In his book “B is for Bauhaus: An A-Z of the Modern World”, Deyan Sudjic, the director of The Design Museum in London, under “C” states: “It is no wonder then that the history of modern design is so often told as a sequence of chairs rather than of cars, or handguns, or typefaces, all of which could be plausible candidates for the role.” Accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, an attempt to narrate the history of Estonian design through the exhibit “Encounter Estonian Design: An Introduction” (Tartu Art Museum, September-December 2016, curated by Kai Lobjakas) does start with a chair. However, what seems of more importance to understanding the history of Estonian design is what Sudjic offers under the letter “N”: national identity.
Having migrated from war-torn Serbia (Yugoslavia back then) to the UK as a child, Sudjic found himself back in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, after a couple of decades, in 2007, the speaker at Belgrade’s pioneering design festival, “Belgrade Design Week”. During a taxi ride on his way to the airport, as noted in the book, Sudjic pondered Yugoslav architecture: Roman Catholic Croats built modern churches in concrete and glass, suggesting their belonging (or desire to belong) to a state looking West rather than East. In contrast, Orthodox Serbs built Byzantine churches in stone and tile. Countries so close, for decades part of the same geopolitical union, were now more distant than ever. On the other hand, even though there is quite some distance between them (although both are referred to as “East”) the Baltic (Post-Soviet) and Balkan (Post-Yugoslav) republics Estonia and Serbia share more similarities than it might seem at a first glance.
The main one, at least the one that caught my eye while a Serbian student of the semiotics of art in Estonia, falls under the term that Sudjic suggests for “N” of the modern world. Even now, as the Design Museum’s director has found, identity is not an entirely comfortable subject to bring up in Belgrade, and I will dare to add that it is not comfortable in Estonia either. Historically weighed down under rapid shifts of sociopolitical ideologies and cultural codes, both Estonia and Serbia have been left with a rather bitter taste in their mouths in terms of constantly being forced to redesign their national identities. The arts, including the applied arts and design production, many times throughout the histories of both countries served as resilience, resistance, even spite, at times when the freedom to express oneself unrestrictedly was silenced, especially since the voice of freedom had to navigate through an imposed set poetics. The political control of culture, typical of Marxist countries, meant that both countries were able to freely explore and create their designs only recently, both nationally and internationally. In the case of Estonia, this was after gaining final independence from Russian domination in 1991, and then upon its ascension to the European Union in 2004; in the case of Serbia it happened after 2000 and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, after which the country started to shape itself into a modern democracy with an urbanized culture, hoping that this transition (still ongoing, seemingly never ending) will ensure it a place within the European Union as well.
Coming back to the exhibit, and the chair, it is interesting to observe how both relate to the idea of national identity.
Given the fact that the mentioned chair is the first object a visitor encounters in encountering Estonian design, it seems valid to dive more deeply into why this specific object was placed as the starting point of the (hi)story of Estonian design. First of all, showcasing an introductory exhibit on national art not in the capital, where the institutional alma mater of the exhibit, the Estonian Museum of Applied Arts and Design, is located, but in the city of Tartu, finds its explanation in the establishment of Estonian national identity. Between 1918 and 1920, the Estonian War of Independence, in which Estonians, with Latvians and Britons as allies, fought the Soviet westward offensive, brought Estonia its birth certificate. The Tartu Peace Treaty, signed on 2 February 1920, formally declared the (first) independence of Republic of Estonia. Why then, is an object in a way older than Estonia the introductory object of the Estonian design narrative?
This is the question a fellow student asked me when I was giving the initial tour in English at the Tartu Art Museum, which held the aforementioned exhibit. As an intern at the museum, I conducted research in order to give tours in English for foreign students. Note that Estonia’s main university, the University of Tartu, with an array of international students, is based in Tartu instead of Tallinn. But, let me get back to the chair again.
The model of the chair, probably manufactured in the last decade of the 19th century or the very beginning of the 20th century (according to its catalogue number), is a piece made by the Luther factory for plywood and furniture (A.M. Luther Company for Mechanical Woodworking), at that time considered to be the largest Estonian furniture manufacturer in Russia. The factory was founded by members of a Baltic German timber guild family, Alexander Martin and Christian Luther. A legend that surrounds its foundation states that Christian decided that the Luthers’ main focus would be on renowned chairs after accidentally seeing an appealing design in a shop window during his visit to the USA. While such a statement certainly adds a bit of sensationalism to the story, a look at the Luthers’ furniture makes it clear that their designs looked beyond the tsarist borders, in a north-westerly direction.
