Svjetlana Despot is an interior designer and product designer with more than 25 years of experience. After graduating from the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Rijeka, she worked at IGH (1986-1992) and at the same time attended a private school of interior design (1988-1990). In 1992, Svjetlana Despot founded the Data Decor Design Centre, which has been designing and manufacturing utility items from the beginning. Then she started cooperating with the Croatian furniture industry and carpet factories, which made her a pioneer of Croatian product design. She developed a number of unique products for well-known customers in Croatia and abroad, but also products for the Croatian mass production. A constant desire to improve led her to attend the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. As part of the Data Decor Centre, she founded a separate design department, Interior & Product Design Studio, whose main activity is interior and product design. In 2004 Svjetlana Despot launched her own brand Data by Despot. Thanks to her deep knowledge of materials and production technology, she organized the production and distribution of products created according to the DIY model. Within the Data by Despot brand, she designed six collections comprising more than a hundred different items. From the very beginning, Data by Despot has stood out with its innovative approach to design and production. Each project, from the smallest details to the final product, intertwines high technology and somewhat forgotten handicraft techniques. The designer still focuses her work on researching the structure of materials, but also on the application of traditional handicraft techniques. Presentation in museums all over the world and winning awards for the collections of this brand have contributed to its presence in the foreign market.
OM: Most designers who started designing before establishing design studios in Zagreb began their journey on their own, attending studies in humanities. With you, the story is somewhat different because you entered the world of design after graduating from the Faculty of Civil Engineering – you shifted from technical sciences to a world where the acquired knowledge interlaces with artistic impulses. What prompted you to go after such a change, rejecting a secure career path and entering the area of interior design that was at that time largely considered redundant?
SD: My story is a simple one. I’ve had the need to create ever since I was little, and I can’t just “shut down” and stop. I remember way back when I thoroughly redesigned a newly decorated girl’s room. Today, I am grateful to my parents for allowing me the freedom to express myself. My mom was very creative and expressed her talents through hobbies. She usually used me as a model for her crazy designs, so every Saturday I had new garments, where I didn’t even know what a leg was and what a sleeve was. Of course, that gene was passed on to me, even though at the time she thought that I too should have something “solid” and that creativity should be my hobby. So I went very “firmly” to the Faculty of Civil Engineering. Later, I got an even “firmer” job at IGH and was determined to change my destiny. I spent 6 years at IGH, and I was always creating something on the side.
In 1992, then being only 29, I took courage to open the Data Decor Design Centre, which has been designing and manufacturing utility items since its inception. So I set out to follow my dreams, and even used my vacations for trainings abroad. It’s not even funny, but rather crazy and brave. When you have no experience, but you have a desire, this desire “carries” you, while at the same time you don’t think about the consequences. You do not know what lies ahead.
I encountered obstacles that gave me a headache, but I dealt with them in my own way. Now I sometimes miss that ignorance, courage and rush. I was not afraid of the consequences, nor of the assessment. I was just taking one step at a time. Just like a child, when they learn to walk, they go, fall, then get up and walk again. The experience is valuable, but it makes you anticipate, and thus slows you down.
OM: You used to say that, in addition to a formal education at the School of Interior Design and later the Chelsea College Of Art And Design in London, you benefited the most from reading professional literature from which you drew the necessary additional information and inspiration for work. Is constant information and thus the search for improvement of your own work something that still inspires you? How important is it to read, study the history of design, and observe the work of colleagues to make one a quality designer?
SD: I used to absorb knowledge from professional literature, I hauled those heavy books and I remember my suitcase was always too heavy at check-in. Today I think and observe more. I am interested in some other sciences and I look for inspiration through these. Like anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, etc. Knowledge is a tool – like a fork and a knife – and you use it. Today I even avoid browsing through magazines and professional literature because these somehow poison me and I fail to remain true to myself.
