For years, Romanian design has lived in the shadow of western brands. Take those Louis Vuitton shoes you thought were made in Italy: what you may not realise is they are actually manufactured in a factory in a Transylvania. Yet Romania’s design industry doesn’t just rest on its role as a third-party manufacturer. Romanian designers make up some of the creative minds behind the most recognisable products. Nicolas Ciuchindel was the senior watch designer for seven years at world-famous brand Chanel until he passed away in December 2013. Andrei Clodius is currently the senior product designer at Fitbit, the American company responsible for producing fitness and health trackers.
According to Dezeen, Romania’s local design scene, too, is going from strength to strength. If a lack of resources has long been Romania’s downfall, this has also turned out to be its greatest strength. “We don’t have 20 years of experience to fall back on. But we have something really special. We’ve had to learn to create things from ground zero: not just production and how to make a better product, but how to then sell and market that product, how to build effective management, how to convince new companies to take on a Romanian designer. We’ve had to be creative with the kinds of materials we use. More often than not, we don’t want to make a fashion statement, we want to make something really useful and this approach fits with today’s sustainability-driven design,” says designer Alexandru Ionita.
Ionita’s products, such as his John Crusher salt and pepper mills and Cactus citrus juicer, both produced for Ubikubi, reflect the “less is more” trend in contemporary Romanian design. His products are simple, composed of very few parts without involving expensive manufacturing processes, put together from ready-made or natural materials like ceramics and porcelain, all the while being pleasing to the eye. Ionita belongs to a generation of designers who were at university in 2007 when Romania joined the EU, bringing Erasmus opportunities to study abroad. After completing his BA studies in Product Design at the National University of Arts in Bucharest, Ionita stayed on for an MA, but decided to specialise in Graphic Design because “nobody was hiring product designers”. When he was presented with a opportunity to leave the country, he had the unshakeable inclination to stay. More than just trying to carve a career in design in his home country, he wanted to build a team from different professional backgrounds that could work together towards a project.
One of the hangovers from the communist period, as Ionita saw it, was the unnecessary separation between creative and practical spheres of production. As one of the members of PRISPA association he was involved in the process of gathering a team of students and volunteers with the end goal to design a solar panel house. One of the members of the main team at the time was Mihnea Ghildus. Owing to the success of the PRISPA project, Ghildus went on to launch the Dizainar brand and concept store dedicated exclusively to promoting Romanian design.
“You can see that today Romanian designers are becoming quite active and present in different creative fields”
Besides improvements in education thanks to student exchange programmes like Erasmus, and wider access to the internet, Romania’s young design scene owes its flourishing success to community-minded projects: this includes not only Dizainar, but creative co-working spaces and hubs like Nod Makers Space, located in a former cotton factory in Bucharest, and Zain in Cluj. The introduction of local product design competitions has contributed enormously, not only in stimulating competition but in bringing international designers to Romania. “Filter Design Festival was one of the first design competitions in Romania, which started in 2007,” says Ionita. Now there are more design competitions intended for young Romanian designers than ever before, including ZAIN Design Expressions, Ubikubi Young Designers Award and the Smart Design Challenge organised by Dizanar. However, one of the biggest factors in developing opportunities for young and emerging designers has been down to Romanian Design Week. First launched in 2013, it takes place every May. “This was the first important design event of that scale in Romania. From there everything just snowballed,” says Ionita, who each year collaborates with Ubikubi on a new product especially for the week.
Today, collaborating brainstorming platforms make it easy to collaborate with like-minded creatives across the world. One such platform, Jovoto, rewards the projects and ideas created among it’s global community of designers. Ionita tells me: “You can see that today Romanian designers are becoming quite active and present in different creative fields and you can definitely see them on crowd storming platforms, they’re constantly growing in popularity, activity and winning ideas. And this is most impressive when we take into consideration the fact that this are international platforms with designers working from all over the world.”
Knowing that it’s possible to forge a career as a designer in Romania is half the battle. Alexandru Ionita, Mihnea Ghildus, as well as each and every designer working in Romania are sowing the seeds of the industry that will inspire future generations. As Ionita recalls: “I had the honour of meeting Nicolas Ciuchindel at a workshop organised by Filter that took place at the National University of Arts, where I was a student at the time. There I learned firsthand how to build a concept based on the real needs of the client and the market, how to pitch an idea and how to take into consideration every detail that is necessary for the success of the future product before starting to actually design the product itself. A real life lesson, you might say, from a real and fascinating designer who made it into the big world of international design using only his talent and perseverence.” He’s had the opportunity to meet several other Romanian designers working for brands like Ferrarri to see how they work with clients. Now Ionita is in the position to do it in Romania.
Text: Liza Premiyak