The factory was founded in 1877, when flourishing industrialisation in the United Kingdom led to the affirmation of applied arts across Europe. The opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1852 initiated the hybridisation of artistic and industrial processes, as well as the presentation of design in a museum environment. The Luther factory cunningly took advantage of this, by exporting to other countries beyond the Russian core, and by establishing a sister company, “Venesta”, in 1908 in London. Some years before, the Luthers’ design won the Grand Prix at The Great Exhibit in Paris. The Luther factory grew to be a serious competitor to Western Europe’s leading furniture manufacturer, “Thonet”. Interestingly, if we were to look into Serbian design of the same period, and make an introductory exhibit on the subject of Serbian design, it would probably start with a chair as well, a chair by the founding father of Serbian design, Dragutin Inchiostri Medenjak. Inchiostri moved from Croatia to Serbia in 1905, when he intensively began what ended up being his lifetime task: the development of applied arts in Serbia. The parallel between the Luther factory and Inchiostri does not lie in their chairs, but rather in their significance in initiating national design productions.
Prior to Inchiostri’s arrival in Belgrade, Serbian applied arts were a pale echo of European applied art practices. In 1907, while preparing himself for “The Balkan States Expo” in London, Inchiostri published “Rebirth of Serbian Art”. In this book, Inchiostri suggested how to create, or rather renew national applied arts, which had been lost long before due to different dictatorships Serbia suffered under from the Middle Ages on. Due to a long history of oppression, the foundation of a national style had been long sought, and long desired, just as in Estonia. After learning from the experiences of other nations, Serbian applied artists had to turn to their own roots. Only by renewing and creating domestic and native ornaments and heritage, can a nation join in the global artistic desire to create stylistically recognizable artworks, according to Inchiostri. The ornament of national provenance, according to Inchiostri, is the key ingredient in this renewal.
The Luthers did not go this far, given the fact that they were not Estonians, and that Estonia did not exist at the time. However, they did lay the foundations for future designers by introducing effective industrialisation in manufacturing products that were both commercial and aesthetic, and in a way Estonian. The company closed during WWI, but the reopening of the company at the dawn of Estonia’s independence brought their designs closer to more modernist and functional, mostly British and Finnish, tendencies. In 1919, the collection of applied arts within the Estonian Art Museum was established.
What Luther’s initiated – Estonian applied arts – Johannes Lorup and Eduard Taska brought to perfection. By establishing Estonian national ornamental leather craft, Eduard Taska earned the title of the founder of modern Estonian leather-work. His workshop grew into a company in 1933, and trained dozens of young Estonian professionals, many of whom were women, mostly notably Helda Reimo. Like the Luthers, he exported all over Europe, as well as to Asia and Africa. Taska also won a ‘Grand Prix’ for Estonia, this time at the “Paris World Exhibition” in 1937. Taska included unique Estonian ethnographic motifs in his leather-work production, which consisted of binding, gilding and decorative modelling. Johannes Lorup now had enough to work on in his attempt to establish another applied arts discipline in Estonia: glass production.
Earlier this year, the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad, Serbia held an exhibit on modern Nordic glass design, which showcased designs from Scandinavia and Finland. However, the UN reclassified Estonia and the other Baltic republics as part of northern Europe in January 2017. I still remember the fireworks in Tartu. It was like Independence Day all over again. North, finally! After this change, the organizers of the exhibit invited me to give a lecture on Estonian design and its positioning between the East and the North, on the example of glass design. Interestingly, Estonian glass design was indeed initiated by the North, by a Swedish entrepreneur, Jakob de la Gardie, who founded the first glass factory in Estonia in 1628. The location of this factory, the village of Huti on the island of Hiiumaa, served as fertile ground for Gardie’s efforts. He took advantage of Estonia’s geopolitical position to initiate glass design. The island served as a rich source of clay and sand, there was a nearby seaport and a fuel supply in the forests, and it was far enough from Russia, which was about to begin its major expansion. According to the few preserved sources, this factory was one of the largest glass factories in northern Europe in the mid-17th century. Despite this, it was not until 1792 and the founding of the “Meleski” glass factory that Estonian glass production began in the way in which the Luthers initiated furniture production. The factory, again built by German landlords, was rented to the Amelung family, renowned glass producers from Germany. As Germany exported mirrors to Russia, Catherine II decided to raise the tariffs in order to initiate national glass production. Hence, the Amelungs rented the “Meleski” factory, and profited from domestic production. “Meleski” remained the largest glass producer in the Russian Empire and the Baltics until WWI and the intensifying of Russia-Estonia relations prior to Estonian independence.
