OPINION

Belgrade Design Week

Belgrade

11 July 2013

A telling moment of Belgrade Design Week takes place at one of its many parties. Hosted on a riverboat moored to the banks of the River Sava, the party (which commemorates the European Design Awards) is scored by a Serbian club singer. Growling out slick renditions of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Katy Perry’s Firework, the singer slinks around the bar.

It’s a greatest hits performance. Poppy, popular songs chopped up and spat out. It’s fun, it’s diverse, but it’s unconnected to its surroundings. All descriptions that could be applied to the week as a whole.

Now in its eighth year, Belgrade Design Week remains an enigma. Founded by the Serbian brand consultant Jovan Jelovac, the event's most celebrated aspect is a three-day design conference, the profile of its speakers comparable to those attracted to more established and vaunted events such as the TED Conferences.
 
Past Belgrade speakers include designers as celebrated as Konstantin Grcic, Hella Jongerius and Patricia Urquiola. This year they were joined by 27 new speakers including Sebastien Noel from Troika and the French designer Christophe Pillet. That such luminaries are brought to a country with little industry and no established design culture is perhaps Belgrade’s greatest success.

“There is absolutely no design industry in Serbia. None to speak of,” says Jelovac. “There is no manufacturing. It died off. The schools are bad, the industry is bad. Everything is bad. Every C or D level porno actor gets more attention than designers. But our delegates understand how different we are and that’s why they come.”

This is the backdrop Belgrade Design Week is set against. A city with a proud history of Modernist and Brutalist architecture, modern Belgrade was born out of the reconstruction project that followed the heavy damage it sustained during the Second World War. Yet many of these buildings were themselves subsequently gutted by NATO’s bombing of the city during the Kosovo war in 1999. Repairs since then have been slow to come. 

Such lack of investment in repairing Belgrade echoes the similar lack of investment in its Design Week. The city itself provides no funding and until a donation earlier this year from the Ministry of Finance and Government, the conference received no government support. The Ministry of Culture and Media continues to ignore the event. 

Jelovac says that the €500,000 cost of staging the conference is covered through media and commercial sponsorships, ticket sales and his own largesse. He also provides the guiding ethos behind the programme: “Serbia has had enough shitty lifestyles, shitty job perspectives and shitty industry. Belgrade is a tabula rasa, where its people can be inspired by the designers who come to speak.”

The emphasis of the talks is on variety. Designers and architects such as Adrien Rovero, Johannes Norlander and Clemens Weisshaar are joined by advertising executives, video game creators and graphic designers. This year, the talks are notionally grouped under the theme of Innovation², but the topic is loose enough as to be non-existent. The majority of speakers adopt the same structure: a powerpoint tour through their most successful work.

Belgrade’s programme meets Jelovac's brief, with designers’ past works providing grist to the creative mill (Noel’s display of Troika’s projects dating back to 2005 being met by spontaneous applause) and the sheer breadth of the talks on offer is undoubtedly inspiring. Yet there is a sense that Belgrade Design Week could and should be more.

Throughout the conference there seems a disconnect between the work on display and the reality of design in Serbia, with many of the speakers - notably Noel, Weisshaar and the Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde - focusing their talks in large part on the high technology and manufacture that lies behind their work.

Roosegaarde’s Smart Highways - roads that adapt their surface markings according to weather conditions - are the centrepiece of his talk and make for compelling images on a conference screen. Yet they seem out of step with a city where the shelled-out ruins of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence continue to dangle over the city’s central Nemanjina street. It is difficult to see what such projects, dependent as they are on heavy investment and strong technical know-how, might reveal about Serbia’s immediate design future.

This feeling of disconnect is not helped by the absence - bar a developer from the Serbian game studio Nordeus and assorted figures at a preliminary PechaKucha night - of Serbian designers from the speaking bill. It is a situation explained shortly by Jelovac: “A Serbian designer isn’t good enough to compete on a global level.” Yet even the Belgrade-based projects that are on display - Zaha Hadid’s parametric Beko masterplan and Sou Fujimoto’s sprawling Beton Hala centre - seem awkward (and worryingly speculative) when considered against the city’s needs. 

As glossy images of Hadid and Fujimoto’s plans are projected for conference-goers, there is a certain irony to be found in the condition of the conference's venue, Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Constructed in the 1960s by the Serbian Modernist master Ivan Antić, it has been closed since 2008, its roof in ruins and top floors rotting away. It remains a beautiful venue, but its troubled present seems indicative of much of Serbia's architecture and design industries.

The attention on Hadid and Fujimoto is reflective of the conference's wider strategy. In response to the sparsity of Serbia’s design scene, Belgrade Design Week has devoted itself entirely to the international community. It is a radically different approach to that adopted by other countries who similarly hope to spark their own small-scale design industries.

Iceland’s DesignMarch is a pertinent example. Three years younger than Belgrade Design Week (and lower profile), it focuses on Iceland's burgeoning community-led design projects. While Iceland’s contribution to the world’s design scene remains small, its design week continues to encourage and promote the country's nascent designers. The event is grounded on a belief in design as a potential employer for Iceland's citizens following its much-publicized 2008 financial crisis and as an alternative to the country's damaged banking industry. Fortunately, DesignMarch seems to be working, with around 10 per cent of the nation's 320,000 population now attending the annual event.

There are certain parallels between Serbia and Iceland. This year, the International Monetary Fund listed unemployment in Serbia at 23 per cent and public debt at 62 per cent of GDP, 17 per cent above the legal ceiling. Now, more than ever, the rise of new industries such as design seem critical to Serbia's development. Yet Belgrade Design Week's programming makes is difficult to see how the conference might have a similar invigorating effect to DesignMarch. Connections to the conference’s audience feel minimal and it appears not so much a conference for Belgrade as it is a conference that happens to be in Belgrade.

It is a feeling strengthened by the event's seeming inaccessibility to many locals. The conference sells tickets for €150 (€99 for students): cheap when considered against the event's funding difficulties, yet in a country where the average monthly wage is €390, still prohibitive. Similarly, post-talk questions are rarely opened up to the floor, with Jelovac instead dominating proceedings. It is perhaps unsurprising that a sizeable section of the conference's audience is made up of the delegates themselves, and international journalists and guests.

This sense of the international is what is felt most keenly throughout the conference and which goes furthest towards capturing the essential problem with Belgrade Design Week. Internationally, it stands as a compelling conference, its organisers succeeding against the odds to produce a talks series to rival any other, but it is ultimately hindered by its lack of a sense of location and identity. It is a fine design week, but perhaps not a fine design week for Belgrade.