DESIGNING A DIVERSE EXPERIENCE
The area of contemporary Croatian industrial design, that is, product design is quite diverse—it is a heterogeneous phenomenon which is becoming increasingly difficult to interpret unambiguously (if it was ever possible), primarily because such a design with a national sign can only be spoken about conditionally (and, unfortunately, far-fetchedly), so it is still more appropriate to call it product design in Croatia, and not vice versa. The reasons for this are multiple, and the least among them are certainly not: (a) the absence of an official strategy for the development of any design at national level, not only industrial, and (b) the absence (more or less) of developed industry that would stimulate and produce such design (why such industry just cannot be found in Croatia in 2017, except for a couple of exceptions that are not strong enough to raise the entire local product design from the scene level to the market level, is a question that is as complex as it is banal, and we will not deal with it more thoroughly this time; it would suffice to repeat once again that the foundations for something like that, that existed in Yugoslavia, have been successfully ruined in the meantime). The result of such a situation is a logical phenomenon that the more entrepreneurial individuals and groups among designers have taken the matter in their hands since the late 1990s (e.g., Numen/For Use), then more urgently in the 2000s, and especially in this decade, offering on their own initiative their concepts and prototypes to manufacturers at fairs worldwide, or by launching their own production in collaboration with foreign partners (e.g., Grupa and their Grupa Design Products company). On a regional scale, although national professional associations and related NGOs launched various platforms for interconnecting product designers and empowering their field of work over the years (which definitely had a certain effect, at least symbolic, and such actions and projects should not be underestimated—one should only remember the influence of the long-standing traveling exhibition, Young Balkan Designers, on the portfolios of their young participants), the fact is that most of the authors and authors' groups were mostly left to their own devices to cope in any way they can, and a positive surprise was that the most daring and most talented of them (generally, it has become obvious that these two traits do not go one without the other) have begun to do quite well.
One of the authors present in Croatia and the region, but more prominent abroad, is Simon Morasi Piperčić (Varaždin, 1985), who has been running an eponymous design studio with a two-member team and a number of collaborators since 2013. He deals with a wide range of activities focusing on the design of furniture, then space, exhibitions and installations, as well as design consultancy, management and art management. It goes without saying that it also includes the field of work necessary for the functioning of the above-mentioned: market research, strategic planning, project development and so on. Simon Morasi Piperčić’s studio is one of the most awarded among Croatian participants of the global product design and design services market, with acknowledgments such as the double Red Dot Award (2013, 2015), the Best Concept at the Croatian Design Exhibition 0910 (2010), the German Design Award (2017), and many others. In short, it is one of the most successful design studios in Croatia and the region, but what is it exactly that makes it specific? What is it that made its products distinguished, and what established them on the European and overseas markets? How did the studio attract international brands with its approach and concepts? In addition, how does a working process, which in the long term proved to be more than functioning, go and how does it change and adapt from project to project, depending on product typology, project brief and purpose to be satisfied and, of course, upgraded? In this article, I will give a brief analysis of several key projects of S. M. Piperčić which have been created since the establishment of his studio, and try to articulate the common denominators of the work of the author and his team by interpreting their characteristics, while positioning them in the context of the protagonists of the Croatian design scene who are close to them, especially those who share some clients and typologies with them.
So, the projects that will serve for this purpose belong to the dominant design typologies in the work of S. M. Piperčić, and these are as follows: the Compound, a portable wooden table for easy assembly and disassembly; the Convert, an upholstered furniture line with simple components for combining in many variations; the Strain, a furniture collection made of combined materials, intended for furnishing the interiors of tourist and/or catering facilities and others; the Rhomb, a wooden chair of complex construction and carefully planned anthropometry, whose design stems from a long examination of the dynamics of sitting, also in the context of restaurants and other facilities of gastronomic provenance, and, finally, the Endless and Moe I & II, layered light installations created in collaboration with colleague Vedran Kolac—flexible spatial compositions with wide application as scenography for various types of events (primarily music), capable of adapting to different conditions according to site-specific design principles.
The Compound table was the first project by S. M. Piperčić to penetrate foreign markets, primarily British, since the commissioner and manufacturer of the table was the Made company, one of the largest British companies in the field of furniture manufacturing, considering that its range covers all the basic elements of the household except domestic appliances, bathroom and electronic devices (not counting the lighting fixtures). The firm is distinguished by counting on younger generations and middle-income buyers, mostly individuals and communities that have not yet stabilized their earnings and residences, so frequent relocations are a common occurrence for them. Made therefore produces highly portable and foldable (or collapsible) furniture, with an additional feature of delivery directly from the manufacturer, without the retail distribution layers. The Compound was designed back in 2011, before Piperčić started his own standalone studio, and systematic production began in 2014. S. M. Piperčić's design brief encompassed the target consumer group which Made otherwise addressed, and the priority was to design a favorable design whose primary value would be a studiously thought out and executed functionality from which arises the specific crude aesthetic of plywood with a surface covered with black laminate, a guarantee of the elegance of the product. The edges of the components of the table retained the bare texture of the plywood, creating the unpretentious and interesting contrast with the rest of the object. Since the production of the Compound continues, it is easy to conclude that it is a product that has found its path to selected users, with the ethical component of design remaining fulfilled—it is an inclusive-oriented project available to most (not only) lower middle class members, characterized by the Bauhausian feeling for beauty.
