealism to a whole different level with “Kafkanistan,” a tall porcelain piece that features a baby’s head on top of a blue-and-gold teapot, evoking the absurdity of Kafka. Not to be outdone by the Czechs, Slovakia in May hosted Arch Days 2010 in Bratislava, a festival highlighting contemporary architecture from across the CEE region.

According to Knight, the number of exhibitors from CEE has increased year on year at the London Design Festival, but the Poles have been particularly good at promoting their designs abroad. Young Polish designers are participating in international shows; coinciding with the Salone Internazionale del Mobile they exhibited furniture, graphics, animation, and architecture in a show at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum. Poles have also proved adept at globalizing their businesses; artist Tomek Rygalik, a furniture designer who has exhibited in such places as New York and Tokyo, has studios in both London and Lódz. And Oskar Zieta, who has swiftly gained an international reputation for his functional tables and lamps, has studios in Zurich and Wroclaw. Kompott is a collective of four Polish designers who work in Warsaw, London, and Madrid. Currently their 6 Degrees Modular off-center flexible shelving units are being sold in stores in London. “At the Milan show people were coming up and going, ‘Polish design? It really exists?’” says Kompott’s Maja Ganszyniec with a laugh. “It’s hard to define Polish design as something clear and distinct, [but] I hope people will associate it with quality.”

Hungarian design got a big boost four years ago when three women founded WAMP, a monthly design exhibition in Budapest that now features more than 100 designers from the disciplines of fashion, decorative arts, and graphics. WAMP now also hosts an international design festival every February and helps promote Hungarian artists across the globe; later this year WAMP will bring several young designers to shows in Helsinki and London. In Milan, Hübler showed off his eponymous bookshelf, which is a functional piece that changes shape depending on how many books it holds. And Hungarian architect Aron Losonczi’s invention of transparent concrete has become an important material for architecture and design.

Design in the Balkans is flourishing, too. One of the breakout stars is Zupanc, who incorporates traditional feminine touches like lace and bows into her lamps, sofas, and tables. Her scalloped Scarlet Table, available in both cream and black, looks like a pie crust that can be inverted to form a flat surface. The Baltic states have also been making a name for themselves in the design world; in May Vilnius hosted Design Week, featuring artists like Juozas Brundza and Rasa Baradinskiene, who have become known outside Lithuania. Meanwhile, Tallinn will play host in September to Design Night—actually, a festival held over three days in different venues. At this rate, it may not be long before New York, London, Paris, and Milan have some new competition in the global pantheon of design capitals.