On Matko Meštrović in the context of design — on the occasion of the Lifetime Achievement Award

matko mestrovic krcadinac

Matko Meštrović is critical of eminent designers of the western world, including Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller, resenting them for not being resolute in their questioning of the dominant capitalist system. His eternal curiosity and desire to explore and promote new interpretations of the relations of social domination that are structurally connected to capitalist modes of production is a reflection of his attempt to subvert this domination through the collective self-determination of people and through the system of social production

Cover photo: Miran Krčadinac

“Time passes, and the dust of oblivion is getting thicker.”
— Matko Meštrović

Matko Meštrović is neither a graphic nor an industrial designer in the narrow sense of the term as there is not one specific design he has done. Still, he is an expert of extreme significance for the affirmation of the field and the development of the discourse on design in our region. His works, including a great number of texts, pieces of criticism, essays, scientific and popular articles and about a dozen books, comprise interdisciplinary critical theory, art criticism, design theory as well as critical and theoretical deliberation of technology and the media. In this sense, the decision on the recipient of the lifetime achievement award has a symbolic significance of pointing to the importance of not only design theory, but also of critical social theory for the practice and consideration of design, and the affirmation of the idea that theoretical reflection is an important and indispensable part of any design practice. Apart from a few practitioners— Bernardo Bernardi or Vjenceslav Richter — who, as members of Exat51, were among the first ones to promote the significance of industrial design and would periodically point to issues of the social status and treatment of design, suggesting visions of potential solutions, the domestic theoreticians from the second half of the 20th century who systematically dealt with subjects of design theory were Zvonimir Radić, Matko Meštrović, Fedor Kritovac, Goroslav Keller, Darko Venturini, Radovan Ivančević, Vera Horvat Pintarić, and in the field of propaganda and marketing Josip Sudar. In the wider Yugoslavian context, their colleagues in the promotion of design were Stane Bernik in Slovenia and Miroslav Fruht in Belgrade. However, of the theoreticians from Croatia, it was only Goroslav Keller and Matko Meštrović who, at least partly, systematized and published their deliberations on design theory and methodology in books.

In our region, the awareness of the specificity of (industrial) design as opposed to unique design in the so-called applied arts developed gradually during the 1950s and 60s. As Feđa Vukić points out in his texts on the history of design discourse, the theoretical framework of this period presents a gradual overcoming or replacement of the phrase “applied arts”, first with the functional Croatian term “oblikovanje” (which can roughly be translated as formation, figuration or molding) and then with the anglicized designa/dizajn. These changes in terminology symbolically mark a change in the understanding of the means used and goals that need to be accomplished.[1] While the 50s were marked by the terms and concepts of “applied arts”, the “inclusion of the artist in the industry”, “industrial aesthetics”, “the artistic profile of production”, emphasizing in a more narrow sense the formative tasks and plastic values of this “synthesis of visual and fine arts, applied arts and architecture”, in the early 60s a shift towards a theoretically better though-out methodology of design for industrial production became visible, which would develop fully by the end of the 60s and during the first half of the 70s. In the late 50s the term design first appeared as such in the domestic critical and theoretical discourse — primarily in the texts of Radoslav Putar and Matko Meštrović. The new term caught on by the early 60s, first in its English form, and then in the Croatinized form “dizajn”,[2] though the Croatian term oblikovanje and the term dizajn are used interchangeably to this day.

In the establishment of connections with the European experience of the time and the ideological impact on design theory in the region, an extremely important role was played by the Ulm School of Design (HfG)[3] and its Presidents Max Bill (1953–56) and Tomás Maldonad (1956–1968). This impact is evident in the work of Zvonimir Radić and Goroslav Keller, and particularly in the work of Matko Meštrović. With Radić this applies particularly to the first period, when under the leadership of Max Bill, the concept of high modernism was theoretically codified along the lines of Bauhaus (which was in accordance with Radić’s theoretical roots and EXAT’S concept of synthesis), Meštrović was the most crucial and consistent proponent of the scientification of design, along the lines of the work of Tomás Maldonad. It is in this sense that, in our historiography of design and design discourse, the rarely mentioned, but never overtly discussed clash between Radić and Meštrović, in addition to personal reasons, generational and character differences, represents a reverberation of similar theoretical rifts on the European stage.

