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Lihuanian design

‘Lithuanian design does not exist.’ This is the first result of a search on Google for the term ‘Lithuanian design’. In fact, one of the Lithuanian discussion websites devoted to the design has been registered under this provocative banner - it has only has a few solitary entries, and those are several years old.

Even though we might consider this result a conceptual joke, a coincidence or just a mistake, the statement is worth exploring. Before we can believe it, express doubt about it, or completely deny it, we need additional facts, examples or specific information about the current field of Lithuanian design and the processes occurring in it, and also at least a few historical reference points about the traditions and conditions that have emerged. 

Design and Identity

Does Lithuanian design exist? Why does this particular question arise? Because design and the national discourse are closely connected to writing on the history of design, the creation of national strategies, and the programmes that implement these strategies. Because an understanding of design is about more than just the objects themselves. It is also a kind of ideology, a world-view, and a means of communication. In creating new objects, services or experiences, designers embody an individual way of life and a philosophy, where time, place and a specific culture are somehow reflected. In obtaining and using objects created by designers, we also convey some sort of information about ourselves: we create and maintain our identity.

The material culture formed by designers has had a huge influence on the transformation of the national identity. Perhaps these goals have been embodied most successfully by international exhibitions in which design, objects of decorative art, and industrial and technological advances have played a formative role in seeking to showcase and promote the success of nation, to strengthen national identities, and to bring nations together under a single symbol.

In forming its identity in an international context, Lithuania, like other East European countries, for a long time used a national strategy that focused on folk and craft traditions, which looked back to the nation’s history. Works in the so-called national style that were exhibited next to examples of authentic folk art played a meaningful role in all the large presentations of Lithuania abroad during the interwar period. We can recall the Lithuanian pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, where the goal was to present a picture of modern Lithuania, and also to show its uniqueness by exhibiting furniture designed by Jonas Prapuolenis (1900–1980) decorated with folk motifs. It won a gold medal. After graduating from the Kaunas School of Art in 1928, Prapuolenis established his own furniture studio. In his furniture, he sought to harmonise functionality and modernism of form with folk art traditions.

The Beginnings of Lithuanian Design

An important role in the history of Lithuanian design is associated with the Soviet period, particularly with the period of the ‘thaw’ in the 1950s and 1960s, when changes in applied art and design occurred. In 1957, the Experimental Construction Bureau was established, where almost all the designs relating to furniture made in Lithuania were held. Furniture designs developed by Lithuanian designers and architects were shown at Soviet exhibitions and were exported to other countries. However, the ponderous nature and the various other limitations of the Soviet system prevented the mass-production of original furniture, and they often remained only as experimental examples.

An important event was the establishment in 1961 of the Department of Design, then called the Department of Artistic Construction of Industrial Products, at the Institute of Art (currently the Vilnius Academy of Arts). It was established and headed for a long time (until 1985) by Professor Feliksas Daukantas (1915–1995). Daukantas devised the first curriculum and in his publications and reflections about the purpose of applied art and the demands placed on it, raised important questions about design, the everyday environment, and aesthetic impact. This was one of the first industrial design departments in the Soviet Union. It worked closely with the Ulm School of Design, various design and construction firms, the Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics, and various experimental factories. It became centre for the training of specialists in industrial art or product design and a platform for a beginning in their professional activities. [i]

Lithuanian Designers Today

The majority of Lithuanian contemporary designers are graduates of the Department of Design at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. Others have diplomas in architecture, or have studied other branches of applied art, such as textiles or jewellery. However, their careers have led them into industrial or interior design.

There are many designers living and working in Lithuania today. In 2008, Per Mollerup, a researcher in the field of design, carried out a study titled Design in Lithuania: A Guarantee of Competitive Excellence, under an initiative by the Vilnius Academy of Arts, and tried to come with a number for all the designers. [ii] This study, conducted by the Danish design consulting agency Mollerup Designlab, the managing director of which was Per Mollerup, sought to present strategic proposals for the dissemination of and the formation of policy for Lithuanian design. In 2003 and 2004 it had carried out research on design in Estonia and Latvia. The 2008 research report presented the following figures: there were about 1,000 designers, who had completed design studies and were working in various areas of design, living in Lithuania; and 243 of them were members of various design unions and associations (the Lithuanian Association of Graphic Design, the Lithuanian Designers Society, and the National Fashion Designers Association). This showed that they were active in the field of design.

