Return to Sarajevo

Disegno #11 (2016)

Image by Fabien Frinzel.

Bijela Tabija, the rumoured birthplace of Sarajevo, sits in the foothills of the Dinaric Alps. It was built in the medieval period as a fortress, a bastion for the forested valley out of which the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina grew in the 15th century. Today, Bijela Tabija is a ruin, the surrounding scrubland given over to goats, but from its foundations Sarajevo remains visible in its entirety, advancing east to west along the brown Miljacka river.

Below the fortress is the old town, the site of the Baščaršija marketplace. It’s a labyrinthine blend of the authentic and touristic – the stone mosque courtyards are old, the shisha bars new – and woven throughout are coppersmiths and souvenir stalls that muster enough sense of the souk to bespeak the region’s 15th- through 19th-century existence under the Ottomans. As Baščaršija
opens onto Ferhadija Street, the 19th and early-20th centuries appear, bringing with them the dominion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A compass motif in the pavement reads “East/West: Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures” and the bazaar backs away, ceding ground to the Viennese townhouses that make up the midtown. Spot the neo-orientalist Vijećnica city hall, replete with its facade of Moorish mille-feuille, or the grand secessionist residences stately in soft pastels. Yet the Austro-Hungarians don’t have it their own way for long. Continue west and up rises socialism, the townhouses thinning out for the great, grey sleeper blocks that line the avenue to the airport. These are the remnants of Yugoslavia, the now-dissolved state that Bosnia served as a constituent republic of for much of the 20th century. Seen from Bijela Tabija, the architecture reads as a timeline. Sarajevo is a self-excavating city, carving itself into sedimentary layers that reveal an urbanist’s syncretic history of Bosnia. It’s a settlement whose architecture flows in tandem with its past.

Further blurring of time and space occurs up close in Sarajevo’s built environment. Near to the sleeper blocks is the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a monolith designed by Boris Magaš, Edo Šmidihen and Radovan Horvat that opened in 1963. The structure is a feat of modernism, its two rectangular stone volumes kept apart by a glazed central atrium, above which the building cantilevers precariously. The architecture is beautiful, but damaged. The roof has decayed and the concrete is pockmarked, shot through with bullets and shell damage from the heavy fighting that occurred more than 20 years ago during the Siege of Sarajevo. Between April 1992 and February 1996, the city was held hostage to sniper fire and prolonged shelling in one of the chief military operations of the war that arose between the region’s Bosniak, Serb and Croat ethnic groups. It is a war that left 100,000 dead and which saw genocide committed on European soil for the first time since the Holocaust. Its effects are still visible everywhere in the city. “I remember how this building once looked,” says Amar Karapuš, one of the History Museum’s curators. “So its present state is hard to take.”

The effect of the war has been well-documented, yet the difficulty Karapuš describes is not so much the destruction it wrought, but rather the sense of stasis it continues to represent. “What you’ve got to understand about Bosnia is that there was a war and they stopped the war, but the war wasn’t finished,” says Irfan Redzovic, a Sarajevo-based photographer and design entrepreneur. “What was left was so fucked up.” The Dayton Agreement of 1995 brought an end to the fighting, dividing the country along broad ethnic lines into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska. Since then it has served as a patched-up constitution, albeit one that has largely failed. Its inefficiency and indulgence of “widespread corruption” was cited by the European Commission
as a continued barrier to Bosnia’s entry into the EU, yet efforts to reform it consistently stall, lost among political malaise and inactivity. GDP is relatively low – $18.52bn for a nation of 3.8 million people – while unemployment is high. At present, 27.6 per cent of Bosnians are out of work, rising to 62.7 per cent among the young. Emigration is endemic, particularly among the educated, of whom around 10,000 leave each year. The quality and sustainability of public finances has also deteriorated, with essential services left underfunded. Even a national resource like the History Museum receives little state support. “We have to do everything on our own and the government does nothing,” says Karapuš. “People think that Yugoslavia represented the best years of their lives because they’re disappointed with what followed.”

There are contemporary buildings in Sarajevo, but the view from Bijela Tabija seems to end with Yugoslavia. The violence of the war may have finished, but the brake it represented on Bosnian society has yet to be fully released. “This city,” says Redzovic, “is a monument to the war.”

