Present on Both Fronts

architect Maja Lalić
interviewed by Snežana Ristić, Maroje Mrduljaš, Andrija Rusan

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Interviewed in Belgrade, 4 December 2009


ORIS: Your work goes in several directions. You organize public events and programmes in the domain of design and architecture, but you also manage your architectural practice. How did your career begin to run on two tracks?


Maja Lalić: I studied architecture, but I got involved in various aspects of design. Before anything else, I am involved – as I see myself – in some issues that I consider important for the profession in this socio-economic and political context. In the late 1990s, I went to America for postgraduate studies in New York. There I spent some time working, but political changes made me decide to go back. I already knew that I wanted to get involved in my profession, not just within my own practice, but with its wider aspects, a wider form of activism. At the time, I was part of a group that scattered all over the world, but we stayed in touch. You know what conditions oppressed us before we left the country, but we returned with the desire to use our experiences and acquaintances from the period when we studied abroad. When I returned with my friends to Belgrade in 2001, I founded an organization called Mikser, even before my own practice. Mikser was created as a very informal network of people from different creative domains, not just design. We made small projects that were always related to a passion of one of us, and we made them with heart, without any budget or structure. We still do not have an office; we gather around projects like guerrillas.


ORIS: Nowadays, activism in design and architecture is interpreted in various ways, from direct action and concrete field work to theoretic research. How do you see activism in architecture and design?


Maja Lalić: For me, activism is something simple and unpretentious, a kind of an opening that enables exchanges which were lacking in Belgrade. When you study at Columbia University or the Architectural Association, when you see their level of information consumption, exchanges of opinion, discussions and debates, our school system looks quite one-track. First we wanted to exchange thoughts with big global names that we had been watching in awe. And that is how it started: with lectures. The first one was Adrian Forty, he came even before Koolhaas. We started cooperating with museums, theoreticians of design, architects. We enabled our intellectuals to come in direct contact with those abroad, to get rid of the mythology of magazines and books and to hear them live, so that people here can also feel animated and inspired.


ORIS: Many people left Serbia in the 1990s for political reasons and the inability to develop intellectually. You are among those few who came back after the politics changed. When those people who studied abroad came back, what did it mean for the architectural and design scene in Belgrade?


Maja Lalić: Many people came back; most of them wanted the same as me: to start networking and bring some of that foreign experience here, but also to promote local achievements abroad. So, it is a productive situation. Also, our return made us realize that everything is based on private initiative. When you spend some time in capitalism and come back, you realize there is no use sitting and complaining. It is important to try and create situations ourselves. Surprisingly, what looks like an ordinary situation can develop into an incredible connection or project.


ORIS: I believe that the intention was to create your own milieu, a professional and existential space where you could survive intellectually.


Maja Lalić: Exactly. We often promote young designers and try to make that talent and potential visible. One of the friends I work with is Jelena Matić from the Faculty of Forestry. We became aware we had similar goals. There was no precise agreement; our acti­vism also consists of educating future clients to perceive our practice in the commercial realm, so that we can make projects with fewer compromises. When Belgrade Design Week started in 2006, it was very significant for our region. Then, having been invited by our colleagues from the Transeast studio, we were united by the need to feel like a part of the world, the need for Belgrade to welcome the global stars of architecture, design and communications, whose works we had seen only in foreign specialized magazines. The Mikser team participated in BDW during the first three years; our member Nina Babić managed the entire thing as executive director; I was the conference programme director, with the task of compiling the list of speakers and persuading them to come to Belgrade; Tanja Ristić coordinated all the related city events during the design week. During that ‘golden age’, Belgrade was visited by Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Luigi Colani, Gaetano Pesce, Konstantin Grcic, Ross Lovegrove, Ora-Ïto, Patricia Urquiola, Matali Crasset, Winka Dubbeldam, and many others. But Mikser found that format too narrow, too one-way..., we wanted to make a more concrete effort to develop our own creative potential. In parallel with our activities at the conference, we developed our independent project, the Ghost Project. Criticizing the lack of cooperation between local production and industrial design, the Ghost Project (as its name suggests) started by gathering unfiltered ideas, unrealized projects, 3D models, computer animation, anything sent by young designers; we might say that the first two editions were multimedia installations intended to show the state of affairs in Serbian design. It did not look the least bit promising. After two years of mapping the local scene, there was an obvious rise in the quality of ideas, so we started selecting the works and accepting only real prototypes. Since the process of trial and error, by which the authors turned their ideas into actual usable objects, was producing better and better results, we decided last year that we finally had something to show to the world. It was the start of the project of Young Serbian Designers, a national team of young local talents that we present in Milan, at the biggest global talent zone, Salone Satellite. We choose the works in a Mikser competition with the help of the world-renowned designer Konstantin Grcic.


