Iskra: Missing from the Design Map

written by Cvetka Požar, Barbara Predan

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The Architecture Museum of Ljubljana hosted the exhibition ‘Iskra: Non-Aligned Design 1946-1990’ from 12 November 2009 to 16 March 2010. The exhibition showed the products that represented pioneering steps in the development of Slovenian design, but also fully developed top-notch products, which still hold their own next to the products of that time created by companies such as Braun, AEG or Siemens. Despite this fact, and despite the obvious quality that was recognized and rewarded by the global professional circles at the time (with more than 250 prizes), the design of Iskra is usually missing from design maps nowadays.


What made Iskra great in the context of Slovenia and Yugoslavia was the fact that it was one of the rare post-war enterprises that developed and promoted industrial design in an organized way. In late 1962, Iskra founded the first section for industrial design in Yugoslavia. Next year, the following words were included in the company’s articles of association: ‘The articles of association of the company Iskra require that all the products with the Iskra trademark are designed in a modern way, in the “home-made Iskra style”. The organizational section, in cooperation with the design commission… made a draft organizational regulation stipulating that all the organizations (development and plants) may produce new products only if they have the certificate of the Industrial Design Section. According to this proposal... the development constructor and the Industrial Design Section designer must closely cooperate all the time while performing the task – from product construction to the completed test run.… In fact, this is the basic requirement: each Iskra product must be high-quality, cheap and adequately designed in an aesthetic way.’


Such articles of association of a company, either Slovenian or foreign, are still just a dream for most designers. To understand this, one should know that Iskra in the early 1960s correctly understood design as a part of development, not just a part of marketing as most see it today. The designer and the constructor were those who participated from the very start when developing a new product. Even today, unfortunately, there are numerous examples where this is an exception rather than a rule.


Ten years after founding the Industrial Design Section, Iskra was still the only Yugoslavian company that treated design as a strategic element and that had a designer, Davorin Savnik, as an adviser to the general director. In the early 1970s, Iskra grew into the largest Yugoslavian company for electromechanics, telecommunications, electronics and automatics. Its achievements in the area of industrial design were primarily in the fields of telephony, measuring instruments and machine tools. Davorin Savnik, Albert Kastelec, Danica Petrovič, Marijan Gnamuš, Marjeta Gale and Ljuban Klojčnik: the work of these industrial designers is outstanding even today. Moreover, Iskra had some notable achievements in the area of visual communications design.


The graphic design works in Iskra were created for the needs of product advertising, better sales and institutional advertising, thereby developing the entire visual identity of the company for the needs of the market. Until the mid-1960s, the little five-pointed spark (‘iskra’) was the only element used to develop the trademark. That sign was designed by the graphic designer Stane Abe in 1946. When the enterprise expanded in the early 1960s, the growing understanding of high-quality product design among the higher management created the need for a graphic solution that would contribute to a unified image of the company. In 1966, the industrial design section together with the architect Grega Košak prepared the new graphic layout of official and outgoing documents of ZP Iskra. The appearance of the documents was to be precise, ordered, functional and expressing the particularities of a company producing electronics. They achieved it by using a strict grid layout and applying Helvetica, which became Iskra’s font.


Along with the unified graphic design, Iskra’s design highlights of the 1960s were product graphics and innovative package design, which followed and even set contemporary trends. This is proven by numerous local and international prizes (Eurostar). In the 1970s, the Graphic Design Section was joined by Miljenko Licul, whose approach upgraded his predecessors’ achievements, raising the level of both commercial (prospectuses, announcements, posters etc.) and institutional advertising in Iskra (corporate graphic identity for various events in Iskra, annual reports, calendars, publications etc.) These works are high-quality achievements, to be counted among the significant accomplishments of Slovenian graphic design in the area of commercial and institutional advertising.


In spite of all the experience and investment in own knowledge, it was already in the late 1970s that Iskra fell into the maelstrom of licenses and social upheavals, which gradually undermined the Yugoslavian economic system of the time. Higher management should have recognized the future potential of design; instead, the Industrial Design Section was the first to be disbanded, in 1982. What used to be Slovenia’s largest company fell apart only eight years later.


The example of Iskra proves, at least, that design is based on brave individuals, who are able to recognize and understand its potential. Iskra was a company that understood design and knew how to use it, if only for a relatively short time. Although the economy was not capitalist, the design of Iskra proves that we already knew how to act in accordance with the market economy and to be competitive on the demanding Western markets. The pioneering steps of Iskra are still a pinnacle of Slovenian design, its development in practice laying the foundations for the discipline of Slovenian and Yugoslavian industrial design. The effort to put Iskra’s design on the map of global design will be our next task.