I am afraid that something will remain in the back of my mind and that I will unconsciously start copying. I prefer to stay away from any influence. When isolated like this, I am completely business-oriented and I am the sharpest critic of myself! However, when I sometimes don’t see a forest for the trees, I discuss my doubts with a colleague and clear my mind by chatting.
OM: In very uncertain times, you were bold enough to establish your own company Data Decor, which has expanded its areas of activity over the years. What remains to be among the main postulates of Data Decor is the focus on quality design with carefully selected materials, but above all on designing products created for people. Emphasis is placed on humanizing the item with which the user will be able to create some kind of a relationship. How do you achieve that effect? How do products placed on the market manage to preserve a sense of uniqueness?
SD: At a time when the market was not yet open, Data Decor designed interiors and thus created and accomplished what I personally lacked in these. I was surrounded by all possible sources of world design, and the market was closed and it was only logical that in such an environment a person might get an incentive to leave a mark on his or her world with a new item. Ideas simply spring up on their own, and then it takes persistence and ingenuity for them to be realized. My products are not needed, but they rely on and complement other functional items, as well as provide exactly what is missing in the puzzle. In my vision, the reason design exists is to communicate with people, to beautify their lives. I must not use the word nice, because the profession will see me as superficial! Still, it has a nice effect on emotions, it instils comfort and pleasure, and if, on top of it, it also satisfies the function, it becomes even more desirable. When I work, I perhaps take it too personally, I’m not committed to functionality, I don’t hide behind the rational.
OM: The Data by Despot brand creates entire collections of furniture, household utility items and decorations, which all have in common a combination of high technology and somewhat forgotten traditional embroidery and design. To what extent can modern technology give way to traditional, handcrafted objects?
SD: It cannot give way. These are two different directions and two different price ranges, two different approaches. A machine-made carpet is produced in one day, while it takes at least a year for little hands to weave one Bakhtiari carpet. Back in 1999, I designed an excellent collection called Past Time Collection. It consisted of knitted ornaments, embroidery, lace, traditional Lika woollen rugs biljac, but it was unfortunately too expensive due to the amount of traditional handicrafts and the organization of embroiderers and weavers. I tried to combine high technology and traditional handicraft.
OM: In some items, your fascination with traditional crafts is clearer, and the ornaments are more directly taken over. One such example is a very popular Dubrovnik souvenir that comes in the form of notebooks, bookmarks, pendants and other items, which was created according to the template of kadifača, the traditional Konavle embroidery. In such cases, is it necessary to further stylize a certain ornament or do you take it over directly, with all its original elements?
SD: I often clean the traditional ornament from superfluous details, use the whole motif or crop an interesting part – then the ornament can be seen with its main characteristics. Kadifača embroidery is very suitable because it is geometrical. A few years ago, I threw myself into the search for magical symbols in Croatia, but we obviously do not have a penchant for magic like some peoples close to us or far away. The carpet has always evoked its civilization-old function of conveying messages. In Croatia, I found only one from the vicinity of Slavonski Brod. I contrasted the motif of tradition and modernity. Monochrome surfaces are a neoplastic (De Stijl) expression of utopian ideals of mental harmony, while on the other hand there is the ethnographic motif “Two lied down, three woke up”, which is a distinctive female letter of love and erotic character as a symbol of fertility and protection from spells. Chaos + order together in a package! So anything is allowed, but you have to have a reason for it.
OM: Knowledge of the material, its behaviour, processing possibilities and types of application are one of the basics of product design. In your works, we most often encounter felt as the basic material. What attracted you to felt? What characteristics make it special and convenient for treatment?
SD: The firmness and flexibility that I value in felt allows me to transform flat pieces of textile into voluminous objects, turning a simple concept into a thoughtfully conceived one, so that the final products turn into a soft form. Whether it’s a complicated Structural Collection or a simple Inside Out Collection, it always transitions from hard and flat to soft form.
