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Lithuanian design

By Karolina Jakaitė

On design in Lithuania: through a search for experiences, changes and connections 

All of design is connected to the creation and use of experiences; only the nature of it varies widely. In some cases, if we’re talking about the design of things, usually the goal is to create states of convenience, multifunctionality or surprise, to impart sense to materiality, traditions or emotions, while in the case of critical or contextual design projects, we may be concerned with existential or even boundary experiences. However, in almost all circumstances, designers seek a certain change and they most certainly want to do it differently than others have done it before.

This text is also about changes and experiences in the design field in Lithuania that have occurred in the new millennium with a few historical reflections in an attempt to find connections among the past, the present and the future. And in doing so, we try to answer one of the most complex questions: How can we distinguish Lithuanian design? Can design define who we think we are?

When I wrote an overview in 2012, one of the challenges I encountered was the fact that when I conducted a Google search using the term ‘Lithuanian design’, the first result that appeared was the statement ‘Lithuanian design does not exist.’ This led me to question, discuss and speculate whether this was a conceptual joke, a provocation, a coincidence, an error or an accurate insight.

As it turns out, at that time there was an online Lithuanian message board dedicated to design with this provocative statement; it contained only a few entries and has long since ceased to exists. I also came across another similar statement in 2014 at an international design management conference in London where a British analysis of the European design policy was presented: in a survey of the state of Lithuania’s design field (which, in terms of the instruments of design policy was one of the weakest in the European Union) the information was presented by Latvians on behalf of Lithuania because the authors of the study simply were unsuccessful in getting in touch with any institutions in Lithuania.

It’s true that we should recognise that over the span of several years there have been certain positive changes in this field, but generally the majority of articles, announcements and news about Lithuanian design in the last decade have been tied to ‘success stories’, prizes, awards and the dissemination of the achievements of Lithuanian designers. This is always cause for joy, so my initial identification of subjective experiences which reveal that there can be instances of ‘miscommunication’ in the design field in Lithuania only adds variety to the context. Let’s begin with concrete examples and a few recollections of the past. The first is about Kaunas and the interwar period of Lithuania’s independence (1918-1940).

On the city of design and one of the design world’s legends

At the end of 2015, the news that we now have a design city in Lithuania rang out: Kaunas became the first East and Central European city to be granted entry into UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. We should mention the dynamic efforts of Kaunas’s architects and architectural historians over the last decade to re-evaluate the uniqueness of modernist architecture in Kaunas. Designers joined this effort some time later. After Kaunas was designated a Creative City, exhibitions and specialised excursions were begun to be organized that presented the design of the interwar period, giving people the opportunity to become familiar with art deco style design objects in the authentic setting of the 1920s and 1930s.

One of the most oft-mentioned names in design within this context is Lithuanian furniture designer Jonas Prapuolenis (1900–1980). After graduating from the Kaunas School of Art in 1928, Prapuolenis furthered his knowledge of interior design in Paris, and established a furniture studio in Kaunas during the interwar period. By designing mostly one-off furniture pieces, he sought to combine functionality, modernity of form and the Lithuanian spirit. The chairs that Prapuolenis designed and decorated with Lithuanian folk motifs won the gold medal at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris in 1937.

Even though the legend of Prapuolenis is inseparable from the city of Kaunas, his furniture and unique, easily recognizable and imitated folk design style had spread throughout all of Lithuania. In searching for connections, we should remember the project created by Julijus Balčikonis and presented at the Artifex gallery in Vilnius in 2012. This audiovisual installation, dedicated to his grandfather Juozas Balčikonis – a famous textile artist – used personal objects, documentary narratives and recollections to reimagine the work of Jonas Prapuolenis.

Kaunas boasts even more legendary names from the interwar period, including Vladas Švipas (1900–1968) – a graduate of the Bauhaus school, Jonas Juozas Burba (1907–1952) – advertising designer or Petras Rimša (1881–1961) – creator of the Urach throne. We can expect more interesting ways to engage with Lithuania’s design heritage, especially in 2022 when Kaunas becomes the European Capital of Culture.

