On the occasion of the Exhibition of Croatian Design 19/20, we spoke with Sanja Bachrach Krištofić, one of the members of this year’s Selection Committee and the International Jury of the exhibition. Sanja Bachrach Krištofić has been involved with graphic design since 1980, when she began doing design in tandem with her husband Mario Krištofić. Under the name Bachrach & Krištofić, they created visual identities, designed record and CD covers, posters and books, while in more recent years this design and photography tandem develops concepts for and designs exhibitions. Sanja Bachrach Krištofić and Mario Krištofić are the founders of the Kultura umjetnosti art association, which works on researching, preserving and presenting often forgotten topics from the domestic history of design. The very beginnings of their activities were marked by their cooperation with the Student Centre in Zagreb, for whose Gallery they designed the Akcent magazine. In the 1980s, the designers collaborated intensively with leading New Wave groups, such as Dorian Gray and Denis & Denis. In addition to their long-term collaboration with Jugoton, which has continued with Croatia Records since the 1990s, Bachrach & Krištofić have done the graphic design for catalogues and monographs published by the Klovićevi dvori Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition to graduating in history and philosophy at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, Sanja Bachrach Krištofić also graduated from the Women’s Studies program in 1998 in Zagreb. Together with her husband, she is the author of the photo-monograph Bachrach & Krištofić. Dvostuka igra / Nothing else matters (2008). Between 1999 and 2003, she was the President of the Graphic Design Section of the Croatian Association of Artists of the Applied Arts (ULUPUH), and from 2000 to 2003 she was President of the Association. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 2011 Photodays Applied Photography Award, the Music Festival Diamond Award in the category of the world’s best studio rock photography in Antwerp in 1989, and the first prize of the 20th Youth Salon in Zagreb for which she had the opportunity to design the visual identity in 1988. In 1984, critics of the Jukebox and Rock magazines declared the album covers of the bands Dorian Gray and Denis & Denis the best designed covers. Read more about the years-long design work and future projects of one of our most important graphic designers below.
OM: Like most designers of the same generation, the Bachrach & Krištofić tandem began doing design out of their own interest, surrounded by a culture of post-punk, youth press and fanzines. Its very beginnings were related to the Student Centre, one of the centres of youth culture, which in the early 1980s began to take on a new appearance, precisely by taking on different approaches to designing posters and the Student Center paper. Who were your role models at the time? How did you partially move away from the design tradition that had been apparent up to then in the different frameworks of the Student Centre?
SBK: Remembering and pointing out role models over the span of our forty years of work inevitably involves a certain dose of adopted memory, a construct that we have created, on our own and under the influence of our environment. Before living and working together, but also later, Mario and I were influenced primarily by pop-rock culture: music, gramophone records, posters, youth and teen press, pop art, comics, and Croatian jeans-prose novels. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we toured places that were home to cultural events that piqued our interest. Our active involvement in the design scene began in 1980/1981, and coincided with the return of the school of painting Nuova imagine, the trans-avant-garde. David Bowie‘s Berlin years drew our attention to the wider Berlin scene, the New Wilds (Castelli, Salomé, Fetting), and indirectly to the photographer and artist Pierre Molinier. When I look at our early works in photography today, the influence of these authors is clearly present, but softened by the filter of pop culture, the naivety of youth and the specific social environment we were in.
We exhibited for the first time at the Zagreb Student Centre in 1982, as part of the Artificial Heart campaign (Sanja Jelovac Mažuranić, Dalibor Jurković). We began to socialize intensively with the then head of the gallery Vladimir Gudec, but also with other protagonists of the colourful scene gathered around the Student Centre Gallery, including the band Dorian Gray. We all collaborated, and the influences spilled over and mixed. The colour photographs from this series were later used for their first single and LP. We began doing design because of the events at the Student Centre Gallery. The idea was for each exhibition to be accompanied by a photocopied A4 edition with a coil binding, issued as a limited edition. With Gudec we “cooked up” the name Akcent, and in April of 1983 we published the first issue. The elements of style that we had unconsciously adopted from the above mentioned role models and sources resulted visually in a “break” with the previous tradition of design within the Student Center and beyond.
OM: Like other design collectives at the time (Greiner & Kropilak, NEP, Studio imitacija života/Krici i šaputanja), the design technique was based on xerox, duplication, interventions in photography. Your work, given the professional background of Mario Krištofić, is mostly based on the processing of black and white photographs. Direct contact with the material in today’s digital age is hard to imagine, especially for the younger generations of designers. What was the process of creating, let’s say, one record cover? Can you compare such a way of creating with what is happening today?