 

CIO

In 1964, Meštrović resigned from the position of journalist and art critic at Radio Zagreb and takes on a new position at the newly established Center for Industrial Design (CIO), which opened its premises on the first floor of the south wing of the Museum of Arts and Crafts building on the Marshall Tito Square No. 9. CIO was founded in 1963 with the decisions of the Chamber of Commerce of the Socialist Republic of Croatia and the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Zagreb at the encouragement of the Culture Council of the People’s Committee of the City of Zagreb, with the collaboration of the Museum of Arts and Crafts and the Association of Fine Artists of Applied Arts. The basic funds for the establishment of the Center were ensured by the Federal, Republic and City Chambers of Commerce and the Association. Vjenceslav Richter was the first director, the employees were Zvonimir Radić and Matko Meštrović, with associates such as Fedor Kritovac and Goroslav Keler. Radoslav Putar, Meštrović and the Center’s long-time director Mario Antonini had an important role in the profiling of the Center. Texts by Goroslav Keller and Fedor Kritovac sum up the first decade of CIO’s activities pretty well.[4] As opposed to the previous approach to art in industry, the goal of the Center was to develop a method of designing industrial products as an integral part of modern production. In accordance with this goal, the organizational structure of the Center was set up. The activities of Center were organized into several departments: the information, operative, exhibition, and documentation department, etc. However, it would be fair to say that due to organizational, financial and personnel issues and restrictions, this ambitiously envisaged structure never fully worked.

 

Časopis "Dizajn", dizajn: Hrvoje Devide, Centar za industrijsko oblikovanje, 1967 - 68.

“Dizajn” magazine, design: Hrvoje Devide, Centar za industrijsko oblikovanje, 1967 – 68.

 

Until 1968 Meštrović was Head of the Information Department, and was primarily responsible for the information and communication segment of the Center’s operation, which included publishing. Immediately after the Center’s establishment, Putar and Meštrović began working on its first publication, which was published in 1965 under the title Uputstvo za industrijsko oblikovanje (Guidelines for Industrial Design).[5] The text of this small, but informative brochure, aimed at familiarizing anyone interested (primarily in the industrial field) with the basics of the organization of the industrial design process, the work of “designers” and “design bureaus”, demonstrates concisely how its authors and publishers viewed the context they worked in and the role of the Center. In this sense, it represents a programmatic document of the Center. It is symptomatic that on the one hand they still use the old term “visual art culture of material production” while on the other they emphasize, when discussing the future operations of the Center, the scientific and methodological approach to design. In the last chapter, the brochure’s authors point out that the “Center is not itself an institution for industrial design, but an initiator and organizer”, an active mediator and “coordinator of all efforts made to advance the culture of production, exchange and consumption”. They particularly emphasize the Center’s tasks of collecting and processing expert documentation and disseminating information. By collaborating with other foreign and international organizations and magazines, the Center collected an extensive library of expert books and publications from all over the world.

 

Matko Meštrović - Teorija dizajna i problemi okoline, dizajn: Dean Jokanović Toumin, Naprijed, 1980.

Matko Meštrović – Teorija dizajna i problemi okoline, design: Dean Jokanović Toumin, Naprijed, 1980.

 

It is precisely with the goal of informing (potential) users that the CIO would publish, in the following couple of years, the CIO Bulletin (1965–66), and in the period between 1967 and 68 12 issues of the magazine Dizajn (Design). The Editor in Chief was Meštrović, and from the fourth to the last issue Goroslav Keller and Putar were signed as Assistant Editors. Each of the 12 issues, whose graphic design was done subtly in the high modernist tradition by Hrvoje Devide, was devoted to one segment of the industry. In the following publications of the Center, Osnove metodologije industrijskog dizajna (Basics of the Methodology of Industrial Design)[6] from 1968, and Tržišni aspekti industrijskog dizajna (Market Aspects of Industrial Design), Meštrović and Fedor Kritovac made key contributions to defining the key terms, methodologies and organizational principles of the design process. Among his numerous text and essays, in addition to the central book Teorija dizajna i problemi okoline (Theory of Design and Issues of the Environment) (Naprijed, Zagreb, 1980), two earlier texts can be pointed out as particularly significant for the field of design: Dizajn – čega, gdje, kako, što i zašto (Design – of what, where, how, what and why)[7] from 1961 and Mogućnosti naučne impostacije dizajna u Jugoslaviji (Possibilities for the Scientific Validation of Design in Yugoslavia), originally published in 1969 in the collection of lectures from the Symposium Industrial Design and the Economic and Social Tendencies in Yugoslavia.[8] He participated in congresses and seminars of the ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design). His lecture prepared for the 9th Congress of the ICSID, held in Moscow in 1975, entitled Design in Relation to the Essence of Labor, was published in the book Obrisi bez obrasca (Contours Without a Pattern).