On the 1960s, design in other terms and Feliksas Daukantas

One other look back that I would like to introduce is related to the Soviet era, but it generally raises a good number of ‘communication’ issues. In the 1960s, ‘Many good, beautiful and inexpensive things’, was the lovely but almost unattainable primary goal declared by experimental design bureaus, which invested heavily in the design of new products.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, new design institutions were established in Lithuania, design shows organized, and ideas about the modernisation of objects and the environment emerged. In truth, if you’d like to learn more about Lithuanian design in the 1960s, you’d have to use other search terms: like, for example, artistic construction, industrial modelling, technical aesthetics, exhibitions of achievements or housekeeping. The work of a furniture design bureau, established in Vilnius in 1957, was particularly crucial. The architects, engineers and designers who worked at this firm made one-off furniture for public buildings and also typical projects and furniture models for mass manufacturing. A new Department of Industrial Artistic Construction was established in 1961 at the State Institute of Art (today the Vilnius Academy of Arts). For several years, it was led by Professor Feliksas Daukantas (1915–1995), who was considered the founder of design education in Lithuania.

The design studies program created by Daukantas, through which almost 300 design students graduated before 1990, was known for its well-regarded introductory course, taught according to the Bauhaus method, for its connections with the Ulm School of Design, for its theatrical traditions (initially, puppetry, and later pantomime and shadow play), and also for its contracts with manufacturers and the diversity of genres and professional directions taken by its future graduates. The design specialists, who were called artists-constructors, got jobs in bureaus or specialized construction offices, where the management, unfortunately, did not always understand ‘what on earth’ a designer was, and so often did not attribute authorship to the projects. Those who worked in the design field almost consistently were faced with a variety of contradictions:  manoeuvring between theory and practice, modern one-off projects and poor-quality industrial production, professional craftsmanship and hackwork, assertions of prosperity and constant shortages.

Another important word of the 1960s was experiment, not just experimental bureaus, but also projects that signalled progressivism, modernism, the use of new materials and technologies, usually created only for exhibitions and largely for export. It is here that again we can see connections with Lithuania’s contemporary design, where there is also a great focus on presenting work abroad.

The Lithuanians are coming’ or on Lithuanian design in London in 1968 and 2006

‘The Lithuanians are coming’ – this is what Richard Clayton wrote in Time magazine in 2006 after the London design exhibition ‘100% Design’. He turned his attention to rocking chairs and among the names of world-renowned designers such as Ron Arad (United Kingdom) and Niko Kralj (Slovenia) he mentioned two Lithuanian names and the Lithuanian design studio Contraforma. Neringa Dervinytė’s rocking chair Mom and Paulius Vitkauskas’ Ku-dir-ka, were being shown abroad for the first time and later became icons of Lithuanian design. In 2012, at an international exhibition called Everyday Discoveries in the design capital of Helsinki, Ku-dir-ka was shown in the ‘Icons’ section alongside the classic Thonet No. 14 chair, a Le Corbusier chaise longue and Sori Yanagi’s calligraphic Butterfly stool.

And returning to London, we want to recall that Lithuanian design was exhibited in the legendary Earls Court Exhibition Centre almost 50 years ago. A short article appeared in the British daily newspaper The Times on 16 August 1968 with the resonant headline ‘A Lithuanian at Earls Court’ which discussed the Lithuanian pavilion at the Soviet Union Industry and Trade Exhibition in 1968. For Lithuanians, this was the first international exhibition of this calibre in the West during the Soviet era, one in which they presented a national stand with a united artistic concept, unique in its modern views and expression of national identity. The architect of the stand, Tadas Baginskas, who travelled to London to showcase works in the exhibition, said the following in his remembrances of London in 1968: ‘We had always looked up to the West and had a keen interest in Scandinavian, Italian, and Japanese design. We did not consider the occupiers as an authority. And the most pleasing thing was that everyone at the exhibition in London noticed this. Our exhibition fitted in perfectly.’

In searching for connections in form and theme, it’s easy to see that these two presentations of Lithuanian design that took place almost half a century apart are both represented by the symbol of the rue. The catalogue of the 1968 Lithuanian stand was designed by Antanas Kazakauskas and was highlighted graphically by the inclusion of a logo designed by Vaidilutė Grušeckaitė of a blossoming rue, which is symbolically significant to Lithuanians. In 2006, the young designer Neringa Dervinytė in thinking about a new rocking chair also searched for Lithuanian cultural identity and was inspired by Lithuanian folk cut out designs and stories, chose a felt material, a decorative rue design and a symbolic name in English ‘Mom’.