There is a desire to move beyond this stasis. Prior to the collapse of Yugoslavia, one of the region’s major industries was furniture manufacture. Mass-produced wooden pieces, made chiefly in Bosnia and Slovenia, were shipped in vast quantities to the US, Middle East and Western European markets. Liberated by
the 1950s policy of socialist self-management, the Yugoslavian furniture industry began to blossom, the country functioning as a proto-China of the late-20th century. In 1982, the Bosnian lumber conglomerate Šipad reported sales of $1.5bn and by 1992 the Bosnian wood industry accounted for 10 per cent of gross national income. It was a figure that collapsed when half of Bosnia’s industrial capacity was lost in the war, yet the remaining infrastructure is now being used
by a series of private initiatives to provide a basis for rejuvenating the furniture industry. “In the pre-war time we used to have really big industrial systems,
but that faded away,” says Salih Teskeredžić, a Bosnian designer and the co-founder of the Sarajevo-based furniture brand Gazzda. “Now we’re starting again. In the last few years it’s started to come alive.”

Since 2010, a trio of design-led Bosnian furniture brands – Gazzda, Artisan and Zanat – have broken into the international market, with smaller companies springing up around them. “In 2009 there were no Bosnian manufacturers at the IMM trade fair in Cologne,” says Zlatko Tanovic, one of Teskeredžić’s partners in Gazzda. “This year there were 15. That’s remarkable.” It’s an increase that is significant not only for present-day Bosnian furniture design and manufacture, but also for what it suggests might happen next. Monica Förster is a Swedish designer and the creative director of Zanat. “Bosnia is not a very big country,” she says, “so let’s say that we were able to create a design hub here. It’s a huge goal, but maybe in such a small place it could be possible to change a country’s GDP through design and manufacture. Let’s see.”

There are historical reasons for Bosnia’s role as a centre for furniture manufacture. The first is an abundance of raw material, as well as a pool of skilled and semi-skilled labour. The woods that line the Sarajevo valley are not unusual. Around half of the country is forested, prompting a tradition of localised woodcraft that underwent industrialisation from the Austro-Hungarian period onwards. “That history of woodworking and know-how gives us an advantage,” says Orhan Nikšić, the CEO of Zanat and a former economist with the World Bank. “Labour costs are low in Bosnia compared to the rest of Europe and
we can add things to products in terms of woodwork which would be prohibitively expensive elsewhere.” While the nation’s domestic market may be small – the result of both its limited population and the fact that low labour costs go hand in hand with low spending power – the infrastructure is in place for
a robust export market. It always has been.

In 1983, Resad Hasandedic, Šipad’s furniture export manager, set out the conglomerate’s plans in an interview with The New York Times: “Ten years ago 90 per cent of our exports were sawed timber and boards. Last year, 50 per cent were finished products.” The allure of creating furniture rather than selling timber was straightforward: finished objects have far greater value than raw materials. In addition, Yugoslavia was further boosted by its geographical position, something that contemporary Bosnian brands are beginning to exploit again. “We’re in Europe, which is a big selling point for a furniture manufacturer,”
says Redzovic, who is currently working to launch Šuma, a design-led children’s furniture brand. “More and more often people are refusing to buy what’s made in China, so Bosnia is well-placed to capitalise.” Yet in spite of these virtues, there is an essential paradox around Bosnian furniture production. Tanovic sums
it up well: “The will and means of production are there. The raw material is there,” he says from an empty attic room in Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts. “The hardest part is the design.”

Even in the Yugoslavian furniture industry’s heyday, the country’s success was principally based on quantity rather than quality. Designers such as the Slovenian Niko Kralj – whose 1952 moulded plywood Rex chair has enjoyed a production run of 2m pieces – were active, yet large parts of the industry remained sceptical about their impact. “Convincing someone to make an investment in design was di cult because it’s quite an uncertain return,” says Nikšić. “If you bought a physical asset, at least it always had some value, whereas design was seen as risky.”

It still is. Nina Mršnik is one of the co-founders of Kobeiagi Kilims, a young design brand producing traditional woven rugs in Bosnia. “The factories in Bosnia have always just made things from when they last had a designer, which was in the 1950s,” she says. “To move things forward they really need to embrace creative people who can make new designs.” Mršnik’s concern is shared by Sandin Međedović, a graphic designer who originally trained as a product designer at Sarajevo’s Academy. “When I finished studying 10 years ago I just couldn’t see the prospective of product design work in Bosnia, because nothing was happening back then,” he says. “The industry didn’t see the value. I think we’ve always had good people here, but to be a designer in Bosnia you’ve had to have a do-it-yourself mentality. There’s been a distrust of design from the industry.”