OM: Another, no less important feature of your design is the reuse, or recycling of discarded products and materials that become the basis of the final product. This is how the Recycle Collection came to be, whose items were obtained using discarded stockings that did not pass the factory quality test. A solid but warm product is created using a delicate material, again thanks to the combination of modern and traditional design. Is this material ready for use or needs to be reworked before use? What does the process of making a Hula Hula chair look like?
SD: That chair has travelled the world, and has even lived to see the bombing in Holon. Hula Hula was created as a gesture of opposites – not to be beautiful but to be a character, as a combination of old forms and new possibilities, a combination of old, already forgotten crafts and new, modern materials.
The shape came about by combining the boring Alt – Deutsch heritage, in which I grew up, with exploring new possibilities. Thus, the front legs are associated with the formally strict and rigid Alt-Deutsch, which is at the same time soft, while the back part is the exact opposite, derived from a flat and simple form. Although this is recycling, the work is still very challenging. Three threads need to be extracted from each stocking so that we can connect these by hand to get a ball. Hours and hours of stocking preparation, as well as countless hours that our hard-working granny Marica spent knitting, were invested in the production of one chair cover. The new material is now becoming an intriguing mix, and every detail simultaneously embraces high technologies and already forgotten manual capabilities. It is magical how different stocking thicknesses let in light and shadows differently, making it go from monochrome to multicolour. Are we talking about art or mass production? The line between the two here is very thin. This chair, although it is all about recycling, is still very demanding and not at all commercial. It is simply a concept, a research of my own.
“I say to myself “hard against soft”, and then I like to disturb the orderliness of the scenery with something intentional. I imagine the space as a theatrical scene that evokes emotions with its textures, shapes and colours in order to attract people to stay in it.”
OM: Recycle was followed by the Inside Out collection, which was created by a combination of felt obtained from recycled PET waste and wool, as was also the case with the esteemed Koverta collection. Do you look at today’s furniture industry as an environmentally unsustainable economy or are innovative solutions slowly taking the lead?
SD: The Inside Out collection was a logical continuation of the research of form and structure on my medium – felt. After the complications in the Structural Collection, where I achieved structure thanks to precision work, an important moment for me was the detachment from the classic textile processing – sewing! I accomplished this production shift in the design of joints by respecting the firmness of the material. Felt is thick, flexible and firm, which enables the transformation of 2D textile into voluminous 3D objects, so the final products turn into a soft volume. The products are cut from one piece. Assembly is simple and without additional tools, so the option of flat packing and transport is open.
The selected material – felt is produced with technologically demanding processes from PET packaging and wool, where polyester determines the ecological identity, and wool provides the desired softness. In this collection, I managed to lower the cost of labour, packaging and transportation and satisfy environmental awareness.
Unfortunately, I don’t think environmental sustainability matters to most customers. Look around and what do you see?! Lots of fakes, debatable quality, but very low prices. Today, however, some are concerned about their environment and the damage to it caused by industrial production. The product should be wise and manufactured from recycled material or be recyclable. They don’t take over, but they should take the lead.
OM: As part of Data Decor’s “department” for architecture and interior design, you yourself had the opportunity to participate in the creation of a conceptual design for the decoration and conversion of the Exportdrvo building. The story is created as part of the Sweet and Salty project organized by DeltaLab and Idis Turato. What do you consider important when converting a building? How much intervention do you allow yourself within the given space?
SD: Keep the original as much as possible, and over time, if possible, remove the added extensions. Every new assignment requires a new rethinking, so I don’t have a recipe. It depends on the function and position. At Exportdrvo, the task was to redesign the existing building with minimal interventions. Functionally, the project envisaged the conversion of the building into various exhibition and concert spaces. Due to the limited budget, I kept these interventions to a minimum.