Fifty years have passed since the 1968 exhibition, and this is the exact point when examples of design can be called a part of our legacy. Over the last few years we see an increased interest not only in design from the interwar period, but in objects created in the 1960s and in the work and personalities of designers of that time. Here we can mention the Design Foundation’s projects that actualize design history and begin to follow news on social media, particularly the targeted hashtag #Lithuaniandesignheritage, which was started by designer Ramūnas Gilys, the creator of the Old-new (old-new.lt) web platform.

On Lithuanian design after 2000, presentations abroad, the Lithuanian Design Forum and the Lithuanian Design Block 

In returning to the presentations of contemporary Lithuanian design abroad, we must recognize that like Lithuanian design in general, they became more active in the new millennium. After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, designers tried to adapt to the changing economic and social situation and worked for a good decade mostly in various advertising fields. From 2000 onward, creative initiatives were more prevalent, design studios were established, and designers began organizing joint exhibitions. Among the first creative impulses we may want to recall is the group A.K.I.S. (Akis / Eye or Autorių Kūrybinių Iniciatyvų Studija / Authors’ Creative Initiatives Studio) that only existed for a brief period of time but managed to implement several ambitious design projects. One of the most visible was the 2001 show A Fragment of time. The Path: past, present and future, which presented the work of Lithuanian designers from different generations and time periods at the specialized 7th International Furniture Exhibition at the LITEXPO Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre. In 2002, A.K.I.S. was the first group to represent Lithuania with a collective designers’ stand at the Salone Satellite furniture show in Milan.

Another significant phenomenon of the first decade of the 2000s is Contraforma, which was established in 2000 by the designer Nauris Kalinauskas and brought together many interesting Lithuanian designers under one roof. Contraforma was active until 2015 and during that period many of the creative projects were directed at international exhibitions and markets. Contemporary furniture design objects created by Lithuanian designers became known and recognized not only in Lithuania and Europe, but also the United States and Japan. Aside from the rocking chairs already mentioned, there was Nauris Kalinauskas’s Mutabor cardboard chair, the Quad shelving unit and the Imperial puzzle rug; designer Neringa Dervinytė’s Romance; and Žilvinas Stankevičius’s July chair.

If we look at things from the perspective of time, we can distinguish certain time periods when Lithuanian design was most active. In the early 21st century, a new initiatives boom occurred around 2006-2007. The Lithuanian Design Forum was established in 2006 – it is a non-governmental organization that works for wider recognition of Lithuanian design in both a national and international level. The Lithuanian Design Forum was established by Vytautas Gurevičius, publisher of the interior, design and architecture magazine Centras, Marius Dirgėla, a design publicist, and designer Nauris Kalinauskas.

In 2006, for the first time the Lithuanian Design Forum held a Design Week to coincide with the annual Baldai / Furniture exhibition in Vilnius. It is due to this initiative that the life of Lithuanian design becomes very active during the first week of every May not only in Vilnius, but also Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Anykščiai and Telšiai. There are exhibitions, competitions, various promotions, and presentations of new products and ideas.

An important aspect of Lithuanian design was the [neformate] design competition, established by Kalinauskas in 2006, which had a new theme every year and attracted new ambitious creators. By the way, we should mention that Kalinauskas was the first Lithuanian designer to win a Red Dot prize in 2007 for the soft seating series LOGO (manufactured by Softimus). From that point forward, the visibility of Lithuanian design abroad only increased. In 2011, the Lithuanian Design Block project, curated by Eglė Opeikienė, was begun, and it included Lithuanian design studios and freelance designers. After a successful start at the Tendence Messe in Frankfurt and at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York, the designers of the Lithuanian Design Block have continued showcasing project in other countries. From 2012, Lithuanian design projects have also been shown at the Design Lithuania stands curated by the Lithuanian Design Forum, and have also travelled throughout several key design destinations in Europe.

All of this can be considered the genesis of the ‘success stories’ of Lithuanian design, which encouraged designers to enter the international stage by presenting their personal product brands. We must note that it has become difficult even over the last five years to keep track all of the presentations by Lithuanian designers in shows abroad and their achievements in international competitions, of which there really are quite a lot. They are creating their unique identities and developing their own client base.

DesignboomCore77 and other design sites have written about Lithuanian designers. The German design magazine Form dedicated the January 2016 (#264) issue to Lithuanian design with ‘Lithuania, Land of design’. The cover was designed by Kotryna Žukauskaitė and features illustrations that showcased Lithuanian design brands (Tadam!, Formuniform, March), symbols, and the above mentioned iconic design objects.

