This edition’s central exhibition was housed in the art deco Palatul Telefoanelor, which once served as Bucharest’s telephone exchange. Decked out in red carpet, black frames and neon-tube lights, it crammed a lot into a relatively compact space. The architecture section occupied a single wall, with photographs and renders marking out dozens of building and interior projects. Without any three-dimensional representation it was difficult to get a sense of individual works. Fashion fared better, with a selection of couture outfits showcasing local designers. If there was a unifying characteristic here, it might be identified as an extravagant layering of textiles and textures. Ioanna Adam’s voguishly named Post A r t Internet featured an electric blue zentai suit, a short red jacket with an exaggerated collar, and a gauzy throw that turned the wearer’s arms into dangling tentacles. A highlight was an ensemble by Sandra Chira in cream and pale grey, with a grid-patterned, padded apron giving it a hard-wearing, nomadic edge. Chira, like many of the designers here, works exclusively with materials made in Romania, an ecologically varied country with abundant natural resources.
The most extensive section covered graphic design. It was also the most bogglingly miscellaneous. There were notebooks, satirical newspapers, menus, matchboxes, and Supersomething’s Brewdog-esque rebranding of the Perfektum brand of craft beers. There was the matter-of-fact catalogue for the Geta Brătescu exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale, and a charming build-your-own-castle set from Klara Veer and Dan Burzo. It was a pleasurable spread, though disparate. There is much to be said for this non-selling showcase presentation over the brand-led fairs that stand at the nuclei of more established design weeks. The only overt sign of the commercial is, on the opening night, a fleet of white-clad emissaries for award sponsors Glo, an e-cigarette brand whose representatives spent the opening party offering guests puffs of their premium vapes.
When I returned to a calmer Palatul the next morning, the furniture section revealed some interesting finds. The most eccentric was the Banca Falezá coffee table and stools of Edward Locota, a sculptor as much as a designer. Raised on a jesmonite base carved to resemble a cliff-face, these pieces have translucent, aquamarine tops in glass epoxy. Almost as strange was Pluto by Night’s Design by Process chair, made from tutti-frutti fibre strands splotched together as in an Abstract Expressionist painting. More subtle – and more fitted to the contract market that many local designers rely on – were the three-legged tables and stools from Prodid and the wooden Fair and Square chairs from the burgeoning brand Ubikubi. Designed by Dragoș Motica, the latter set impress with its willingness to show the joints and fixes, in a manner redolent of Finnish modernist Ilmari Tapiovaara’s 1946 Domus Chair.
As intriguing as many of these objects are, though, it’s difficult to discern common threads, ties that distinguish Romanian design from that of well-established markets. A pop-up concept store across the road confuses further with a display tracking the modern history of Swedish design, which is informative but distracting in context. This year’s student showcase, at the neo-Gothic former newspaper headquarters Palatul Universul, invited creative industries professionals to choose select recent design graduates to exhibit. There were, as in the main exhibition, fun ideas – Dragoș Motica surfaced again with a Miffy-meets-kawaii cat-shaped pill organiser – but scarce evidence of Romania’s distinction as a nascent design nexus.
More insight on the country’s positioning could be found away from the hubbub of the week’s main events. Dizainăr is a shop nestled on a typically eclectic residential street off the English-style Cișmigiu Park. It is a project run by the local design brand DZNR Studio. Intimate but airy, Dizainăr stocks more than 100 Romanian designers. It was launched in 2012 by the product designer Mihnea Ghilduș, and originally showcased in apartment sitting rooms.
As a practitioner and proprietor, Ghilduș is well-placed to speak on the native design industry as a whole. “I want Romanian design to have an identity that is known internationality” he says. “But it’s very hard. We’re still trying to define it.” Is there anything in particular that the country can offer? “Romanians improvise a lot,” explains Ghilduș. “They’re problem-solvers. There’s a saying: ‘Make a whip out of crap and it still cracks.’” This might be so, but one of the challenges facing Romanian design is to overcome the reputation for low-quality ersatz that still plagues post-communist eastern European countries.