The greenery turned this building into a substitute for green public space by the water in the centre of Rijeka. Because Rijeka is a city without parks and squares! Turn the Exportdrvo building into its opposite and vest it in a cloak of greenery, so that access to the building is filled with trees, steel evacuation stairs are covered with climbing plants, and free spaces between large concrete pillars on the façade are covered with graffiti by the invited Rijeka street artists, in a similar fashion as they did up to now. The final technique in the transformation of the Exportdro building is the recycling and reuse of discarded materials as a reminder of the old function of the building and some old industrial Delta.
The Exportdrvo project is a conceptual overlap of two layers I imagined, a network of greenery that is densest on the building envelope and in the public sphere, and which thins out as it penetrates into the building, and a layer of installations made of recycled and discarded material that
characterizes the interior.
OM: Comparing the former art scene and industrial production in Rijeka with today’s unification and neglect of former industrial plants, do you feel that now, in the year Rijeka is the European capital of culture, there are positive indications and new opportunities?
SD: Dear Ora, I don’t even know what to say. I love my Rijeka, I love the people I meet, and I have known them since childhood, and that view, that power of the sea, without which I could not live. Now I feel a mess in my city and I think positively that it will clear up in a year or so.
OM: In this, but also in other projects of interior design and architectural interventions, you connect the building to its surroundings, trying to create harmony and intertwining of external and internal space. How do you determine the design of a space, what is the first thing you start from when designing it?
SD: As I said before, I can’t just “shut down.” The head is full, and the hardest part is stopping ideas and redirecting them. You have to give up some, separate the important from the irrelevant. Then the first guiding thread comes up, an aha moment happens. So the blink starts with a slogan or a movie in your head. I am inspired by organic forms and the world around me. Designing a space is a way to create a unique sensory environment that acts seamlessly and cohesively. It is a unique micro-universe that creates an impact on its users and can bring happiness, peace and inclusion. I often imagine the interior as a continuation of the urban fabric that connects the environment with its interior, creating a visual connection between the external and internal space, respecting the elements of the natural environment. In this way, the project presents itself as if it has always been there.
OM: In your work so far, numerous interiors are reminiscent of theatrical or film scenes in which the feeling of space is built with dramatic colour contrasts or the use of the Swift Wall screen. I would especially highlight the use of a somewhat unconventional black that is sometimes discerned in the details, while sometimes it is the main recurring theme. What is the real role of organizing colours and materials in a space?
SD: I have the power to draw attention with materials and colours. Make an Up-Down. Oh, that black of mine! Ever since childhood, I have worn black clothes and I love black because it integrates all colours. I have three colours /achromatic colours I use, and these are black, white and red. I start to “knit” colours, textures, materials, forms and scents. I say to myself “hard against soft”, and then I like to disturb the orderliness of the scenery with something intentional. I imagine the space as a theatrical scene that evokes emotions with its textures, shapes and colours in order to attract people to stay in it. We are all burdened globally with daily commitments and often feel the need to escape. I materialize this need to escape in various emotionally charged forms thus trying to create an image of imaginary vision. I’m not a fan of trends and hits. I prefer good design, which if good, is durable, even if the consumer industry and the media drive us towards trends, and thus towards rapid change. It is important to me that the project has a story, a touch, an atmosphere, warmth and hospitality.
OM: Do you feel enough freedom to work, do you have the opportunity to create a complete design of the space, given the different areas covered by Data Decor, from design and conversion, to furnishing the space with the smallest details?
SD: My favourite is always the next project because I may have the opportunity to achieve perfection in it. Of course, that is an unattainable goal and that is exactly why I am doing this job – it is never done. In each project I try to create a rounded whole, but with a lot of open doors so that the user can supplement it, adjust it, so that the space can age and mature with its user.
OM: This year you are one of the members of the jury of the Biennial Exhibition of Croatian Design 19/20. Since this interview takes place while applications are still being submitted for the competition, can you tell us what do you expect from the submitted works?
SD: To surprise me!