 

Radiotelevizija Zagreb, logo: Jože Brumen, 1969.

Radiotelevizija Zagreb, logo: Jože Brumen, 1969.

 

RTZ

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the first large visual identity projects were developed. For instance, the Ljubljana Studio MSSV (Mächtig, Skalar, Suhadolc, Vipotnik) won the tender for the creation of the visual identity of Ljubljanska Bank in 1970 and developed the first complex visual identity project in the tradition of high modernism. Almost simultaneously in Zagreb, as one of its biggest projects, the CIO developed, from 1969 to 1972 the visual identity project for the Zagreb Radiotelevision (the logo was done by Jože Brumen, the design application by Boris Ljubičić, in association with Fedor Kritovac). Texts on the development of design in the SFRY often point out the pioneer character of these visual identity projects. They were immediately recognized for their quality, both winning the Golden Medal at the 5th Biennial of Industrial Design in 1973. These projects are often described as “catching up with” and “finally reaching the standards” already established in the USA and Western Europe, and in Croatia they would culminate with the visual identity project of the Mediterranean Games in Split (1976-79).[9] In order to implement the project, Matko Meštrović began working for the Radiotelevision Zagreb, where he worked as a consultant to the General Director Ivo Bojanić, supervising the implementation of the visual identity project. After the project was done, he remained in the Radiotelevision Zagreb until 1987, trying to advance the professional and theoretical knowledge important for this pubic information service. At the time, he was an active member of the International Association of Mass Communication Researchers (IAMCR). After that, he became the Director of the Croatian Institute for Culture, a position he held until 1992, dealing with cultural policies and the analysis of cultural events and the social effects of culture, the activities of cultural institutions, the position of artists and cultural workers. The Institute published its greatest number of publications after Meštrović began heading it.

 

Vizualni identitet Radiotelevizije Zagreb, logo: Jože Brumen, aplikacija dizajna: Boris Ljubičić, suradnik: Fedor Kritovac, 1969 – 1972.

Visual identity of Radiotelevizija Zagreb, logo: Jože Brumen, design application: Boris Ljubičić, in association with: Fedor Kritovac, 1969 – 1972.

 

Education

In an essay published in the Yearbook of Croatian Design 01 on the occasion of the publication of a book by Feđa Vukić, Matko Meštrović pointed out that as early as 1968 the CIO worked on a proposal of a University study program in the field of design. There had been an initiative to introduce a third study course, in the field of design, in addition to architecture and urbanism, at the Faculty of Architecture. However, “the conservative members of the faculty annulled this attempt”. In the 1970s a short-lived postgraduate study program was established, Research and Advancement of Design, for which he prepared the publication History and Theory of Design – Introduction (CIO, Zagreb 1976) for the course he was teaching. The text was later used in a dissertation and published as part of the book Design Theory and Issues of the Environment (1980). After years of advocation, expectation and planning, in 1989, the Design Study Program was finally established at the Zagreb Faculty of Architecture, producing the first graduates in 1994. It is clear what the atmosphere of the program’s establishment and its orientation were when one considers the fact that Matko Meštrović taught design theory for only two academic years (1991-92 and 1992–93), after which he left the Faculty because it did not want to offer him a full-time position, as well as the fact that Fedora Kritovac was never even invited to teach there. Due to this, the scientific, theoretical, and even critical elements in the teaching and deliberation of design were almost completely ignored during the first decade of the program. A corporate aesthetics was predominant, which only later generations of students and teachers would oppose.

