Interviewed in Sarajevo 14 October 2013
The issue of the character of the Bosnian design may seem trivial if compared with the protests, violence, unemployment, corruption, nepotism, intolerance and natural disasters that Bosnians currently face in their everyday life. Salih Teskeredžić’s play with shapes may thus stand out as an extraordinary example of resilient optimism which continuously results in specific and unpretentious products despite the hopelessness of the social and economic situation. With apparent ease, Teskeredžić is intimately and intensely immersed in the process of production, which results in a technological and formative completion of the products atypical for the wood industry of the region. It is the combination of playfulness and commitment that may allow the possibility of a more positive perspective of the future, not only of the design, but of the whole Bosnian reality.
ORIS: Why does an architectural engineer decide to move, and in your case, return to Gornji Vakuf, to a factory with 700 workers, when there is still a possible career in architectural design in Sarajevo or somewhere else?
Salih Teskeredžić: This happened accidentally. While I was studying, the designer profession was not even conceived. I was the holder of the Šipad grant, and, according to the contract, I had to work there for at least a year. For me as an architect, working as a designer in a factory was very traumatic. It was a large factory manufacturing consumer furniture for the general market. There was no design strategy. In this mass of 700 people, one designer is easily lost, but I realized very quickly that the production offered a great possibility. This is how my fascination with wood started. The technological development of the factory was very advanced for that period because everything was exported. Europe, the usa and Australia were typical markets. You suddenly felt like Alice in Wonderland. Instead of expected disappointment, you began to understand the unbelievable possibilities for creative work. I was lucky that the people who managed the company understood the importance of design and supported my initiatives. I was free to choose which product or collection would be developed. So, the first collection of furniture was created spontaneously, as a self-initiative. We called it Bosna-bio and it was an attempt to develop our own design. We were lucky that our first collection, presented at Belgrade Fair, won the Golden Key Award. Owing to this award, people started believing in me as a designer. Namely, the award also led to a major commercial success because the German distributor Rosental bought the entire yearly production. On the other hand, I wanted to learn more. As if I craved for the West. In those days, much more than today, we used to follow the events in the Western Europe and America. So, in 1990 I went to Austria. There was much work in architecture in Austria at the time, so that I easily found employment in an architectural studio where I remained for two years, mainly designing kindergartens. The government subsidized the construction of 200 kindergartens and we were a part of this process in the Upper Austria. This was a specific return to architecture and generally a very positive experience. I was there when the war started and one day my father called and told me that an Austrian was looking for me through the Red Cross. It was a man I met while I was still working in Šipad. I designed a collection of garden furniture for him, that is, for his company Fritz Friedrich. This was one of the leading companies in Austria for manufacturing outdoor furniture, like children’s playgrounds and parks, and it focused on using wood for outdoor structures. The collaboration with Fritz Friedrich lasted for many years when I was working on developing their corporative identity. Austria was just about to enter the eu and it was important for the company to strengthen its identity. In this period we developed a system of props for child’s play and that was a wonderful design task. It was a totally modular system that had to react to specific spatial situations, so we had to develop a very basic element that could be adjusted to specific conditions. The system was called Romeo and Juliet, and turned out to be a very positive experience, and it was also successful – we even received an award from the Ministry of Education and Culture.
ORIS: I find the relationship between the formal and designing solutions of that system and the products in Šipad very interesting. It, naturally, also has to do with the very material, but all these projects show a distinctive ludic aspect. What is your opinion about this today?
Salih Teskeredžić: I think that this ludic aspect comes from my playfulness in the factory. First of all, I am fascinated with wood as a material, and then with the possibility to realize an idea very fast. You are surrounded by forms, attempts and waste and in all these forms you see design, a potential form. This inspiration is much stronger than paper sketches. I simply feel the need to go to the production even in the initial stage because then design stops being designing and becomes playing.
ORIS: On the other hand, the designer’s play has to be well controlled. Some of the greatest failures, especially in architecture, were caused by somebody’s uncontrolled playfulness. How can you determine the extent to which this play is also interesting for others, and not only for the player?