The obstacles that face Romanian design are in part products of the country’s recent history. After the revolution that violently ended 41 years of communism, many of its state-run factories closed down. Those that survived often did so by becoming branch plants of companies from wealthier countries. “Our factories should work with designers,” says Ghilduș, “but many only produce for outside brands instead.” Part of the task of enterprises like Dizainăr is to summon the critical mass required for manufacturers to take a punt on design products. Sales have slightly decreased in the past year, something Ghilduș chalks up to political instability. Since April 2017, two prime ministers have been toppled; near-constant campaigning and protests, he implies, have occupied the time of the young, urbane class inclined in more peaceable times to mull over design purchases. But the long-term outlook is brighter: Romania’s economy was the fastest-growing in Europe last year, although wage increases have yet to reflect this surge.
As I talk to Ghilduș, three young women amble in and begin listening intently. They turn out to be students from a design-specialised high school outside the capital. Sharp and purposeful, each seeks to pursue design at university, albeit in Eindhoven or London rather than Timisoara or Cluj. Ghilduș himself was awarded his masters at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. Romanian design education, according to Ghilduș, perpetuates a disconnect from the potential for manufacture. “At the schools, we need to be more connected to industry, rather than simply taught the practice.”
Education, and the structural problems occasioned by Romania’s transition into a capitalist economy from communism, have similarly hobbled Romanian architecture. A short walk south of Dizainăr, on the first floor of a concrete-walled apartment building, is the office of the award-winning local architectural studio Arhitecti Asociati. “As a third-year student you can build an airport,” recounts practice principal Alexandru Mihau Popescu over a cup of coffee. “But no third-year student knows how to build an airport.” A lack of initiatives connecting students and potential clients, as well as the dominance of what Popescu calls an “oligarchic” coterie of long-established firms, has led to a paucity of open competitions, a key proving ground for young practices. “We get most of our work from recommendations,” Popescu admits. To combat this, Arhitecti Asociati are seeking to draw other younger studios together to form a medieval guild-like community where members can combine their capabilities to overcome the largest firms. “It’s time,” Popescu says, “to do away with big names.”
A similar desire to foster collaboration animates Meșteshukar ButiQ (MBQ), a part-design studio, part-social enterprise that connects designers with traditional Roma craft. The Roma or Romani people – ethnically distinct from Romanians – originated in northern India, and make up around three per cent of Romania’s population. The majority were enslaved until 1856, after which many took up trades, most significantly coppersmithing, silversmithing and woodwork, and lived peripatetic lives selling their wares from town to town. “Most Roma groups identity themselves with their crafts,” says MBQ co-founder and manager Andrei Georgescu. “Each group is named after its specialism.”
In recent decades, Roma crafts have been dying out. MBQ seeks to preserve such skills through wedding Roma expertise to the aesthetics of contemporary design. It maintains a network of 15 craftspeople, spread out around the country. At RDW’s main exhibition, it launched an elegant set of bowls and vases by the Cluj-based designer Radu Abraham, with copper, silver and wooden components created by three different Roma craftspeople in their home workshops. The collection won a RDW award in object design. But the local market is only the first stage. MBQ plans to extend internationally. “The aim,” explains Georgescu, “is to eventually sell and send things out for resale to Western Europe, where the objects can reach higher prices.”
That much of Romanian design’s hope is pinned to the ability to attract interest from outside is an inevitable consequence of Europe’s lop-sided prosperity. And in a republic that endured 24 years under the isolating regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the access to wealthier markets brought on by 2007’s ascension to the EU remains a source of optimism and determination. “It’s embarrassing,” my taxi driver told me at the airport, “that our roads are so bad. We’re a European Union capital, and we should do better.” RDW might not yet prove that Romanian design is ready to stand alongside the continent’s most august, but it did reveal an enthusiastic scene with the gumption to try. It may only be a matter of time.