 

New Tendencies

While he was still a student, from 1956, Meštrović worked as a journalist in the cultural program of Radio Zagreb, earning the reputation of an art critic interested in new and neo-avant-garde art. In 1961, together with the Argentinean artist Almir Mavignier, with the support of the Directors of the Gallery of Modern Art Božo Bek and Ivan Picelj, he initiated the international exhibitions New Tendencies. Between 1961 and 1973, five exhibitions were held,[10] causing the formation of an informal network of artists (some say of a “new artistic movement”) of a neo-constructivist orientation. These artists were interested in experimenting with new media and closely collaborating with science. Meštrović was one of the leading theoreticians of the movement. He is often named the movement’s ideologue, perhaps this is due to the title of the text Ideology of New tendencies from 1963, in which he analyzes the relations between art and contemporary technology from a Marxist point of view. His influence was particularly apparent at the fourth exhibition, Tendencies 4 – Computers and Visual Explorations, held in 1968. As the Belgrade theoretician Miško Šuvaković points out:

“The theoretical discussions of Matko Meštrović are complex aesthetic discussions of the meaning and function of the New Tendencies in modern culture, and point to the specificity of action in a liberal real socialist society. They are not merely accompanying critical studies, but fundamental guidelines of the discursive and ideological world of the new tendencies.”[11]

In the last couple of years, a lot has once again been written about the New Tendencies and several books have been published on the topic. However, it remains to be explained why, despite the fact that the artists gathered under the New Tendencies included some who were also designers (Mavignier, Enzo Mari, Ivan Picelj, Aleksandar Srnec), the fact that Meštrović, as one of the initiators and theoreticians of the movement, intensely dealt with design theory, as well as the fact that design is regularly indicated as one of the fields of interest of the New Tendencies, particularly as part of the project aimed at “transforming society through art and transforming art by accomplishing the social functions of designing the life’s surroundings”, these subjects were conspicuously absent from the movement’s events (except for Picelj’s posters, especially the one he did for T4 in collaboration with Vladimir Bonačić). The answer could be that the professional designers, involved with their specific professional activities, lacked the sensibility for such subjects and utopian projects. When the projects and initiatives that we recognize as precursors to what we today call speculative design did appear— such as the Italian anti-design movement, the Superstudio group, Archizoom and Archigram — this was already in the context of anti-system movements of 1968 and a radical critique of the ideology of high modernism. As opposed to this, the ideology of the New Tendencies still believed in progress and did not question it. To the contrary, in his more radical moments, it is Matko Meštrović himself who argues that it is capitalism that represents an obstacle to science and technology accomplishing the feat of fully humanizing our environment.

 

Bit International br. 2 – Kompjuteri i vizualna istraživanja, dizajn: Ivan Picelj, 1968

Bit International no. 2 – Computers and Visual Research, design: Ivan Picelj, 1968

 

Bit International
At the same time as the New Tendencies exhibitions were being held, the Gallery of the City of Zagreb, as the institution in charge of the Gallery of Modern Art, began publishing the magazine Bit International. From 1968 to 1972 the magazine covers subjects dealing with the relations between art, in its widest sense, science, information theory, technology, design, visual communications and the media. The magazine formulated promoted, but also questioned the theoretical and poetic foundations of the movement. Meštrović was a member of the editorial board and one of the editors. He was editor of the fourth issue of the magazine (1969, which was devoted to design, particularly covering the closing of the Ulm School of Design and the state of design in Croatia. In addition to texts by the then leading theoreticians of design Tomas Maldonad and Gui Bonsiepe, the magazine published texts by Croatian contributors Vera Horvat Pintarić, Fedor Kritovac and Radoslav Putar (“Design of Products in the Yugoslavian Industry”) and an editorial by Meštrović himself.

 

Gorgona

Almost simultaneously, between 1959 and 1966, Meštrović also participated in the activities of Gorgona, regular informal meetings, and exchanges of ideas and information, gathering the painters Josip Vaništa, Marijan Jevšovar, Julije Knifer, Đuro Seder, sculptor Ivan Kožarić, architect Miljenko Horvat and theoreticians and art critics Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos and Radoslav Putar. Interestingly, there was a significant generation gap between the youngest Horvat and Meštrović, and the other members. Quite often, the issue is raised of the allegedly “curious”, “mysterious” and “inexplicable” active participation of the two members of the New Tendencies, Meštrović and Putar — particularly Meštrović as an advocate of a scientific approach to art, with his interest in information sciences, the use of computers and other new technologies in art — in the activities of Gorgona, a cross between Fluxus and proto-conceptual art. However, the interest of Gorgona in the mundane, the everyday, the “non-artistic”, what is often called “marginal phenomena” or an “extended understanding of art”, is not a far cry from Putar’s and Meštrović’s interest in everyday utility items and connecting art with everyday life (present, in a way, in the New Tendencies as well). Also, Bašičević’s and Putar’s interest in naïve art and photography is not that different from the ideas and intentions of Gorgona, as is often argued today.