Salih Teskeredžić: There is a mechanism in the production that stops the play at the right moment. This other mechanism is technology and the final price. In the factory we were able to test very soon how a product would look like, how it would be manufactured and what the price would be. This is what is missing when you work in a studio. Design is a marathon race and others jump in to assist during the development stage. Technologists and marketing experts are our best control.
ORIS: But, experience is very important for being able to run a race together. It seems to me that you and Artisan found each other at a very good moment. They already began producing furniture, but needed a real as well as iconic and commercial project that you, apparently, achieved with the Latus collection. Is this so far the greatest success of your collaboration?
Salih Teskeredžić: Working with Artisan is very specific. Before my collaboration with Artisan, for white some time I was working intensively at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, mostly as a lecturer, and then I suddenly felt a strong desire to design again. Even before that I had a friendly relationship with Fadil Ćostović, which became the basis for our talks. This emotional relation with the people I cooperate with is very important to me. I found the easiness of communication and trust in Artisan at the moment when they were searching for their niche. We talked for a long time about the direction we should take. Analyzing the market which was dominantly minimalist at the time, we realized that expression should lie in some kind of organic form I was already familiar with due to my previous experience with wood. Latus was our first collection and it was the product of this wish. For me, Latus is the essence of wood. The table is an exceptionally good example. The moment we got rid of the redundant construction of sargo, we achieved a table without a construction.
ORIS: On the other hand, Latus has some obvious designer fails. Legs are not separated from the board, the fixed organic connection significantly raises the price, and the rejection of sargo weakens the construction. This was a bold decision to reach, to say that the table would be twice as expensive as the competition, that transport is complicated with a constant risk of damages etc.
Salih Teskeredžić: This is exactly what I say to my students. There is a process, research, analysis, design, concept, prototype development, presentation and so on. But, sooner or later, following this methodology becomes boring. In my design methodology I often begin by following this correct school principle, but in the end I feel like abandoning it, like excluding my technical, rational half as a designer. As if a designer is two persons in one: one is an engineer and the other an artist. This artist does not worry about technology, packaging or price. Latus was created exactly at one such moment of breaking the rules.
ORIS: I understand your decision to a certain degree, but Fadil’s decision really fascinates me. How did you persuade him?
Salih Teskeredžić: I came to Tešanj, found two workers, and we started making rough samples. At the moment when the project seemed so complicated that I was afraid to show it to Fadil, his eyes lit up. The project was exactly what he wanted to do but could not visualize. And that is something specific that can be received only in Artisan. They do not only wish to gain profit from the products, but they are also interested in the challenge.
ORIS: So, is this some kind of a professional pride?
Salih Teskeredžić: A wish to reach the highest point, to resolve seemingly irresolvable things, to experiment with something new. The biggest problem was the connection between legs and the table top. We resolved that detail in long discussions. That is why I need people with a tremendous professional experience. I am interested in the form, proportions and dimension, and I work on technical details with people who use their common sense and experience to reach the simplest, yet inventive solution. For the majority of our problems there were no ready-made solutions. Latus is our common child created from the wish to satisfy primarily our own ambition.
ORIS: The Latus chair seems, on the one hand, like a clone of the Scandinavian tradition of designing chairs in massive wood and, on the other, like a contemporary form of plastic chairs done by air molding, for example, the Air Chair by Jasper Morrison. This tension between the two design origins gives this chair its character and makes it fascinating. Were you aware of this phenomenon during the production?
Salih Teskeredžić: There are other things at stake here from my unrealized early ambitions. When I did the first collection in Vakuf, called Bosna-bio, I was intrigued by the search for something specifically ours. Then I realized that the real tradition in this region is not richly ornamented furniture, but rural, primitive forms of ordinary objects. Rural furniture has this seed of modernity.
ORIS: It is essential, isn’t it?
Salih Teskeredžić: This furniture follows a healthy logic, common sense, and understanding of materials freed from all excess. Such purified things were created mainly on the margins. A good example is in the architecture. Our versions of oriental houses are, in my opinion, much nicer than those created in the centres of that culture. Why? Because their houses are excessive. Those architects did not know when to stop, and they had virtually unlimited recourses.
ORIS: We should not neglect the fact that the creation of such a rural product implies no time limits. A shepherd hews a log the whole day long, without pressure to be productive.