On the Young Designer, Good Design prizes and innovations 

The future of Lithuanian design is dependent on young designers. Since 2011, the Vilnius Academy of Arts Design Innovations Centre has held the Young Designer Prize competition. Every year, seniors in the bachelor’s studies course compete for a monetary prize (€ 1,000) and public attention. The most original and final projects that raise and consider issues relevant to the present are judged under three categories: product and industrial design, graphic and communication design, and fashion design. Starting in 2018, the contest will include a new design theory and research nomination category. From 2011-2017, the competition has solicited almost 500 submissions from 6 institutions of higher learning in Lithuania and one abroad. With a recognizable green motif, the exhibitions of the Young Designer Prize feature work of designers that stand out because of their bold and ambitious concepts, as well as their sometimes especially visionary projects. Examples could be the inverse trike Ako by Lukas Avėnas that won the main prize in the product design category in 2016 or the amphibian velomobile Rusnė by Mantas Petkelis, that won the audience prize in 2017 (the supervisor of both projects was associate professor Šarūnas Šlektavičius).

Projects that are based more in the real world participate in the Geras dizainas / Good Design competition, which has been presented by the Lithuanian Design Forum since 2012. In the history of design, the concept of good design has always been associated with functional solutions, with design that is understandable to and approachable for everyone. Among the goals of the Lithuanian national Good Design contest are the attempts to evaluate the production of Lithuanian companies and the work of Lithuanian designers, to bring together a community and increase the visibility of design within society. Over the competition’s six years, almost a hundred active Lithuanian designers have been awarded prizes or diplomas; their projects are evaluated by an independent international commission of experts newly invited every year.

From 2017, the competition has as many as 10 categories, one of which incidentally is dedicated to social and service design. The 2017 winner of this prize was the young designer Austėja Šeputė and her project that addresses the issue of organ transplantation What’s Your Plan B? The designer Gintarė Černiauskaitė won the Good Design prize for her EXO line of 3D printed splints for the neck, arms, wrists and fingers, which the designer has been working on to improve over several years. We also would like to recall the earlier modern navigation tool The Aid created by Eglė Ugintaitė in 2011 that helps the elderly and handicapped, and which won the Grand Prize of the Fujitsu Design Award 2011 and the Good Design prize.

The few examples mentioned here confirm that designers create not only aesthetically pleasing, functional objects, but also strive to contribute to the betterment of the world, to solving social issues by creating sustainable and innovative products. I remember when for the first time saw the conceptual design exposition Flowmarket at the Danish Design Centre in 2007, I was most impressed by a package that weighed about 5 kilograms and on which there was an inscription ‘Sustainable innovation’. Lithuanian designers are more and more concerned with this theme.

The theme of sustainability is present in Evelina Kudabaitė’s project Giria / Forest, INDI lamps and designer Inga Valentinienė’s research project LDK. LDK is an acronym familiar to Lithuanians (it stands for Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė - the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), although probably not everyone will decipher the designer’s alternate intention: LDK - linai [flax], dilgėlės [nettle] and kanapės [hemp], three fibrous plants that are native to Lithuania and bloom annually. For several years now, the designer has been developing scientific and artistic analyses about the use of these ecological materials in eco furniture design. I also want to mention a few very new projects: the young designer Austėja Platukytė’s Zero Waste, which considers biodegradable packaging and was presented during the 2017 Dubai Design Week, and energy ferry Uperis, which represented Lithuania at the 2017 Creative Business Cup in Copenhagen. 

Lithuanian design competitions often become an impulse to strive for international recognition, and Ignas Survila, with his orange scooter Pigeon, has become the record holder. This is also a platform to form and support successful cooperation between Lithuanian designers and companies in Lithuania. In this manner, we see the formation of creative partnerships between designers and industry leaders, like for example the projects of designers Inesa Malafej, Arūnas Sukarevičius, Barbora Adamonytė and Аušrinė Augustinaitė created in collaboration with EMKO, Julius Bučelis and Moses Kang with ACME, Denis Orlenok with Aedilis, Edvardas Kavarskas with Biržų duona or Stumbras, Rasa Balaišė with Lonas. We could continue this list of collaborations and keep adding to it. Furthermore, we should mention the fact that worldwide brands can also become clients of Lithuanian designers, like, for example: Tomas Ivaškevičius who designed the Nokia C7, Tomas Jankauskas and his Porsche type 64 concept 2039, which won the Red Dot Prize for automobile design in 2015, or Dominykas Budinas who designed the Air Shield Baby stroller and won second place in the international Electrolux Design Lab 2015 finals.