From the foundations laid by Swedes and Germans, the Estonian entrepreneur Johannes Lorup constructed the renowned “Lorup’s Glass Factory”. The year 1934, when the factory was established, is considered the beginning of the professional Estonian glass industry. Lorup updated the production processes of the factory by implementing modern technologies, which enabled him to become Estonia’s first producer of crystal and semi-crystal. What distinguished Lorup’s production was the fact that he never copied the designs of other producers in Europe. Instead, he hired Estonian designers in order to find authentic Estonian artistic expression through the glass medium. One of those designers was Agnes Ney, who meticulously incorporated Estonian maritime symbols in her glass designs.
Interestingly, even when the factory was nationalised and renamed “Tarbeklass” upon Soviet Union’s forced integration of Estonia in 1940, the factory’s production still remained North-Western in its poetics to a great extent. The free artist was replaced by the labour unit, and design came to serve utility and necessity rather than aestheticism. It seemed to be easier to be an industrial artist than a painter or a sculptor, as the former could not work with a form and aesthetics without serving political ideology. Nevertheless, all design proposals had to be analysed and approved by special committees before even reaching the production process. However, it was through Estonia, the ‘most Western’ of the Soviet states, and through design that many modernist tendencies were born.
Design didn’t necessarily deal with political iconography, except for poster and print media propaganda. It did have to serve a political purpose, mainly utilitarian, but its production allowed the West to sneak in. This was not really homage, but rather taking what was best from competitors and putting it to use within Estonian borders. While the Luthers, Taska, and Lorup used ‘craftier’ and ‘handier’ materials, the Soviet Union switched the focus to industrially flexible and mechanically reproducible materials. Wood, leather and crystal were abandoned (although not completely) in favour of plastic, metal, textile and light glass: the materials Finland used (very successfully) to both create national design expression and to make a profit. At the time, Finland was, and is pretty much still, the world’s leading design force. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of WWII and the defeat of the Nazi forces, the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (later known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was established in 1945.
Even though modelled after the Soviet Union, the SFRY remained non-aligned, and even openly denounced any Soviet interference in its politics, and basically in every other aspect of life. “We will not be dependent on anyone ever again!” stated Josip Broz Tito in his 1948 letter to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ironically, we somehow ended up being dependent on our own union, and became quite lost after its disintegration. Regardless, we were a design force to reckon with, not to the extent of Finland, but enough to challenge others. There were “Iskra” telephones designed by Davorin Savnik, the world famous “K67” red kiosk of Sasa Machtig, Niko Kralj’s chairs, Yugoslav’s answer to “Converse All Stars” in the form of “Startas”, and, exported all the way to the USA, the car known as the “Zastava Yugo”. Since we had refused Soviet interference, “Iitala”, “Arabia”, “Marimekko”, Aalto and Saarinen were not the only competitors the Soviet Union had to deal with. However, Finland remained the biggest source of inspiration for Estonia, and the most serious competitor to Russia.
The designs of Pilvi Ojamaa and Elve Tauts were utilitarian, but they highly corresponded to the abstract organic forms of prominent Finnish design, especially glassware by Saara Hopea-Untracht and Timo Sarpaneva. Even though silenced and redirected, the artistic freedom Agnes Ney had while working for Lorup was still present in Ojamaa’s and Tauts’s designs. The Soviet Union challenged the West as well, not only with glass figures of the beloved Cheburashka, but with the Mickey Mouse glasses that “Tarbeklass” also manufactured.
