2013
Common Roots
At the Design Museum Holon, Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe, curated by Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka, claims the initially straightforward theme of creative output in the area between Germany and Russia, from the end of World War II to the present. Quickly, however, the exhibition begins to raise questions—too many to answer—expose assumptions, and even contradict itself, presenting a complex, if unresolved, picture of identity in an equivocal present.

Common Roots proposes an idiosyncratic definition of "Central Europe", including the Baltic countries but not Ukraine and Belarus. Jacobson-Cielecka establishes the most convincing criteria as "annexation to the Eastern Block in 1945, separation from the USSR in 1989, and membership in the European Union beginning in 2004 or 2007". However, the exhibition touches only lightly on the differences between Soviet socialist republics, and makes little attempt to explain how factors like Estonia's "window on the West" or Romanian dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu might condition this common heritage.

The exhibition is divided into two parts—from 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and from then until today. Under dim yellow lighting, the historical products appear as anachronistic artefacts, belying the fact that several—such as Peter Ghyczy's Garden Egg Chair—are in production as design "classics", selling for thousands of euros. In this part of the exhibition, a careful reading of explanatory texts is rewarded with insight into misleading initial impressions.

At first glance, for example, the spherical mouldings and precise analogic displays of Helle Gans's Clock-Barometer evoke a heavily industrialised society mobilised for technological development. In reality, this device was first shown in the 1969 Ruum ja Vorm [Space and Form] exhibition of objects free from functional constraints, marking the evolution of "industrial art" into "design" proper. The technical drawings for the Clock-Barometer even appeared in a 1971 Kunst ja Kodu [Art and Home] magazine as a DIY project, an early alternative to an increasingly standardised domestic scene.

Still, these objects represent an optimistic view of how communism could have been; as Jacobson-Cielecka describes, "the design conceptions developed during this period represented an idealised world that had little to do with the appearance of actual houses". But judging by the predominance of limited editions and prototypes in the contemporary section, this situation has not really changed. Creative design objects like the ones on show are no more accessible to the average consumer, nor is mass-manufacture any more sympathetic to experimental proposals. The curators allege that industrial processes "render the original underlying concept virtually indecipherable" to justify their selection.

That may be the case, but it makes a mere footnote of the way people actually live, and how this might shape identity more than an abstract notion of heritage. As Polish writer Dorota Maslowska remarks in a filmed interview, "We are much more creative than our children...nowadays everything is ready-made, there's no need to invent anything anymore". This observation resonates humorously with Piotr Stolarski's Log Clock as a new raw material in our present-day landscape of abundance. Yet the absence of logistical challenges has not necessarily led to the philosophical breakthroughs that might be expected from such newly "free" societies.

In fact, the display of post-communist era objects would not look out of place at a contemporary trade fair—especially given the groupings of objects by country. The decision to organise the exhibition in this manner seems questionable, given the curators' assertion that contemporary design transcends national borders. As they acknowledge, it is difficult to classify someone like Viktor Matic, a designer born near Sarajevo and raised in Croatia, Germany, and Italy, who studied in Bolzano and works in London. To put his work in the Croatian category seems overly simplistic.
 
Perhaps it would have been more fruitful to group the objects according to a secondary layer of categories, whose coloured notations are woven through the room, including "Folk Attraction", "Ironic Joke", and "New Elegance", among others. As a viewer, though, these categories can seem just as arbitrary. This ambiguity points to the self-consciousness of contemporary design, its obsession with visual mutations and layered references. Even design veterans may find it difficult to distinguish between the sincere and the sarcastic, the original and the imitation in these pieces.

In 2008, when Maxim Velcovský made his Vase of Vases from the negative space inside a circle of glass and porcelain vessels, his approach was novel; five years later, this experimentation with slip-casting traditional textures has become an almost obligatory rite of passage at design schools across Europe and Asia. Once, the idea of "copy-paste culture" was a prejudice against Soviet-era design; now, it is inarguably one of the foremost qualities of the objects we make.

On the other hand, some of the most beguiling products on display do not try to say too much, and they are more emphatic for their silence. The Lajt chair by Janez Suhadolc, for example, is a simple redwood and aluminium chair weighing less than one kilogram; it is not ironic or referential, but it engages with "elegance" as a functional principle rather than a style. It comes as no surprise that its designer is 71 years old; others on show, some scarcely older than their young democracies, may need some time to attain this confident clarity. Still, they lack the luxury enjoyed by older designers, who were once guaranteed jobs in nationalised factory design departments. This may explain the contemporary fixation on design identity and conceptual handwriting—perhaps these are the only assets that young creators can continue to claim.

The curatorial texts offer valuable meditations on these subjects, especially the changes in the prevailing industrial system. The exhibition would have gained from the addition of more curatorial filters, revealing captivating anecdotes like the story of Marko Turk, the Slovenian designer of microphones and electronic products, whose "one-person operation was as competitive on the international market as ISKRA, which had several thousand employees". These narratives would add nuance to a conventionally polarised view, split irreparably at 1989, and also suggest entrepreneurial models for young practitioners.

As a viewer, one question lingers: why here, in Holon? Supposing that Central European contemporary design reflects a common globalised tendency, why not just show local products? (Even Galit Gaon, the chief curator of the Design Museum Holon, observed that the work from this region "looks like Israeli design".) If, on the other hand, there is something distinct about Central European design, then why host such an exhibition in Israel without making a connection to the many Israelis of Central European origin?

Yael Taragan's archival exploration of the roots of the Israeli textile industry in the Zionist aliyot provides an excellent start. Friedel Stern's "Melting Pot" cartoon documents the 1950s project of creating an Israeli identity from the immigrant miscellany via the industrial labour force, while Aryeh Navon's "On the Cobblers' Strike" shows the intractable confrontation between socialist ideals, patriotic consumerism, and cheap imports. Taragan's approach should have been expanded to reveal such underlying truths about cultural identity since the end of the Soviet Union. If culture is to be treated as a concrete commodity, passed down genetically, then it would have been fascinating to study the conditions of its survival, whether in an incubator of free expression or in hibernation through the winter of oppression.