Padomju Savienība bija laiks, kad ideoloģija turēja roku uz pulsa daudzos gadījumos, īpaši radošajās izpausmēs. Lielbritānijā dzīvojošā lietuviete Solveiga Pakstaite savā pētījumā par Lietuvas dizaina attīstības tendencēm uzsver, ka Lietuvas kultūra ir pietiekami unikāla, lai būtu interesanta. Jāatrod tikai veids, kā to piedāvāt.
Lithuanian design: what’s next?
During the Soviet occupation, art and design in the Baltic States were reduced to a tool for carrying the communist ideology. As the design world developed in the West, the Eastern Bloc was left trapped in the past. Two decades down the line from independence, Lithuania has surprisingly few design companies, despite having a culture that is rich in unique styles. With the help of Lithuanian designers and citizens, this piece investigates how history has shaped the landscape of this industry and where the future of Lithuanian design could take the nation.
MEET OUR EXPERTS
Nauris Kalinauskas is the founder of furniture design studio, Contraforma. He is well known not only in Lithuania, but also in the rest of the world. His work has received numerous accolades, including the Red Dot award (The winning piece, LOGO, shown opposite).
Neringa Jarmalienė is the Managing director of graphic design company, AKTIN, based in Vilnius.
Matas Zaloga began his training in Lithuania before moving to the UK to finish his studies and to be part of a creative hub. He and his friends set up Zazu Studio whilst they were still studying.
HOW DID IT BEGIN?
It would be incorrect to state that there was a complete lack of design movement in Lithuania during Soviet times because technically speaking this was not the case. Considerable amounts of resources were directed towards the development of science, art and industrial production equipment. Thus, design quickly became a popular and in-demand career. Many Lithuanian furniture manufacturers were exporting to western nations, such as the UK, and not just to other Soviet-occupied areas and examples of Lithuanian product design were being presented at various international exhibitions at the time, But under the ‘USSR’ label, of course, as Lithuania did not exist as a nation during the occupation.
Under Soviet rule, Lithuanian artists, poets and designers had to get their work past the strict cultural censorship before it could be released, published or produced. Nonetheless, they produced a body of
work that was laced with cautiously coded counter-propaganda in order to give Lithuanian people hope by signalling a desire for freedom and change
and by doing so shifting the ideological and socio-political system[2, 3, 4].
There were even some design schools in Lithuania at the time, but they were all supported by manufacturers and institutes which would employ most the students after graduation. The dark side of this arrangement is that the teaching was tailored to what the institutes wanted the students to learn, according to their needs with no room for creative expression. So even if designers tried to escape the dictated influence at all costs, they still had to go to a Soviet design school as there weren’t any alternatives.
HAS THE SOVIET OCCUPATION AFFECTED THE WAY WE CREATE?
Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to officially break away from the USSR in 1990 and after so many years of propaganda-controlled censorship, Neringa Jarmalienė, managing director of a graphic design studio, recalls that “The boldness of the design work that was first produced was spilling over the edges – there was such freedom of colour, expression, even chaos.”. In the two decades since, it has become one of the most flourishing of the Baltic states, however, some designers believe that despite this, design is not something that defines our nation, like it does Scandinavia or Italy[7,8].
This phenomenon of bold colours and daring design is something that can be paralleled with British post-war design from the 1950s which allowed the public, who were weary of rationing, to relish upon it as a glimpse of a colourful, plentiful future. Sensible but boring utility furniture had had its day, and bouncy steel-rod chairs and modern bent plywood furniture arrived on the scene. Out went the muted browns and greens of 1930s interiors, and in its place came bold mix-and-match colour schemes. Even the explosion of popular culture in Britain during the early 1960s can be seen as a delayed reaction against the austerity of the early post-war years. Society rejected the “make do and mend” culture of the war and people wanted things with a new aesthetic, and above all, labour-saving gadgets, as a symbol of the bright future to come.
But unlike in Britain, design movement in Lithuania became limited to a small group of people. After the reformation of our independence and the end of the government-dictated system, there was a temporary loss of interest in product design as a profession. Many designers lost their jobs and there was a surge in popularity of IT-based projects and qualifications which are still going strong today. Being one of the leading European countries in terms of the growth and availability of the internet, we are undertaking vast numbers of web and app design projects so it is really unsurprising that most young graphic designers choose to specialise in this sector. But this is not very different from what has been happening in the rest of the world over the last ten years. Graphic and interior design are also very popular professions because the former is taught at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Art and also at some other colleges and the latter is in high demand due to the growth of the real estate market created by the vast number of new-builds. They are both popular careers because the demand for them is rapidly growing and graphic design skills, in particular, are in high demand in the job market.
SO WHAT DOES OUR PRODUCT DESIGN CURRENTLY LOOK LIKE?