“The most beautiful thing is when you enjoy the process, when you get it out of you. One should want and not expect, move forward and every step is new knowledge and experience. What is so terrible that can happen? No one can take away your knowledge!”
OM: The problems of product design seem to have been the same for years. Ever since Matko Meštrović wrote in the 1970s and 1980s about the need to include design in state policy and industry, we have often encountered almost identical appeals to recognize the importance of the role of design in industry and economy. How do you view the position of product design in Croatia today? What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle to the emergence of more new product design names?
SD: The speed at which design is changing in the world in the last ten or more years. New technologies and systems are hard to keep up with. Croatia is not lagging behind in design but in production, it is necessary to find a suitable model for designers, manufacturers and retailers, which will meet the real needs of Croatian society and consider the resources available to Croatia. First we have to fight for the domestic market, and thus the door will be opened for the European, since the Croatian market is too small for us. So we need to place our space and item design in our hotels or business premises and confront them with objects and thoughts from the world. But the Croatian economy operates based on the principle of selling goods, not producing them. Unfortunately, the few manufacturers that are there do not see the benefit of entering the production of a particular solution or do not have the conditions for production. At the same time, they do not realize that there will never be ideal conditions. First we need to have an idea of production that can happen through outsourcing, and then it’s the turn of us designers.
In the mental structure of the country that is in a collective depression, we prefer a known state, rather than leaping into the unknown that may or may not be successful. We fear unconditionality and challenges of any kind. We are stingy to place a bet without a down-payment and promises for the better.
“The design of objects, spaces, and even clothing, is a sign of prosperity of a community, and although the availability of design sometimes seems to emphasize social differences even more, it doesn’t really have to be that way. The only difference is in the quality of design.”
OM: Designers today need to be aware of their multiple roles – in addition to concrete day-to-day work, they need to be prepared to run their own business, from contracting to marketing. What would you advise the younger generation of product designers? What do you consider the most beautiful part of your job?
SD: Design is a way of living, a decision, a passion you feel within. Ideas crop up unannounced or after days and days of thinking, sketching, cutting and piling rubbish around. You have to “discipline” design because otherwise it can drift off into destruction. The most beautiful thing is when you enjoy the process, when you get it out of you. One should want and not expect, move forward and every step is new knowledge and experience. What is so terrible that can happen? No one can take away your knowledge! One should play and play, keep the child within alive, without fearing the loss and appraisal. The child, when it begins to learn to walk, has no fear of falling, being judged or losing… it simply learns and walks.
OM: There is often talk of the marginalization of culture and arts, especially in such a challenging year that is still ahead of us. What would you single out as the biggest problems that product designers face in Croatia today? How do you see the future of Croatian design?
SD: The design of objects, spaces, and even clothing, is a sign of prosperity of a community, and although the availability of design sometimes seems to emphasize social differences even more, it doesn’t really have to be that way. The only difference is in the quality of design. The world is becoming one and of course that in this big mosaic, in which borders are being lost, there must be Croatian red and white checks. It has a nice effect on emotions, causes pleasure, and so if, on top of it, it satisfies the function, it becomes even more desirable and has an exceptional influence on the formation of the social and general human environment. Design is everywhere, it has become a medium that manifests the whole culture.
Our designers are very close to foreign designers in terms of their awareness and creativity. We may be even better because we possess a developed talent for improvising. The West has been slightly worn out. We have a fresh brain. Poverty is a source of genius, and that leads to innovation. Creative industries have been for more than two decades in the developed world and within the European Union, the sector of social economy with the highest growth rate. They cover a wide range of activities such as industrial design, graphic design, publishing, film, audiovisual, craft and fine arts. Experts say that creativity and innovation are the great economic trump cards for the future. And will Croatia understand that as well? We need to use this and build our design with what and with whom we can, raise the awareness of the Croatian customer, and give the designer his or her place and responsibility. The Croatian buyer and the Croatian trader are the ones who encourage the producer to start production.