On the uniqueness of Lithuanian design, its Lithuanian identity and the vanishing limits of design 

Even though they differ considerably in intention and form, the works of Lithuanian designers are often compared to Scandinavian designs for the use of natural materials (real wood, wool, and flax), inspiration found in nature, repeated plant motifs, and skilled craftsmanship. However, Lithuanians peculiarly recreate in their own way and add variety to the Scandinavian goal of minimalism and purity. They imbue their work with playful details, unexpected emotions, often strange experiences, in some sense close to the Dutch designers working at Droog design in the Netherlands.

Having identified a few playful examples of Lithuanian chairs, we can delve into the unexpected explorations of the national cuisine and Lithuanian traditions. We can also recall the edible lights called Tasty designed by Juozas Brundza, featured for the first time in 2009 during Milan Design Week. Having broken off a piece of the šakotis (the traditional Lithuanian tree cake), you’ll also want to taste the glazed mushroom cookies and the mini bagels sprinkled with chocolate and gold from the Tadam! Collection. Or maybe you’d like to delve into new experiences through the rituals of Lithuanian holidays by designer Živilė Lukšytė and the food design studio Less table in their project The Rituals of Lithuanian Holidays, presented in 2017 at the Centre for Civil Education.

It’s not only traditions, local materials and histories, but also the native Lithuanian language, its otherness and uniqueness can inspire or dictate new design alternatives. Here we look at designer Rūta Mickienė’s unique project Aqua Lingua, the Lithuanian fashion label labàdienà (good day in Lithuanian), where you can say hello with a hat or a sweater, and the 2 euro coin released by the Bank of Lithuania called ačiū (thank you). And, of course, we can’t forget LT Identity and its more than 20 years of projects that question, actualize and propagate Lithuanian identity, the newest of which focuses on language and the Lithuanian national anthem

Speaking of uniqueness, we must mention projects developed by Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė that balance between art and design. Cross-stitched metal objects distinguish the artist from other creators: like a floor lamp made out of old buckets or the drum of a washing machine and embroidered with cross-stitched flowers, while the stand is a thick drill or a repurposed heating pipe.

When speaking about the boundaries between art and design, we must recognize that in Lithuania during the Soviet era, unlike in Estonia and Latvia, there was no clearly defined art design tradition. Meanwhile, there are several positive changes occurring in the contemporary Lithuanian design field. One of the active connections in this field is related to the design scene in the Netherlands, namely the Design Academy Eindhoven: graduates of this school, the Lithuanian designers Vytautas Gečas, Marija Puipaitė, Tauras Stalnionis and Agnė Kučerenkaitė create contextual design projects, curate exhibitions and presents design objects that invite us to take a new look at the world around us, to explore it and continually ask the very designer-like question: why? Why is a table a table and why is it the way it is or how to find that personal relationship with things?

Another outstanding example is Julijonas Urbonas and his critical design projects that teeter on the boundaries between design, art, science and fiction and forces the audience to face often radical questions and boundary situations, particularly with Euthanasia Coaster (2011). With one of his newest projects focused on outer space, the designer himself asserts, ‘design is powerless to create ideal comfort, but it can create pleasant, interesting and absorbing stories.’ 

In this text we have touched on only some of the stories of Lithuanian design that highlighted certain tendencies and connections between different time periods through individuals, signs, symbols, experiences and meanings. After exploring an uptick in activity around 2006, we again see a period of new initiatives some 10 years later: in 2015, Lithuania celebrated the centennial of Professor Feliksas Daukantas (ill. 2) and the inaugural National Packaging Design Awards (NAPA) were set up. In 2016, the following new initiatives began their activities: the Performative Design Association, the Design Education Laboratory, the Design Foundation, the new design brand jot.jot; the Museum of Applied Arts and Design was reorganised in Vilnius, the Design Library opened in Kaunas; and a Design for Europe research team visited Lithuania.

We see established traditions and an ever-growing diversity of developments in the field of Lithuanian design: both in design genres and in the sense of available opportunities from successful examples of industrial design and future visions to service design and social projects. On the other hand, we see the dissolution of the boundaries between various fields and connections being made between design, art and science, business and innovation. And it is in this context that the words of László Moholy-Nagy in the mid-20th century ring ever more true: ‘Designing is not a profession but an attitude,’ within which the most important thing is the empathy.