When comparing these numbers with the indicators from Estonia and Latvia, Mollerup came to the conclusion that there were many more designers being trained and actively working in Lithuania than in the other Baltic countries.

The Visibility of Lithuanian Design

One of the most important points highlighted in Mollerup’s study was the low visibility of Lithuanian design, both on a local and an international level. Over the last five years, a good number of important changes have occurred to move this situation in a positive direction.

The year 2006 can be viewed as a kind of turning point in the presentation of Lithuanian design. That year, the Lithuanian Design Forum was established, a non-profit organisation that seeks wider recognition for Lithuanian design and its use in industry, public spaces and education. The formation of the Lithuanian Design Forum was initiated by Vytautas Gurevičius, the publisher of the design and architecture magazine Centras (The Centre), Nauris Kalinauskas, a designer and head of the Contraforma studio, and Marius Dirgėla, a design publicist. In 2006, a new section, the Design Innovation Centre, was established at the Vilnius Academy of Arts.[iii] The centre seeks to encourage closer collaboration between designers at the Vilnius Academy of Arts and representatives from business and industry, in order to create favourable conditions for young designers, and to develop international cooperation.

The same year, the first Design Week was established by the Design Forum, to coincide with the annual furniture show Baldai (Furniture). It is precisely because of Design Week that every spring over the last eight years the field of design in Lithuania is given a fresh impetus. The week features exhibitions, competitions, promotions and presentations of new products and ideas. The competition Neformate, initiated by Kalinauskas in 2006, has become a design phenomenon. Each year, the competition has a different theme and attracts an ever greater number of ambitious designers.

In the autumn of 2006, it was not just Contraforma that represented Lithuania at one of the largest design shows in the world, 100% Design, in London (it had started doing so in 2003). Contraforma was joined by two furniture design companies, YZY and Sedes Regia, and by Centras magazine. From then on, Lithuanian designers began to collaborate more and more actively and joined forces to participate in international exhibitions (Milan, Cologne, Stockholm, Riga). This radically changed the visibility of Lithuanian design.

The export of Lithuanian design is inseparably linked with the work and the initiatives of Eglė Opeikienė. In 2011, she began curating a design studio project called Lithuanian Design Block, which had its successful debut in New York at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. In 2012, the Lithuanian Design Block stand, displaying new objects created by Lithuanian designers, made its appearance at the International Furniture Fair Singapore, where the Sedes Regia company's rocking armchair Ops!, designed by Jonas Jurgaitis, was chosen as the best piece in the living-room furniture category.

The Lithuanians are Coming

The country’s designers are now internationally recognised. On 3 July 2007, Richard Clayton wrote in Time magazine ‘The Lithuanians are coming’,[iv] following the innovative design debut of Lithuanian rocking chairs at the 100% Design show in London. The article featured two designers who represented the Contraforma studio, and their furniture designs, the rocking armchair Mom (2006), designed by Neringa Dervinytė, and the rocking chair KU-DIR-KA (2006), designed by Paulius Vitkauskas. Clayton’s apt observation was that Lithuanian designers combine Scandinavian simplicity and the strangeness of Dutch Droog design objects.

It is interesting to note that Lithuanian design was shown and noticed about four decades ago at Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London. On 16 August 1968, The Times published an article with the title A Lithuanian at Earls Court, which featured the Lithuanian pavilion at the 1968 Trade and Industrial Exhibition of the USSR. These two Lithuanian design events, separated by several decades, were connected by the symbol of the rue plant. Dervinytė, when she was creating the design for the Mom chair, was inspired by patterns on traditional Lithuanian dowry chests, and incorporated a decorative rue motif into her design. In 1968 Vaidilutė Grušeckaitė, in creating the logo for the pavilion, also chose the rue, popular in Lithuanian gardens, making it the main element in the graphic design used for the Lithuanian stand.

We might also recall the playful mobile telephone cases featuring stylised rue and oak leaves designed by LT Identity creators Jolanta Rimkutė and Ieva Ševiakovaitė. The cases were made for the Nokia C7 mobile telephone, designed by a fellow Lithuanian, Tomas Ivaškevičius, who was working at Nokia as a senior product designer.

