A conversation with Fedja Vukić
The Other Design History
Fedja Vukić has a doctorate in Design Theory from the University of Ljubljana and since 1994 has been a professor of design at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Zagreb. His research spans theories of design, identity within the local community and visual communications within the social context. Some of his published works include Modernizam u praksi (Applied Modernism) 2008, interpretations of industrial product design and visual communication in a socialist government, Teorija i povijest dizajn (Theory and History of Design) 2012, a critical selection of texts reflecting on design theory, from Goethe to Žižek, as well as Grad kao identitetski sustav (The City as an Identifying System) 2013, a methodical discussion on the identity of communities as tools of democratization. Vukić is one of the most prominent Croatian social scientists on the international academic scene. In 1995, he was a Research Fellow at The Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami Beach, and in 2004 he was a guest lecturer at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.
Your latest book, The Other Design History, is published in English.
The book is a summary of one part of my research spanning the last fifteen years. I have already published most of these conclusions in Croatian, and my goal now was to outline, to my international colleagues, some of the experiences of design theory from times of socialist government. These theories are very relevant to problems in today's world, even though the social context within which they were produced no longer exists. Design, as a discipline, deals with innovation within social contexts, which is exactly what western civilisations need at this moment. But not only at the level of individual product or technology, but at a general level of living and interior design.
When does product design come in to existence, at the beginning or at the end of the production process?
Design is part of the integral approach to each type of material and symbolic production. It is the concept and process of fleshing out the idea. In the 19th century, design meant artistic decoration of an industrial product. Today it is a layered concept which even marks the development of innovative business models under the term 'design thinking'.
What challenges does industrial design present in today's context?
How to create for the benefit of man and society so that it may be sustainable, but not solely within economies of scale where the focus is only on profit. The new focus should be on an equal distribution of benefit and social conscientiousness.
Can new materials change our habits, and in turn, design?
They have already changed not only habits but the biosphere within which we live. Artificial materials, which have been heavily used the last one hundred years, have permanently changed our natural surroundings, and not only due to long decomposing, but also due to the systematic unsolved problem of disposal and recycling.
What new technologies can we expect in product design (we've had computers, 2D projections replaced with 3D printers... )?
We can expect unimaginable technologies that we only read about in sci-fi books. The development of technology is unquestionable, but the key civilizational question today is – for what purpose?
From where does your passion for education come?
I have been in education for a long time, and am currently involved in educational reform in Croatia. I grew up in Zadar, on the Adriatic Coast, when a lot of time was spent outdoors. The culture of interaction and street dialogue, has always filled me with good feelings. That is the foundation of education – the power to discuss and in the process learn to innovate yourself and others.
How much can Croatia, and its part Dalmatia as you mentioned, contribute design (prototypes, products)?
Dalmatia is traditionally a strong part of Croatia and Europe, mostly in its wise and sustainable relationship with its natural surroundings and the humble and considerate relationships people have with one another. That can best be seen with the return to agriculture within the last quarter century, where there is an obvious yearning towards development and quality. The Dalmatian islands and the people who live in those modest surroundings are a strong base for the development of new sustainable microeconomic communities of the future.
How much do humans today adapt to design (living style) and vice versa?
Within the context of economies of scale, man has often adapted to everything, including products, mostly through the help of advertising. It should be the other way around, which it often is, but that type of model is not profitable in categories of traditional economy. What is coming, it seems, is a new civilizational level where a series of micro economies will overtake a good part of today's globalisation benefits and transfer them to a more humane local level of sustainable living within the biosphere. But for that step to be taken there needs to be a revolution of human consciousness, starting at individual accountability within social contexts.
The history of art – a coupling of design and art – is design closer to art today or to art in the past 50 or 100 years?
Design, as a profession, was historically established as an artistic discipline, which in many cultures and educational systems it still is. But as civilisation has developed, design has defined itself as an interdisciplinary creative activity which connects science and art. Today the artistic character of product design often manifests itself in small series of luxury products and equally expensive individually made products. In both cases, there is a manifestation of social inequality, within which the more expensive product (in fact, margin) are treated primarily as status symbols. In that sense, nothing has changed since the age of feudal horses and carriages.
What direction is design going in and will products in the future be made by robots or will they still mostly be made by humans?
The process of technologizing material and symbolic creations is unstoppable, but its purpose is questionable because allocating machines to do the work will not solve the problems of human inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth, which is the consequence of industrial work and design. Technology is not the answer to the world's problems. Design, as a discipline, should highlight these problems, which 50 years ago Buckminster Fuller and, later on Victor Papanek, publically addressed. Therefore, it is not a question of whether we need technology but for what purpose. The third industrial revolution which has just begun will revolutionize society and civilization. The questions are just how, in what direction, and with what consequences.
God bless you all!