Due to having a modest form of expression, purpose, philosophy and respect for traditions, Lithuanian product design can be compared to Scandinavian design, which is why the majority of design export is into the Scandinavian markets. Then again, some designers say that Lithuanian design is far more emotional, tender and ironic than that of our neighbors across the Baltic Sea. The expansion of Lithuanian design into neighbouring markets has somewhat complicated the national style and created a mismatch of approaches. Neighbouring countries such as Russia, Belarus and Poland have far more of a Slavic style which is bright, crowded and excessively rich.
In my interview with Red Dot winner, Nauris Kalinauskas, he expressed his opinion that Lithuania does not have a strong style indentity yet and that it is something that requires a great body of design work to be produced so that it would be possible to categorise and analyse it so that national design traits can be spotted. And at the moment there is not enough to choose from.
household objects are the best representatives of Lithuanian industrial design,
especially furniture design[11, 1] and in terms of quality it is not at all behind that of other European countries. So it is therefore a shame that relationships between our exceptionally skilled furniture manufacturers and local designers are still quite cold as the manufacturers are satisfied with the profitable contracts with foreign countries. It would only make us stronger if we were to combine these skills and collaboratively work together to further improve the quality of our creative output.
The quality of our product design is already recognised and many of our designers win prestigious design awards for their work and exhibitions of Lithuanian design are curated all over the world. While it’s wonderful that our designers are travelling all over the world showcasing their work, the type of work faintly echoes the arts and crafts movement; one off or small batch production pieces that are very decorative and quirky. Because 70% of Lithuania is covered by forest, wood is the most popular material seen in our product design.
Design used to be synonymous with fine art to the average Lithuanian and was viewed as a futile profession in terms of making a living. If the country wants to prosper in the creative sector in order to bring money into the economy, it needs to start with society’s opinion, which, fortunately, is already happening. People are beginning to see that Lithuania’s products are well designed to a high standard and are as valuable for introducing into their lives as they are in international design competitions. As time has gone on, Lithuania is now familiar with terminology such as ‘creative professional’ and ‘added value’, but before we all start rejoicing, this is only a recent awareness of the design world to the average Lithuanian and far more work is yet to be done with their perceptions of creative work and the light it could shed on the economic struggle.
ARE POLITICIANS STILL SUPPRESSING OUR CREATIVITY?
I started out determined to not end up with a piece that pointed fingers only at the government and the lack of their funding for creative and innovative companies. However, after talking to several designers working both in Lithuania and abroad, the passion with which they spoke about the need for governmental sponsorship was difficult to ignore.
Design is considered to be a strategic tool for realizing innovations that increases competitiveness in many countries. It is viewed as a platform for demonstrating cultural identity whilst improving the quality of life, but is this something that Lithuania can identify with? After so many years of struggle, rations and surviving in basic conditions as a result of the Soviet regime, is good design something that would concern the average citizen when there are still economic hardships preventing them from a better quality of life in a very real way? Maybe so, because a study of the economy of culture in Europe by the European Commission revealed that design is one of the leaders in the creative sector in terms of profitability and came out highest for productivity. Design is not limited to an aesthetic expression of materials, but is also an effective tool for reducing social exclusion and creating economic growth which can create many jobs.
It has been suggested that the lack of successful businesses investing in design is due to the absence of governmental funding. Many people feel that schemes should be funded to help finance design and innovative start-up companies and, more importantly, better implement copyright protection laws as currently any author’s intellectual property is vulnerable, even if the design is on the public market. The director of the Lithuanian Industrial Federation’s Economics and Finance department, Sigitas Besagirskas, believes that design innovation has been forgotten in Lithuania, whereas there is a heavy investment focus on improving product quality and industry in Scandinavia and that this would be a good path to follow. Although, admittedly, a government venture in design is quite risky because there is not the guaranteed return on investment as there is in taking manufacture orders. Because there is not a proper copyrighting system in place, including clear laws businesses are adopting a simpler, safer and traditional route.
“We need sponsorship, promotion, support and investment, otherwise we could miss the train, or not fit inside it, because China is quickly filling it up already” states Kalinauskas “and maybe even a Ministry of Design, but if nothing else, we need legislation that promotes design. Enthusiasm alone isn’t going to get you very far”.
Despite there being well-established patent systems worldwide, their flaws are many and varied. The US system, for example, requires full disclosure from the inventor and this is rewarded with only an explicitly limited term of protection, after which the data must be made public. For some industries, the patent system is the key to ensuring technological advancement.. For others, it is doubtful whether the system contributes anything, and it may even negatively impact research and growth. This need for change could provide a good opportunity for testing a new system in Lithuania and may encourage our creatives to try something different. Because after all, without original, innovative design the Lithuanian industry would be condemned to compete in the lowest markets, namely production. But understandably so, when there are barely any funds for paying out pensions, it is difficult to talk about huge long term investments because neither the government nor society will understand.