Between the National and the International

When searching for a description of the Lithuanian school of design, examples of Western design are often used, in conjunction with an attempt to discover uniquely Lithuanian characteristics. Even though it is difficult to talk about a single Lithuanian design school or tradition, it has always balanced between the national and the international. Professor Tadas Baginskas, who for a long time was head of the Department of Design at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, noted that European design features and the legacy of ethno-cultural tradition are characteristic of Lithuania.[v] Professor Feliksas Daukantas also use to emphasise the importance of national character: ‘The originality which stems from the national character should be at the very core of art, in the very architecture of a piece of furniture, and it must appear in the outer forms of the construction.’ [vi]

When creating new projects, contemporary Lithuanian designers draw inspiration from Lithuanian folk art and look for connections with tradition. ‘Ethnic motifs will haunt Lithuanians forever, because you can’t run away from your roots,’ says Kalinauskas, who is often called the herald of Lithuanian national design. ‘But if you don’t run away from them, if you take your ideas from the mature heritage of your nation and ancestors, the results can surprise design experts throughout the world. Every country is unique in its traditions, and contemporary creativity is simply a continuation of those traditions.’

As a playful example of Lithuanian design one is reminded of the edible lighting designed by Juozas Brundza, first shown in 2009 at Milan Design Week. The design for the light, called Tasty (2009), was based on a popular Lithuanian cake, a šakotis (baumkuchen), which represents Lithuania’s culinary heritage. The shape is perfect for a floor lamp shade, and after it has been used, it can be eaten.

Other popular objects of Lithuanian contemporary furniture design that have been hits not only in Europe but also in the United States are Dervinytė’s table Romance, Kalinauskas’ shelving unit Quad, and rug /jigsaw puzzle Imperial, and Jurgaitis’ Alien chair, which really does look as if it has come from another planet.

The work of Lithuanian designers is often compared to Scandinavian design, because of their use of natural materials (wood, wool), inspiration from nature, and recurring plant motifs. The minimalism and purity of Scandinavian design, together with emotional and playful concepts, are characteristic of the objects designed by Juozas Brundza and Rasa Baradinskienė. They represented Lithuanian design tendencies at the travelling Nordic-Baltic design exhibition 16 Steps Closer.

'Good Design' in Lithuania 

Another new initiative was started in 2012: a national design competition called Good Design was established. The goal of the competition is to identify the best design in the country, and to evaluate the products of Lithuanian companies and the work of Lithuanian designers.

Throughout the history of design, the concept of good design has always been connected with simple, functional design, accessible to and affordable for everyone. We can recall the Good Design programmes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that began in the mid-20th century. These programmes promoted cooperation between artists and industry, the propagation of British design programmes, and the policies of Scandinavian design. They are all connected by the desire to support and encourage collaboration between professional designers and local manufacturers.

With the establishment of the national Good Design Prize, the goal every year will be to select 12 of the best design objects and three still unrealised projects, chosen by an international panel of experts, according to the same set of rules. This year in the first competition, several objects, from furniture to modern appliances, designed by well-known designers (Juozas Brundza, Darius Čekanauskas, Jonas Jurgaitis, Gediminas Juška, Nauris Kalinauskas, Mindaugas Žilionis, and others) were awarded prizes. They were all produced by Lithuanian manufacturers, who were also awarded national design prizes. The work of the winners of the Good Design Prize was exhibited during Design Week at the Energy and Technology Museum.

Objects from Good Design were also presented in 2012 at the international exhibition Everyday Discoveries in Helsinki, a part of the official World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 programme, at the national display Lithuanian Design: Past, Present, Future. Seven design objects were shown in the general exhibition area. Among them was Vitkauskas’ chair KU-DIR-KA, shown in the thematic Icons exhibition next to the classic chair Thonet No. 14, a Le Corbusier chaise lounge No. B306, and Sori Yanagi’s calligraphic Butterfly stool, and other icons of world design. Žilvinas Stankevičius’ chair July, reminiscent of a Lithuanian summer, was one of 23 chairs or stools, reflecting distinctive national features, that each participating country was invited to place at a long dinner table.