Last year, we went one step further and initiated a multidisciplinary platform, Mikser; this year, it has developed into a regional festival of creativity. Its name, Mikser, is an apt description of its mixture of contents, disciplines, participants. The focus of our discussions this year will be the Balkans, its new position and role in the context of the EU; we discuss the future of the region, the competitive advantages in relation to Western Europe, how to make ten steps in one jump, how to find authentic forces that could develop the Balkans and reintegrate the region, which we see as a creative and mental whole. In this spirit, our Ghost Project turns towards South-east Europe with this year’s motto: Balkan Ghosts.


ORIS: In fact, the scene in Belgrade is more focused on design than on architecture. Of course, product design feels fulfilling as soon as you make a prototype, and you feel like you achieved something. The young designer scene in Serbia produces interesting works, but the architectural scene has meager opportunities aside from research.


Maja Lalić: Architecture is always linked with politics. The transitional period has greatly affected the cityscape. In America, I made a project with a team called Forma, Parallel Urbanity, mapping all the architectural mutations and hybrids that ravaged Belgrade like a tumour, but they were understandable as a result of survival psychology. Later, when this phenomenon turns into projects, deals, it becomes unstoppable. A big problem is the national pathos, which is predisposed for ideological overtones. When there are no ideals, it is absolutely detrimental. In the years of total corruption, nobody cared about the general concept of the city or the strategies and visions for its development. When we were doing the project Repositioning Belgrade at Columbia University, it fascinated the people there, who were discovering all those forms, those mutants.... There are few cities like that, except in South America. Belgrade builds more than ever, but I think there should be a high-level strategy creating a general vision of the city. On the other hand, design is left to the ‘street’; it smacks of lifestyle, so it can be found in the silliest magazines. Design is much more ‘democratic’, so to speak.


ORIS: More democratic in what sense?


Maja Lalić: In the sense of the medium’s accessibility. It is anyone’s right to try their hand at design, it is not even restricted by education any more. You have high-school kids who are crazy about 3D and somehow use it to create their own aesthetics.


ORIS: What is the future of the young designers from Serbia who have gathered around the project Young Serbian Designers? They had success at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. They are perceived as a coherent, optimistic group. Could their projects be realized if there is a stronger cooperation with industry?


Maja Lalić: You must be constantly present on both fronts, motivating the designers and animating the economy. To accelerate the processes. In fact, when Mikser was created, it was an artificial entity in general design lethargy. Whatever we do in that domain, we are a kind of catalyst for processes that would be very slow otherwise. Our activities did not emerge from realistic chances and needs to articulate them, but from the desire for anything to happen. For example, the efforts to promote young talents count on the boomerang effect, which is developing right now. First it is necessary to go abroad, to have young authors presented in Domus and various other magazines. We talked to manufacturers before and after the Milan trip. After Milan, the manufacturers’ attitude changed greatly. Actually, we are testing the ground for them. There is a belief that it makes no sense to invest in business, or in development, research.... We try to work on several fronts, to cooperate with state institutions and foreign companies that provide funds for better competition. If we had contracted the production for each of the projects we presented in Milan, we could have sold 200 or 300 items. The Salone del Mobile is frequented by large developers and manufacturers who buy design. It turned out we had many more requests than smaller distribution chains, boutique owners, shops and conceptual stores. We mapped all that, keeping records, but if we had a producer, we could have taken the job as an order, just like the rest of the furniture industry. There are no more salons with stocks, with a lager, as they say here. When we returned and started working on the orders, we saw newspaper articles and press clippings.... It all resulted in subsequent requests. It is only when you have tested the thing at your expense that the manufacturers in Serbia start reacting.


