The graphic design legacy of the young republic of Croatia can be traced through its turbulent past and rich traditions
At the beginning of the 1990s a violent succession of civil wars shook the Yugoslav federation. Waves of nationalism spread from Serbia to every other area. Communist leaders, unable to deal with the situation, organised a first attempt at democratic elections. Croatia declared its independence. War struck the country bitterly and the world witnessed the bloody results.
Despite this turbulent recent past, Croatian graphic design has a powerful legacy that belies its absence from reference books and histories of the discipline. Croatian modernism has its roots in the architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, when buildings were erected in Zagreb that could stand comparison with the best achievements of the International Style. After World Word II, the communist government of Yugoslavia approved Modernist models for communal housing and complete new towns were built: it began to look like Le Corbusier’s dream.
Ivan Picelj, originally a painter, became one of the founders of the Croatian group EXAT 51’s manifesto urged a synthesis of all the artistic disciplines, erasing the differences between the fine and applied arts. Over the period 1951-57, the group revolutionised design in Yugoslavia. The principles of Modern art, architecture and design were seen by the public as mainstream achievements. International acknowledgement came in 1957, when Vjenceslav Richter, Boris Babic and Mario Antonini won the silver medal at the international Triennale in Milan for the Yugoslav pavilion’s interior set.
The outstanding designers of that period were Picelj, in the arts, and Milan Vulp in the field of industry. Though a market economy did not exist, there was certainly a “market” to reach. The Industrial Design Centre (CIO) was founded in Zagreb during 1963-64 with a mission to: “transfer knowledge and experience of the international practice of industrial design…educating people to either create or buy design.” The state body promoted design, linked designers and industries and collected, stored and released information: it initiated many conferences, symposiums and exhibitions, among them the British Design Exhibition in collaboration with the British Council in Zagreb in the late 1960s.
The CIO introduced its first graphic design projects during 1967-68, including a professional analysis of the visual communication of Croatia’s osiguranje (insurance company). After a period of crisis during 1968-70 the body redirected its activities towards graphic design, and in 1971 it was asked to realise the visual identity and standards for Radio Television Zagreb (RTZ). Matko Mestrovic, the head of the communication department, moved from CIO to RTZ for two years to supervise the application of the logo and house style. Mestrovic’s formal title was “the advisor to the Chairman of the RTZ for the questions of visual identity”. His status, and the importance accorded to design within RTZ, was marked by the fact that his office was next door to the chairman’s.
All Croatian designers are educated formally at the Fine Art Academy of the Faculty of Architecture. Architects, designers and painters who had played leading roles in the promotion of Modernism in the 1950s and 1960s recognised the need for specialised design education. As a result, The School of Design, (industrial and graphic), was founded in 1989 under the roof of the Faculty of Architecture as an interdisciplinary study where all knowledge and experience, both scientific and artistic, should be combined. The first students graduated in 1994.
At present it is too early to talk about the impact made by the school’s alumni. War has devastated most of the industry, as well as the cultural domain, so there are few signs to mark where Croatian design may be heading. Yet the anticipated period of recovery will mean that the graphic design profession should be engaged more than ever before.
First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997