The ideal Soviet society was meant to lift the working class by carrying on the tradition of the industrial revolution. Inevitably, being functional and practical made Soviet designs (including the designs of Estonian producers) modern. Just look at the production of “Estoplast”. Upon seeing their designs, I could not help but ask myself whether it was the Soviet Union that was competing in the space race with the USA, or Estonia? “Sputnik”, “Saturn”, and “Rocket” were just some of “Estoplast’s” names for their lamps and related products. The lamp called “model Э-236” proudly adorned the desk in my dorm room in Tartu for the semester I spent there. The Italian industrial design company “Guzzini”, which took Yugoslavia by storm, and Aalto’s lamps were just some of the examples that posed threats to Soviet design. Through “Estoplast” and Estonia, the Soviet Union was able to respond to this threat effectively.
What struck me the most regarding “Estoplast” and other designs from the mid-century up to the 80s in the Soviet Union was how much the public identified with them. I clearly remember that with each and every one of the foreign students I guided through the exhibit, even in their early 20s, German, Latvian, Estonian, Serbian, Russian, Slovakian, Hungarian and Bulgarian students felt the most comfortable in the room where these designs were exhibited. For them, it felt like being ‘in grandma’s house’. Students from France, Spain and the USA don’t have a similar identification point. It was marvellous, especially in the case of Estonian students, to see how close they felt to these designs, but how many unpleasant feelings they produce at the same time. The same feeling is present among people from the former Yugoslav republics; culturologists introduced the term ‘Yugonostalgia’ in order to properly describe this notion.
While preparing myself to give a presentation on this era, knowing that students would react the most to it, I stumbled upon the thoughts of Gord Peteran, a furniture professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Discussing the appeal of mid-century modern and the notion of retro, Peteran said that for those generations that missed a certain period (i.e. the 60s), that period seems like an exciting, even sexy time. It is no wonder then that we small nations emphasised the idea of our national identities the most at times when we were not fully recognised as independent states. Our grandparents and parents transmitted their cultural memories to us as reminders of both the good and bad old days. Through those memories, we are able to relive the past and identify with it. WWII ended, and the Cold War appeared to stabilise, and at one point, even under the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, both Estonia and Serbia were able to prosper. The lamp I mentioned was kindly handed over to my German neighbour.
When he saw it, he remembered his grandparents who used to have the same one and occasionally spoke Russian to him. Around that time, I went to spend winter holidays in Berlin, and stayed in a very peculiar apartment. My host said he wanted to recall that GDR feeling when I asked him why the apartment excessively quoted the designs of the past. On the wall was a poster with a statement in Cyrillic, glorifying Soviet space accomplishments. On the night table, there was an icon of space-age design, an orange alarm clock with a tulip base, produced in the 1970s by “Blessing” in West Germany. At around the same time the clock from my host’s apartment was produced, Bruno Tomberg established Estonia’s first class in design at the Estonian National Institute of Arts, now known as the Estonian Academy of the Arts. In 1980, the Museum of Applied Art opened its doors as a branch of the Estonian National Art Museum.
On 1 February 2004 the Museum of Applied Art became the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, operating as an independent state museum. Three months later, Estonia joined the European Union. Unlike the previous Union, this Union enabled Estonia and its designers to enjoy previously unknown mobility and cultural (dis)integration. Around the same time, the Orthodox world (including myself) celebrated Christmas. The fireworks I saw outside my dorm room in Tartu announced something else. The United Nations officially ‘re-branded’ Estonia as a ‘Northern European Country’. The UK, also considered a northern European country, was taking a road to the unknown after voting to leave the European Union. Serbia, caught somewhere in between, at a historic crossroads between Europe and Asia, on the ever-troubled Balkan peninsula, had got its re-branding too. Well, at least its capital did. Mainstream Western media started calling Belgrade the ‘Berlin of the East’, or ‘New Berlin’, partially thanks to Belgrade’s active design scene. Prior to my departure, I read the term ‘New East’, referring to the Balkan and post-Soviet republics outside of the EU, in a fashion magazine.
On January 31st I ended my schooling at Tartu, and my visa, which I needed as a student from outside of the European Union, expired. I did not know what I was leaving behind, and where I was going. It seemed that the Estonian compass was indeed pointing north all this time. As I was waiting at the terminal to board the plane home, I spread out my Marimekko coat to rest on it, when a billboard caught my attention. It was the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic in an advertisement for a wristwatch. Next to it, there was an informative billboard presenting fun facts about Estonia. Did you know that Skype is considered to be the most renowned Estonian design product?