 

Matko Meštrović – Od pojedinačnog općem, DAF, 2005.

Matko Meštrović – Od pojedinačnog općem, DAF, 2005.

 

Beyond the limits of disciplines

In the domestic academic and wider intellectual field, individuals with such an extensive array of interests are rare. The term “interdisciplinarity” is fashionable and somewhat overused today, but with the scientifically and intellectually rigid Meštrović, it is not merely a postmodern syncretism of different disparate disciplines. As Maroje Mrduljaš points out, with his interests, from architecture and urbanism to design, Meštrović has always extended the discussion beyond the narrow limits of disciplines, viewing them in a wide social and theoretical context. In his theoretical work, he has always fundamentally remained a materialist. Even when it comes to design, he has always understood it not as merely a function of mass industrial production, but, in a wider sense, as “thought-actions aimed at a comprehensive transformation of the historical world”. In this sense, in his central book when it comes to design, Theory of Design and Issues of the Environment, he is critical of eminent designers of the western world (including Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller), resenting them for not being resolute in their questioning of the dominant capitalist system. His eternal curiosity and desire to explore and promote new interpretations of the relations of social domination that are structurally connected to capitalist modes of production (including workerism, cognitive capitalism, the issue of commons, etc.) is a reflection of his attempt to subvert this domination through the collective self-determination of people and through the system of social production. Meštrović’s work was succinctly described by Miško Šuvaković:

“Matko Meštrović is most certainly a relevant, exceptional and, in various historical periods of late modernism, postmodernism and globalism, a significant critical and theoretical figure on the Croatian and European intellectual scene. (…) today, from a historical distance, he can be considered a true and exceptional pioneer of the theory and philosophy of neo-avant-garde art and culture in Croatia and Yugoslavia.”

To this we can add – and of design as well.

[1] Feđa Vukić, Modernizam u praksi (Zagreb: Meandar 2008). See p. 163.
[2] Zlatko Kauzlarić, “O nazivima i shvaćanjima na području industrijskog oblikovanja, 15 dana, No. 11 (Zagreb 1959); Radovan Ivančević, “Osnovna pravila industrijskog oblikovanja” (1959); It was Meštrović who suggested, in a report from the international congress of the ICSID, held in Venice in 1961, that the Croatian version of the word design – dizajn – should be introduced. See Feđa Vukić (2008), p. 167.
[3] See Jasna Galjer: Dizajn pedesetih u Hrvatskoj – Od utopije do stvarnosti, Horetzky, Zagreb 2004. pp. 43-55.
[4] Goroslav Keller, ‘Deset godina Centra za industrijsko oblikovanje’, Čovjek i prostor 251, Zagreb 1973, pp. 21, 34; Fedor Kritovac, ‘Deset godina Centra za industrijsko oblikovanje u Zagrebu’, Arhitektura 150 Zagreb 1974, pp. 39–42.
[5] Uputstvo za industrijsko oblikovanje, (Zagreb: CIO, 1965)
[6] See: Feđa Vukić, Od oblikovanja do dizajna: Teorija i kritika projektiranja za industrijsku proizvodnju, Zagreb, 2003, 39.
[7] Originally published in the magazine Umetnost No. 10/Belgrade, 1961, reprinted in the book Obrisi bez obrasca (Mladost, Zagreb 1979).
[8] Ed. Eugen Canki, Moša Pijade Workers’ University, Zagreb 1969. The text was reprinted in Od oblikovanja do dizajna, Ed. Feđa Vukić, Meandar, Zagreb 2003.
[9] The visual identity of the Games from 1974 to 1979 was designed by Boris Ljubičić and a team of designers gathered in the visual communications team of the center. It is often pointed out that the very first handbook for graphic standards in Croatia was created for the Games.
[10] New Tendencies 1 (1961), New Tendencies 2 (1963), New Tendencies 3 (1965), New Tendencies 4 (1968–1969), New Tendencies 5 (1973). The organizers and participants of the NT from the domestic art scene were the art historians Božo Bek, Boris Kelemen, Matko Meštrović, Radoslav Putar and Dimitrije Bašičević, and the artists Ivan Picelj, Vjenceslav Richter, Julije Knifer, Vojin Bakić, Miroslav Šutej and Vladimir Bonačić.
[11] Pojmovnik suvremene umjetnosti (Glossary of Contemporary Art), Horetzky, Zagreb/Vlees & Beton, Ghent, 2005.