With the projects of the Strain, Convert and Rhomb collection, things are different. They emerged practically one after the other, in 2015 and 2016, and all of them were commissioned from S. M. Piperčić’s studio by prostoria, the leading Croatian and regional upholstered furniture manufacturer, which, with the Rhomb chair, branched out into demanding work with wood as well, indirectly competing with Bosnian-Herzegovinian Artisan, which dominates in the use of this material for design and production of furniture in the region. Though different in terms of aesthetics and used materials, the Rhomb and Strain are somewhat compatible projects because their basic purpose is the same—it is a furniture intended primarily for furnishing the interiors of commercial spaces, mostly tourism and hospitality ones, although equally well-liked among end users, that is, sitters. The Rhomb chair, the winner of the German Design Award 2017, was designed as a result of the long-lasting research of nature and change of sitting in situations that could mostly be described as temporal, when, unlike sitting in massive, upholstered home furniture, one often changes body position and every now and then looks for the one that is appropriate. The search is facilitated by the rhomboid structure of the backrest and armrests that provides the opportunity for different alignments and modes of sitting, from completely relaxed to upright and concentrated, and the designed structure is executed by means of a variety of wood bending and fixing techniques applied to timber which, besides the technological processes of production, has also undergone handmade processing, which made the Rhomb become a kind of lexicon of different approaches to the production of wood furniture.
The Strain and Strain Barstool, as part of a collection of furniture for similar spaces, share the basic purpose with the Rhomb, but what differentiates them is their metal support structure. The Strain is also a chair crowned with many awards (the Red Dot in 2015, the German Interior Innovation Award in 2017, the Product Design Award by the Croatian Designers Society at the Croatian Design Exhibition 1516 in 2016, etc.), while the Strain Barstool represents an extension of its concept by including tall bar stools, which retain the basic visual identity of the project and the construction method, while their sitting surfaces are wooden and ergonomically exceptionally well adapted to the needs of the users, following the general definition of the human buttocks, which is generally not the case with bar stools. On the other hand, the Strain chair allows one to sit back comfortably thanks to the large elasticity of the sitting surface spanned between the arms of a unique bearing structure whose impressive, welded nodes form the spine of the visual appearance of both items in the product series. The sitting surface is made of several different materials, such as flexible leather upholstery, cushions upholstered in cotton, etc. All in all, the described furniture trio represents a kind of contrast to the earlier project of S. M. Piperčić and a step forward towards a more exclusive understanding of furniture design, which speaks of a wide range of the studio and its capacity to work on a variety of design briefs in a variety of contexts, ranging from the maximum utilization of products with minimal investment to high-profit brands that address a narrower customer segment (at least in Croatia and the region).
On the other hand, the Convert upholstered furniture project, also executed for prostoria in 2016, implies a design more in line with their other products in the typology of sofas, at which almost all other renowned domestic designers and designers collaborating with the company tried their hands (Numen/For Use, Ivana Borovnjak and Roberta Bratović, Grupa...). In addition, it is a product with which the author returned to apartments, that is, made a design for which the living spaces are a natural, if not primary environment, especially taking into account the numerous variations of the composition of the basic element of the series into a single sofa or couch that also foresees the surface intended for storage of various light and portable items such as small light fixtures. It is a design that forms an integral part of prostoria’s business identity, while other newer described projects upgrade it and take it in different, progressive directions.
Along these lines, the Moe I & II and Endless are self-initiated experimental works of a completely different typology, created in 2011 and 2017, and developed in collaboration with colleague Vedran Kolac, which, from a pure design play, found their diversified application as scenographies of various types of events among which prevail electronic music festivals, such as the Illectricity in Zagreb organized by the CFSN collective, and the Outlook and Dimensions in Pula, which Pozitivan ritam, a Croatian promotion firm, builds with foreign partners. The curiosity is that these customizable site-specific installations were also used by pop diva Josipa Lisac on some of her concerts dedicated to her late husband, musician and composer Karlo Metikoš. Both installations are composed of reduced geometric elements made of cheap, available and environmentally-friendly materials by means of which complex abstract sculptures capable of adapting to diverse supporting structures characteristic for stages of music festivals are built. The variable, but consistent rhythm of these three-dimensional compositions with a good measure of improvisation in stacking options is analogous to the approaches of DJs and producers to shaping electronic music, which is also determined by a significant level of abstraction, both in terms of the rhythmic and melodic structures of the tracks and the palette of emotions transmitted by its acoustic picture.
In other words, it is about some of the very best projects produced in Croatia for that purpose in recent years, as evidenced by the foreign use of these installations in events in Italy and Germany. At the same time, these projects clearly show the range of work of S. M. Piperčić’s studio, which extends from collaborations with highly profitable manufacturers and brands in the fully commercial spectrum to projects that, along with their commercial character, still maintain the ties that reach as far back as their subcultural beginnings on the Croatian independent cultural scene of the 1990s and 2000s.
Somewhere in this intercultural space between elitism and egalitarianism, exclusivity and inclusiveness, avant-garde experiments and commercial profitability lies the basis of the identity of Simon Morasi Piperčić's studio, which, based on the portfolio of an individual, original author, has succeeded in building a position which is recognizable and respectable far beyond the region, by combining studious planning and toying with the rules of typological forms and concepts with the readiness to risk inherited from his punk days. It is the approach that separates S. M. Piperčić and his team from a series of studios on the international scene that cover a similar range of activities, and paves the way for their continued presence in the future.