SBK: Xerox was a discovery for us as well, it provided us with possibilities that were not feasible in photography. Xerox made it possible to play with the severity of the copy: from very light to extremely dark. By copying the same template several times, we got a very contrasting copy, sometimes with a small offset. We subsequently copied part of the content only once and in this way we got the difference in 2-3 tones of black. As there were no colour copies at the beginning, we used different papers, transparent foils, and coloured tracing papers. Overlapping opaque and transparent images again resulted in a new effect, as did stretching, moving the image on the surface of the copier when copying. We did Akcent, Dorian Gray’s fanzine/paper, flyers and posters for Denis & Denis in the xerox technique.
Mario’s primary interest was black-and-white photography, which was present on the art scene and in the press at the time. Making black-and-white photos at home wasn’t easy if you didn’t have a professional lab. Our darkroom was in the bathroom – we developed and washed the photos in the bathtub and dried them to a certain format (30 × 40 cm) in a special dryer. It was hard to get rid of the dust that fell on the negatives or photos when making them. We combined the aesthetics of the new wave and pop-rock photography with the influences of pop art, the New Wilds and Jerman’s elementary photography based on interventions in the photographic material. The process of making the first singles and LPs actually turned into a coexistence with the guys from the band, into teamwork. Over the course of a year, we played them the music we listened to, talked about books and movies, browsed art and fashion magazines and books. Throughout this time, we worked on the cover, which emerged as a completely spontaneous process of total design.
OM: You were involved in various aspects of the bands’ activities, particularly Dorian Gray, as part of which you, in addition to designing the covers of the records, also designed the clothes and did the hair of the bands’ members. Designers have become consultants, which has led to a kind of design of a band’s “visual identity” in order to make a band visually recognizable. Does this create the danger of the designers repeating and recycling templates that have already been used? How to stay recognizable, yet remain original and interesting to the audience?
SBK: As this was our first major project that required media recognition in the former Yugoslavia, there was no fear of repetition at the time. We used a similar style and identity during the promotion of the singles and the first album. We travelled with them to concerts, took care of the lighting, the makeup — almost everything. We insisted for our photos to be published in the media, emphasizing the band’s art rock image. We collaborated with the Denis & Denis in a similar way. In a conversation with these musicians at our solo exhibition at the Kortil Gallery in Rijeka (2019), Davor Tolja humorously recalled how we “harassed” them about how to dress, how to cut their hair and what kind of make-up to wear. In parallel with the work on the album covers, we exhibited a lot in the Student Centre, SKC, Prozor, Poodrom (then the Music Youth Club), Graz, at Nova fotografija, FOFITES, international photography exhibitions and elsewhere. We transferred the style of the photos to the record covers. The first two albums and numerous exhibitions resulted in a recognizable style that we (more or less) successfully applied to our collaboration with pop-rock performers. With the “entertainers”, the collaborations came to a halt, and sometime in the late 1980s we became bored of working in the same way. In the early 1990s, during and after the war, we started working for other clients, in a different way.
OM: What is especially interesting is your direct participation, which was shown on the record covers themselves, as well as posters and postcards, or invitations to concerts. Stepping into the realm of the public, putting yourself in front of the camera, and communicating directly with the audience is also a different approach from the one your peers utilized at the time. Did you have a greater sense of freedom and independence from a potential client due to the constant change of role between designer and model?
SBK: There are two of us in the Bachrach & Krištofić tandem. We wanted to express different states and ideas with photographs. Mario behind the lens and me in front of it – I could have been anyone. Back then, changing identities or roles was not just for the camera, it was a part of everyday life. I wore men’s suits and ties, wore intense dark makeup, wore tulle and nylon clothes. In our own way, we wanted to say that all these roles, the people who are a part of us, are equal. Self-referentiality points to one’s own situation, the subject. This game of identities was liberating and fun, and it existed all around us, from Warhol, Candy Darling, the already mentioned Bowie, Iggy, Klaus Nomi, Nina Hagen or the New Wilds, Urs Lüthi and many others. In Jugoton, Dorian Gray was treated as a band with a potential hit (which came true), so there were disagreements over the idea that the cover would not have a recognizable black-and-white photo of the band, but rather three collaged figures in colour. We did not give up. And it was fun, to fight for your idea.
OM: Some kind of documentation, as well as mixing the private and the public again and alternating between the roles of designer and model are also clear in the purely photographic works such as the Aktovi (Nudes), Lift (Elevator) and Soba (Room) series from the early 1980s. Although at first they seem only as artistic interpretations, these series are actually related to the themes of gender equality and the way the female body is portrayed. What was the driving force behind their creation? How were they received by society – was the original intention accomplished?