Salih Teskeredžić: That is right. He works on a piece of wood and enjoys it. I am terribly fascinated by this move such as, for example, a cut with a knife or an axe, which is often inventive. On Bosna-bio I cut the end of the leg in that way. I wanted to pay my respects to this intuitive move that is created without thinking. On the other hand, I have always been interested in the final moment of design. As in Michelangelo’s Slave. The moment when he stopped the process. To feel the moment when an object or a space, radiates to the full and then to stop at that moment. I was fascinated with this logic of village furniture, of our tradition. Our tradition, this poverty, is similar to the Scandinavian one. The only difference is that they recognized and affirmed it in modernism.
ORIS: I am still fascinated with plastic design. For the very same Artisan, Karim Rashid did a project that seemed to be designed as a rotational cast that is, unfortunately, ugly. While yours, although following the same principle of applying a free plastic form and due to its dimensions and proportions bears the rightful signature of the contemporary BiH design.
Salih Teskeredžić: I believe that the true characteristic of wood is softness and fluidity. Wood is all but a cuboid. The fact that the machine logic shapes it into simple geometrical forms is secondary. What is important for me in Latus is not visible in the photograph: it is the moment when someone comes up and touches it.
ORIS: Can we establish a single, simple rule that would not only apply to BiH, but also to all countries with a high-quality massive wood? Do not varnish wooden products: apply oil and wax instead! How can you teach designers and manufacturers that the tactile quality is as important as the visual one? Isn’t a product from massive wood coated in synthetic varnish half as valuable and malleable as the oiled or waxed one?
Salih Teskeredžić: This problem has always fascinated me. When I attended the Belgrade Fair for the first time with a Bosna-bio collection, I told my lads in the production to call me before wood sanding. When we sanded until the layer when wood becomes velvety and warm, I decided not to apply varnish on products. As early as 1987 we already played this ecological card, which is why the collection was called Bosna-bio. At that time ecology was not so popular as today, so we were visionaries. In the end we had to apply varnish, but from an Italian supplier from whom we managed to purchase a varnish that has a minimal influence on the visual and tactile features of wood. Namely, fir wood is so beautiful that it requires no varnish. Otherwise its surface turns into a terribly ugly yellow colour.
ORIS: So, how do you teach young people this sensibility since they are surrounded by laminated flooring and glazed tiles? What is the situation at the Academy?
Salih Teskeredžić: From the first day in the Academy of Fine Arts I insisted on a workshop. I wanted to push young student into this workshop, this world of Alice in Wonderland, to directly work with materials. Thus, the workshop has become the nucleus of our educational process. My students have to make a prototype in 1:1 ratio, and, more importantly, they have to do it on their own to realize that the end of designing on paper is in effect the beginning of a real work. The second step is to connect everything with practice which we achieve through various workshops. You can simply see the thrill on students’ faces when they return from production plants.
ORIS: The Academy has had a notable success in international exhibitions, for example, in the Cologne Fair, but it is more fascinating that it happened at all. It was a great organizational and financial achievement. How did you manage to exhibit at the Young Talents in Cologne?
Salih Teskeredžić: We cooperated in the workshop Table Culture – we worked three days in the Academy and two days in production, and we finished 40 prototypes. It was an unbelievable energy and pleasure that spread from the Academy to the production plant. We had the plant at our disposal for the whole two days. The result was sent to the Cologne Fair competition and the jury recognized this energy that always, somehow, transfers onto a product. The energy invested in an object emanates an aura which can be felt. It can be felt whether a product is done honestly or not; whether it sings or remains quiet.
ORIS: In a way, you are a unique example of a product designer from this region whose career began in Yugoslavia and continued successfully after the war. As far as I know, Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian designers from the time of communism, retreated from design and turned more to education. How did you survive the transition period?
Salih Teskeredžić: I have never thought about it. I just continued to work as I used to. With energy and pleasure. For me it is primarily pleasure, as in a child playing. We only try to use this play to create a good and honest product. All the rest comes after. Marketing recognizes the product, clients recognize it, the sale is launched, there is a return of invested funds, but all this is not the goal or the beginning of a product. Any product begins in a play and pleasure.