So, until this happens small and new businesses must survive and dig themselves out of difficult circumstances alone. There are actually quite a few new design companies popping up, according to Jarmalienė, because she says that starting up does not require a large sums of financial resources, unlike in other sectors, just human resources with a design skill set. However, she did go on to estimate that around half of these design startups fail after a few years because the competition is relatively large and fierce. She believes that because of the ease with which a design company can be established, young entrepreneurs don’t consider their business plan very well and how they will compete with the fierce competition so unless they have a very clear vision of what the company offers and, more importantly, the numbers, surviving past the first and second year of business can be tough. This is a field where every aspect is rapidly changing and moving forward, so every day we must learn, keep up, specialise and grow our experience.
When asked about how this compares to the UK system, for example, Jarmalienė reflected “From what I understand, it is far easier to establish a business in the UK than it is in Lithuania as there is less documentation to complete and fewer bureaucratic formalities to meet. Besides, we don’t have support for new entrants into the market or any tax benefits for the first year of operation, and if I am not mistaken, this is offered in the UK.” .
I managed to interview a creative with first hand experience of studying and working in both Lithuania and the UK. Matas Zaloga first studied at Šiauliai University for a year before realising that he needed a bigger challenge which was his reason for moving abroad. Having completed a degree in animation studies and screened his work at various international festivals, he now works at a creative studio which he is the founder of. “My dream was to work with the best in the creative industry, which is why I moved to the UK. Lithuania as a creative market is very tight and there aren’t enough clients for the number of existing and emerging companies which has resulted in vicious competition. I think Lithuanians should be open-minded and expand abroad.”.
And maybe Lithuanian designers still have a thing or two to learn from our friends overseas, such as the way the design process is approached. “I found that back in Lithuania, work in progress and development phases are virtually non-existent. Most of the time, creatives just dive straight into producing the finished piece, instead of discussing ideas and getting feedback first. This approach requires amendments the majority of the time.”.
DO WE STAND A CHANCE AGAINST THE BIG BAD WORLD?
Definitely not in the same scale, but in order to compete against cheap ‘Made in China’ products that dominate the market,
we must offer quality.
Lithuania has a unique culture and aesthetic which could enrich homes other than our own. Futhermore, due to the small nature of most Lithuanian creative companies, they can easily adapt according to the rapidly-changing industry. This is the stuff that big international companys’ dreams are made of.
Now that Lithuanian creatives have access to all the training material methods which are used in the rest of the world, theoretically there are no barriers, preventing our country from becoming known for its design on a European or even, global scale. But as we do not live in an ideal world, we recognise that this is not the case. We are often the underdogs of the design world because we only have a very limited industrial market and often direct our efforts towards niche demands.
It is possible that industrial design will never be strong in Lithuania as we are more of an agricultural country and maybe don’t even need a larger market for design. This doesn’t mean that this sector should pack up and go home, not at all. Maybe it’s okay that we keep expressing ourselves creatively whilst collaborating with designers from a myriad of cultures instead of trying to tread water in an over-saturated market. After all, sharing knowledge and perspectives can only lead to great ideas.
Unfortunately, Lithuanians still do not perceive design as an integral part of their life and as an indicator of the quality of life, but this will only come with time. But on the other hand, is this something that the country needs? Blindly following the Western plunge into consumerism could be the last thing that Lithuania needs. This could be a phenomenal opportunity to grow in better ways, and to learn from the mistakes that have come to form the materialist culture seen in the USA and increasingly in the UK.
Sadly, this was something that could not be avoided as Eastern Europeans wasted little time evolving into a consumer culture. Under occupation, Western brands were seen as the carriers of freedom and it had very little to do with the superior quality of the product. In these societies, a multitude of institutions both promote and serve consumerism, from eager retailers trying to seduce customers into buying more than they need, to product designers putting new features on established models, to advertisers working to dream up new needs.
Brands were more of a political statement than a fashion statement. However, international corporations trying to rename local brands as their own was resisted by the public. Marketers eventually realised that Lithuanians did not want to become the West, they only wanted to have access to the West. Foreign brands remained highly popular, but they were complemented by a handful of local brands that appealed to Lithuanian’s sense of individuality and patriotism. It is difficult to tell if this mentality has reached Lithuanian’s attitudes towards product design but maybe it is not too late to reestablish our ancestors’ values of quality over quantity.
This is an exciting time for Lithuania, the possibilities to develop into a country of creativity, niche offerings and free expression, are endless. And what do we need to do to accomplish this? “We must carry on being receptive, industrious and creative, and the fact that we were able to escape the Soviet Union’s clutches just proves that Lithuanian people are all those things.” is the optimistic reply from Jarmalienė. The younger generation who were born into an independent Lithuania are interested in everything as well as being courageous, determined, creative and curious hard workers. They all want to see, achieve and learn more than their parents and grandparents. They are going abroad to become trained and to receive work experience and then coming back with a myriad of new ideas for projects. And would Matas go back? “Yes, I would. I think that there are loads of talented people in Lithuania who have yet to be discovered.”. We truly have a unique culture with a lot to offer, we just needs to change our outlook.
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