We will see how the local companies react to the fact that there are places in the world where people are producing several projects by our young designers from last year’s appearance of Young Serbian Designers in Milan. Dekameron, a company from Brazil, is producing the Baba armchair by the architectural duo ‘od-do’, consisting of Jugoslava Kljakić and Nataša Ilinčić. The new collection of Foundry from Singapore will include the Hug chair by Ana Kraš; intense negotiations are under way for the Arc recliner, which is to be produced by the company CB2 in the United States.


ORIS: Let us go back to architecture. We severely criticized New Belgrade, saying it was just dormitories, and it turned out to be an exceptional resource of modern architecture. Nowadays, however, New Belgrade is the scene of intense construction without any clear strategy and usually with very low architectural quality. Is there any room for research-minded architects?


Maja Lalić: Serbia had its transition with tycoons who invested in various projects. I dubbed their model the ‘Antonio Citerio look’: brown wood, beige contrasts.... That is as good as it got. We reacted by bringing Karim Rashid. It was a diversion; we wanted to promote a different aesthetics. Rashid is an advertisement, we assumed his visit would resound, we wanted every office lady to hear about design. We worked with Glorija and similar magazines, it was our strategy. Rashid carries a contagious optimism, he has a very positive effect.... He helped us a lot with the first Design Week. He convinced Luigi Colani and everybody else to come. At that time, I was working on the interior of the restaurant Vidin Kapija and I proposed to Rashid to participate. I was in a weird situation. It is impossible to design together with him, so I preferred to deal with the functions of space while he applied his forms. I made a sacrifice. I thought it better to put Belgrade on the map that way; Rashid is a mobile PR machine.


ORIS: How did you manage to make a step forward, affirming a concept that significantly differed from the prevailing one, and realize Supermarket?


Maja Lalić: Firstly, the rationalization of costs helped to convince the client. Secondly, we had a very clear vision of a denuded shell, an honest space that results when you strip it down. We worked with the team that later did the commercial part, analyzing what would happen, defining a multitude of different contents, down to the specific individual products. I could not imagine the designed space, so we had a brutal attitude, we would not compete with the interior content. When I design, I try to make a setting for communications, experiences; in our projects, the toilet lobby is often the setting of a ‘film’ situation, the surroundings for some quite unexpected events.


ORIS: Do you believe that you dedicated your professional life to promoting and fostering rather than creating de­sign and architecture? Do you have doubts about your priorities?


Maja Lalić: Yes, I often wonder whether to give precedence to something or to have an activist alter ego forever. If it is about passion, I confess that enlightenment projects fulfil me more. Right now I am ardently working with the Mikser team to prepare a regional creativity festival that will crown all our efforts and projects; it is simply to be called Mikser. The name suggests something multidisciplinary and multicultural, with several levels of education sorely needed by creative disciplines in Serbia. The festival will have an especially inspiring location: the Dorćol industrial zone, the Žitomlin company in Belgrade, which we will transform into a vibrant creative place from 25 to 29 May. A crucial process for all our activities is the natural reintegration of the creative space of former Yugoslavia, regional links, exchanges between educational institutions; we hope it will result in the widening of our restricted markets, but also visions. And the youth! We count on them. We must make up for everything they missed. Aside from the Talent Zone and the Education Zone at the Mikser, we will look for young people who want to volunteer for the event organization. We have attracted creative people and progressive companies who will present themselves in our Expo Zone; we will map all the talent that exists in the domains of design and architecture; such project benefit always motivates. We must contaminate the economy too. There is much work to be done, but the good thing is that we have energy, optimism, patience and persistence. We are helped by the motto that we often repeat to ourselves: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’