SBK: In some of the early photo series mentioned here, we were both in front of the camera lens. In some shots Mario was dressed and in some undressed. Unfortunately, these shots were quite difficult to set up. We would both stand in the desired spot. The camera was on a tripod, self timers in Mario’s hand. Many trials, many errors; we were happy with just a few shots. I, in a way, represented both of us. Hence the signature – Bachrach & Krištofić. Perhaps we should have replaced the ampersand with an equal sign, but that seemed too literal to us. Showing the naked body of a woman with an identity was a departure from the work of previous generations of photographers who showed female models with a certain degree of nudity, the position of the body and the representation of body parts. All this reduced the woman to an object. We wanted to restore the object’s dignity, give it a clear identity. I don’t believe we achieved what we wanted. In an art critique in the early 1980s, one critic questioned the difference between pornography and our photographs. In the late 2000s, another curator characterized our work as a need and desire for exhibitionism. The society we live in to this day has not defined its relationship to sexuality, gender and transgenderism.
OM: One of your most important experiences was certainly the time you spent in the studio of Željko Borčić, designer of high-quality theatre and festival posters, designer of recognizable logos and advertisements, whose work was also largely based on photography. How did your collaboration with Borčić come about? What did you learn and in what ways was this experience reflected in your later work?
SBK: While working on the first albums, I realized that I cannot just use a combination of photography, collage, handwriting, cut-out letters and a typewriter. At the time it was important to prepare a precise prepress for printing, a mirror for the original. The record covers were printed in a printing house in Belgrade, so it was not possible to check the set-up. I knew I had to learn more on my own, so that the printers wouldn’t claim that something was technologically impossible. My need for knowledge coincided with my invitation to work at the Studio Borčić. I think Sanja Rocco recommended me to Željko. Due to his work for the Student Centre Gallery (First Cybernetic Superportrait, 1973), but also because of his photographs on the covers of records by Drago Mlinarec, I knew more about Željko as a photographer than as a designer. This connection was a sign to me that this was the right place for me to work at. There were five or six of us in Željko’s studio in Samobor. There was a library in the studio with books on graphic design, typography and photography. In addition to literature, the studio was equipped according to the standards of the time. A large selection of materials: paper, tracing paper, foils, lettersets, pencils, rapidographs. In the basement was a studio for reprophotography and cibachrome photography. In addition to the basics of graphic design, I also learned how to do research for a project, how teamwork works, and perhaps, more than anything – what work discipline, responsibility, and meeting deadlines mean. We used to work very late and on weekends; whenever and as long as it took. With him, I learned everything that I later recognized as the basics of working on early computer programs intended for graphic design. I figured out which jobs I liked and which I didn’t; what I am good at, and what I’m not so good at.
OM: As part of the activities of the Kultura umjetnosti art organization, which you established with the aim of implementing projects dealing with the preservation of the heritage of popular culture and art, several valuable actions and exhibitions were organized (Jugoton – East of Paradise 1947 – 1991, Boro Kovačević – Art of the Mock-Up, Youth Work Actions – Design of Ideology, Save the Sign!). In all projects, you speak out about a topic that is close to you from the position of a designer, but also a researcher, and sometimes an active participant, as is the case with the Jugoton exhibition. How do you approach a particular topic? What is important for you to point out when doing research?
SBK: We established the art organization when we realized that cultural institutions are overbooked with their own programs and prone to a certain way of working that seemed too slow, bureaucratic and demotivating to us. This way we were able to participate in tenders for programs that we could not have applied for as individuals, and which we could not have participated in otherwise, with the pace at which we ourselves create. The companies, creators, and project organizations you have listed have suffered a similar fate: in part or in full, their work and heritage has not been recognized by society as heritage. When choosing a topic, we often select something that we have been active participants of – through our own work or via personal acquaintance. This gives us an advantage from the outset, a higher level of knowledge of the topic. Ivan Ivezić is an indispensable part of the history of Jugoton, we got hold of his contact info and visited him at his home in Dubrava, when he donated a large number of original materials to us. We had a similar experience with Mirko Bošnjak, former director of Jugoton, as well as Pero Gotovac – an encyclopedia of domestic discography. Such projects are a great source of satisfaction, and they give us a sense that we have helped preserve part of the heritage of popular culture and art. The way we see our task is to collect, save, archive and systematize what is left available.
OM: The Save the Sign! project, organized in 2014 in Zagreb, forced many to read the space through which they move more carefully. Why was this action necessary? What do old signs, inscriptions and logos of former factories and trades tell us about the city and society today?
SBK: In 2005, a group of NGOs organized a two-week action entitled Operation: City, which, using the spatial resources of unused premises in the former eastern industrial zone of Zagreb, raised the issue of transforming the use of these spaces, emphasizing their usefulness in the cultural sector. Despite a very successful and coordinated action that had the financial support of the Ministry of Culture and the City of Zagreb, the devastation of these buildings continued in the following years. Numerous factories were demolished, and of many only the outer structures remained. During 2012, we started shooting the signs and logos on the remaining buildings. It was clear that these last traces from the era of intensive industrialization of Zagreb would soon disappear.