Young Lithuanian Designers and Their Achievements

The future of Lithuanian design is associated directly with young designers. While still studying, they participate successively in Lithuanian and international competitions, win important awards and first prizes. This was how the careers of Julius Bučelis, Mantas Lataitis and Povilas Vitkauskas started. It is worth mentioning that one of the most recognisable successes of the last few years was Toma Brundzaitė, a student at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, who won the contest Design Lab ’09 with her wall-mounted Bifoliate dishwasher. Gabrielė Meldaikytė's specialised kitchen appliances, designed to be able to make breakfast with one hand, has won as many as three international prizes: first prize at the SaloneSatellite WorldWide in Moscow in 2009, second prize at I Saloni Premio SaloneSatellite in Milan in 2010, and third prize at Cumulus 20th Anniversary Student Design Exhibition in Shanghai in 2010.

The modern navigation tool Aid, which was designed by Eglė Ugintaitė, a 2011 graduate of the Department of Design at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, was awarded the Fujitsu Design Award 2011 prize. In 2012, Inesa Malafej’s thesis project, the writing table My Writing Desk, received an award for product design at the international contest iF Design Award. These projects, which have been recognised internationally, were also recognised by winning prizes at Good Design in Lithuania in 2012.

Young designers are supported by new initiatives specially targeted at them. From 2011, the Design Innovation Centre at the Vilnius Academy of Arts has sponsored the Young Designer’s Prize (ill. 13), the purpose of which is to show the work of young designers to the general public, as well as to representatives from business and industry, in an attempt to help young designers become established in the market. Students in the last year of their BA studies all compete for this prize. The most original final works which raise and solve important questions are awarded prizes in three categories: product and industrial design, graphic and communication design, and fashion design.

Experience Design

Contemporary design, which seeks to improve the quality of life, is not limited to the creation of objects. Although the term ‘experience design’ only appeared a few decades ago, one could say that all design is related to the creation of experiences, although sometimes its nature can differ radically. In some cases (creating furniture design), a state of comfort, playfulness and convenience is sought, while in others a marginal and existential experience is sought (as in the work of Mantas Lesauskas and Julijonas Urbonas). According to Paolo Antonelli, communication is the most important function of contemporary design: ‘Designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parlour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.’[vii]

Design not only solves problems, it also searches for and analyses them, raising various questions. As the Lithuanian designer Julijonas Urbonas, who works in the area of interactive design, says, design is unable to create ideal comfort, but it can create pleasant, interesting and absorbing stories.8

To return to the question we asked at the beginning (Does Lithuanian design exist?), we would like to expand upon Google’s search results. Even though there is no uniform concept or single code for Lithuanian design, and perhaps there never was, the names, facts and examples given in this text show that design, very diverse in its purpose and form, exists in Lithuania, and that it is visible and recognisable throughout the world.

Karolina Jakaitė

[i] Janulevičiūtė, R., Vilniaus dailės akademijos Dizaino katedra 1961–1990: profesionalaus Lietuvos dizaino pagrindas (The Design Department at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. 1961–1990: The Foundations of Professional Lithuanian Design). Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011.
[ii]The Complex Development of Lithuanian Design, http://www.dic.lt/index.php/pageid/666.
[iii] Implementing the project The Innovation and Design Centre of the Vilnius Academy of Arts (led by Dr Ieva Kuizinienė), recipient of support from the European Union Structural Funds Programme.
[iv] Clayton, R., Now We’re Rocking, http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1642444_1642441_1642717,00.html.
[v] Juospaitytė, J., Lietsarginiai. Pokalbis su Vilniaus dailės akademijos profesoriumi, buvusiu Dizaino katedros vedėju Tadu Baginsku(Umbrella-like. Conversation with Tadas Baginskas, professor at the Vilnius Academy of Arts and former head of the Department of Design), in: Istorijos, 2007, No. 12, p. 32–35.
[vi] Daukantas, F., Dailė – pramonės pagalbininkas (Art: The Assistant of Industry), in: Literatūra ir menas, 7.2.1987, p. 14.
[vii] Antonelli, P., Talk to Me. Design and the Communication between People and Objects, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
8 Dobriakov J. Julijonas Urbonas: mąstantis daiktais (Julijonas Urbonas: thinking by means of things), http://www.artnews.lt/julijonas-urbonas-mastantis-daiktais-6501.