Croatian industrial design is the weak point of Croatian design production. The lamentations or warnings of the designer community have been joined, in a way particular to museums, by the recent exhibition ‘The Porcelain Shine of Socialism – Porcelain Design, Jugokeramika / Inker 1953 – 1991’, held at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. The impressively named exhibition offers a (nostalgic) view of the past, of the period of four decades of the last century, when one of the biggest porcelain factories in Yugoslavia tried to implement design inside the production process, achieving results that are paradigmatic for the attitude of Croatian industry towards design in general. Koraljka Vlajo, the author of the exhibition, follows the development of the Porcelain Facility of Jugokeramika and its Prototype Section from its foundation in 1953 to the restructuring of the firm into the joint-stock company Inker in 1991.
In the first post-war years, ‘the growth of an entire new industry branch from virtually nothing, in a passive region without a strong manufacturing tradition, was a monumental project’, writes the author in the exhibition catalogue. The first touching attempts to kick off production are illustrated by the first test plates with bubbles on the surface, humorously called mlinci (a kind of pasta). Since the new industry needed experts, the teacher Blanka Dužanec, who was managing the Ceramic Section of the School of Applied Arts, initiated the school’s new Technological Section in 1953, introducing new subjects: Modelling and Constructive Drawing of Commercial Objects for Serial Production. Jugokeramika gave grants to two students, who would become prominent designers in Jugokeramika: Anica Kuhta Severin and Dragica Perhač. The Ceramic Section of the short-lived Academy of Applied Arts (1948–54) educated Marta Šribar, the third designer of Jugokeramika. Along with Jelena Antolčić, the first employee of the Prototype Section in 1954, these four authors made works that are exhibited as the greatest achievements of Jugokeramika in the four decades of the Section’s work. These were also the pinnacles of porcelain design in Yugoslavia, awarded at numerous international exhibitions. The most famous of them is the Triennale set by Marta Šribar, which won the silver medal at the 11th Milan Triennale in 1957. It remains one of the greatest international successes of Croatian product design. Significantly, despite the positive reactions of the profession and the customers’ interest, this set was never produced in large series – a fate shared by most of the exhibited works, which mostly remained at the prototype stage. The sixties and early seventies were the golden age of Jugokeramika, when the Prototype Section created several porcelain sets, like Brazil, the first thin porcelain set in Yugoslavia (Dragica Perhač, 1962). The entire set has been donated to the Museum of Arts and Crafts, so that future generations can see the greatest achievements of local design first-hand. This set is maybe still used by some households, since it is one of the rare well-designed local products that were produced in large series. Aside from dinner sets and coffee sets like Brazil, those years saw the creation of several vases, platters and bottles in which the designers examined various possibilities of final processing with minimal variations in form (the series of bottles/vases by Anica Kuhta Severin, the vases of Jelena Antolčić). In 1970, as tourism was rapidly growing, Jugokeramika shifted to ‘catering’ porcelain. It was the advent of the two most commercially successful and longest-lived catering sets of Jugokeramika: the Arena and Grič sets, which are still equated by many with the local hotel. The eighties were marked by the financial crisis in the country and reduced production. At the end of the decade, the factory was left by the three remaining designers (Jelena Antolčić left Keramika in 1970): Anica Kuhta Severi and Dragica Perhač went into retirement and Marta Šribar died in an accident. This story of Croatian design has a typical epilogue: in 1991, when Croatia became an independent country, the factory was turned into a joint-stock company and renamed Inker. In 1996, Inker was sold to foreign buyers. Ironically, in December 2009, right before the opening of this exhibition, the Porcelain Facility was closed.
The official production programme of Jugokeramika mostly consisted of cheap products that catered to consumers’ tastes. In the social environment that discouraged competition, design was merely tolerated, never recognized as a constituent part of business strategy. Therefore, the exhibited prototypes reveal a possible but unrealized history of Croatian industrial design. These works spent their public life mostly as gallery exhibits, at numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. Today, when exhibitions of commercial ceramics are a rare sight, even when the works are unique, it is interesting to have a reminder of the past reception of this medium. A medium that has always been somewhere between applied arts and design, recently trying to truly assert itself as on par with other media of contemporary artistic practice.
In the end, we hope that this exhibition is not only a contribution to the history of Croatian design, as the author says, but also a motivation for its future. Not in museums and galleries, but in life.