The disappearance of signs from closed factories, their representative offices and shops, and advertisements from the facades of buildings testifies to the deindustrialization and devastation of industrial and urban units. When we started with the project, we were looking for partners at the local and regional level and we also naively planned the physical rescue of the signs and their relocation. Such a project came to life in Berlin, in the Museum of Letters, where lectures on the history of factories, designers and typographic workshops are held. With our project, the book and the documentation were as far as we got. Most of the designers will remain unknown because the archives of these companies have disappeared.
OM: It seems that you passed on your love of art and design to your children, as was the case with you and your father, a graphic designer and illustrator, Čedomil Bachrach. Is your influence reflected in their work? Are you deliberating a joint project?
SBK: It was only as an adult that I realized the extent to which I was influenced by the hours of play spent under the table where Čedo worked for Sljeme, the Šibenik National Theatre, Žitokombinat, Klara. This is why I experienced the devastation of Paromlin (Žitokombinat), a protected cultural monument, very personally. As a little girl, I often spent days there. Within the factory was also an administrative building with a Propaganda Department, where my father worked. Paromlin was a magical place for me. Part of this personal story is embedded in the Save the Sign! project. We occasionally collaborate with Rene (academy-trained painter) and Tessa (graphic designer), more often with Tessa, especially on large projects that require more collaborators, and she is a talented and trustworthy collaborator with a strong work ethic. In the Milan and Ivo Steiner Gallery of the Jewish Community of Zagreb, we held a family exhibition, which also included Čedo’s works. The curator was Ariana Kralj, and the exhibition designer was Mario Beusan. When it comes to our exhibitions, we like to leave everything to others since the designer and artist whose works are exhibited has no distance, and is not objective enough.
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 submissions are still coming in, can you tell us what you expect from the submitted works? What is good design to you?
SBK: Such large exhibitions are a challenge for younger authors to present themselves for the first time, and for established ones to show the works created in the past two years. I hope that the pandemic and the earthquake did not reduce the scope of work of the design community or their archives. As it happens, we were affected in both these ways, and are now dealing with what is left of the documentation. I wonder if this means that more online projects, animations, publications, and exhibitions will be submitted. Good design? Good design should be in dialogue with the moment, a meaningful response to the reality that surrounds us – it should use new, innovative solutions or old ones in an innovative way. Design should be intended for the audience, in a way that addresses it and educates it without patronizing it.
OM: There is often talk of the marginalization of culture and the arts, particularly in the challenging year that is still ahead of us. What would you single out as the biggest problems that designers face in Croatia today? What do you see as the future of Croatian design?
SBK: Culture and the arts are marginalized by politics and society. They are marginalized due to insufficient access to the visual culture within the education system and due to insufficient funding. The average 1% of the state budget allocated to the Ministry of Culture – which distributes these funds to end users through tenders, but also has to use them to maintain overhead expenses – is simply insufficient. If we add all the city and county funds, it is easy to see that culture survives on crumbs. On public television, culture got its own dedicated program on HRT3, which some consider a good thing, while others see it as the ghettoization and marginalization of culture. In many media, under the pressure of sponsors and owners of media houses, cultural topics are increasingly placed in the lifestyle section. At most cultural events, we see the same well-known figures, who partly change with the change of generations. There is often a seemingly public dialogue between public authorities and cultural workers, but there is no actual dialogue. On the one hand, the government wants to present the situation as transparent and favourable for cultural figures. Dissatisfied cultural figures are looking for a process of joint decision-making that would be truly democratic, inclusive and fair. The public, and even parts of the professional community that are not sufficiently informed, perceive this “dialogue” as noise in the channel; they do not grasp the problem at hand, the truth or the solution. As there is no actual market, nothing is regulated: the purchase of art pieces, their price, the price of our labour or hourly labour cost. There is a price list for graphic and product design, but there is no chamber or legal mechanism that would define the relationship between the client – designer/contractor.
There is still no strategy, plan or vision of a long-term cooperation and implementation of the work of the design community with the industry. Many designers do not even feel that they are part of the cultural scene and the creative industries. We still have a long process of education and of closing ranks within the profession. Two important and positive moments are the separation of designers from the Croatian Association of Artists of the Applied Arts and the establishment of the Croatian Designers Association, as well as the establishment of the School of Design at the Faculty of Architecture in Zagreb. Many students start working during their studies, many of them quickly establish themselves nationally, in the region or on the international scene. Not a month or week go by that we don’t read an article about one of our design teams winning an award. The Croatian Designers Association and its gallery also do important work in the process of establishing design as an important field, with exhibitions held in the gallery, the publications accompanying the exhibitions or those published as part of the publishing sector, videos, conversations with the design scene. The biennial exhibition and publication of domestic design is among the highest quality productions of domestic exhibitions. With its high selection criteria, and the selection of exhibition’s visual identity designers, the exhibition achieved great visibility and contributed to the establishment of the profession.