Međedović’s observation captures the key asset of the Bosnian ventures now emerging: these brands have grounded themselves in design, and in so doing proposed a model for Bosnian manufacture based upon value added rather than quantity shipped. Zanat works with international designers such as Förster, Ilse Crawford and Harri Koskinen, while Artisan manufactures pieces from the Croatian design collective Grupa and the New York-based Karim Rashid, among others. Both brands also work with Teskeredžić, who currently creates nearly all
 of Gazzda’s products.1 “The difference to Yugoslavia is that you have brands feeding in high-end design, whereas before you didn’t have any,” says Nikšić. “In spite of the production here, Bosnia has never been a design brand in the way that Scandinavia and Italy are. There’s never been a clear identity or strategy to push that.”2

Yet curiously it is Nikšić who represents an avenue that Bosnian design might look to for a lineage. Orhan and his brother Adem, Zanat’s director, are third-generation furniture makers. Since 1927, the Nikšić family has run a series of wood workshops in Konjic, a town 60km south of Sarajevo on the Neretva river. Konjic is quaint and beautiful – the Neretva is teal in the rain; the surrounding mountains Tolkienian; and the town positively Mediterranean with its white facades and terracotta roofs – yet its major employer is Igman, a munitions factory whose output declined sharply in the aftermath of the Bosnian war. Only recently has it recovered – “Thanks to the unfortunate situation in Syria,” adds Nikšić.

Konjic would prefer you not to think that its identity lies in munitions; Konjic, as the sign on the mountainside road in tells you, is a woodworking town. It flourished between the First and Second World Wars as the progenitor of the Bosnian Konjic Style, a type of ornate wooden furniture covered in intricate hand carvings featuring delicate flora and Arabesque geometries. There are hexagon peškun tables, replete with minaret-style arches; heavy sečija cupboard wall benches; and tronožacs, three-legged stools, all covered in geometrical rose and grapevine motifs built up from careful, handmade chisel marks.3 It’s a good embodiment of the country’s history as a hybrid of eastern Ottoman and western Austro-Hungarian; an aesthetic and approach that feels authentically Bosnian. “It’s a style that’s very popular with the diaspora,” says Armin Nikšić, Orhan’s cousin and the proprietor of the Braća Nikšić (“Nikšić Brothers”) workshop in Konjic. “It gives people an emotional connection to the past. If there’s a traditional Bosnian design style, this is it.”

What sells within the diaspora is not necessarily popular elsewhere. “The market for it is mainly domestic,” says Nikšić. “To give you an idea of who is buying it, I think every ambassador who comes to this country has visited our showroom.” Aiming to expand their furniture’s appeal, Orhan and Ardem devised Zanat’s central idea: pairing traditional Konjic woodworking with contemporary design
to create solid wood furniture suitable for the international market.

The resultant designs are minimal and Nordic, enlivened by hand carvings that serve as either decoration or texture. Förster’s Unna dining chair features a loop of chisel marks on its backrest that recall sh scales; Gert Wingårdh and Sara Helder’s Tattoo stool is carved with complex stained iconography across its legs and seat; and Teskeredžić’s Daisy side table has a constellation of rosettes across its centre. “The idea is the carvings become an essential part of the design,” says Nikšić. “We liked the shape and design behind modern products, but thought it could be combined with carving to add an extra layer to the design.” Ermin ‘Céra’ Ljevo, a senior carpenter at Zanat, makes the same point in more poetic fashion: “I see the carvings as a nice decoration for the product,” he says. “When a beautiful bride is getting married, she still puts on a beautiful dress.”

The fact that the bulk of Zanat’s designers are Scandinavian results from Nikšić’s assessment of the region as a design brand in and of itself. Since the Design in Scandinavia touring exhibition of 1954-1957, the region has been a byword on the international market for “design”, such that Nordic minimalism established itself not so much as a school of contemporary design, but rather the school – a template that the discipline has returned to again and again throughout the 20th and 21st century. When it started, Zanat had Bosnia’s history of woodcarving, but lacked a contemporary sensibility. By turning to Scandinavia and its designers, the company secured this input as a matter of practical consideration and a symbol of the company’s intent. Zanat, the message ran, was in step with the wider industry; Bosnian brands were now design brands. “The main idea behind the Zanat project is to move it away from being a craft company towards being design-led,” acknowledges Förster. “Our approach has been to simplify and modernise the company, but to still use the essential way in which they were already working. The appeal of working in Bosnia for a designer is that it feels non-explored; it’s a place with in-between shapes and in-between spaces that represent a real opportunity for design.”

Zanat’s products are largely produced by hand at a workshop just outside Konjic: there are no CNC machines, and automation is limited, something with considerable ramifications given the society in which Zanat operates. In 1892, the art historian John Ruskin used his essay ‘The Nature of Gothic’ to set out the ur-argument against the dehumanising effect of unchecked industrialisation (and by implication automation) on society, an idea later taken on by William Morris, Martin Heidegger, and Richard Sennett, among others. “It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men,” Ruskin wrote. “Divided into mere segments of men - broken into small fragments and crumbs of life[...] It can be met only by a right understanding[...] of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy.” Once the Victorian melodrama is pared back, Ruskin’s basic notion that some forms of production are bad for society and that, by implication, some good, still resonates. At Zanat, a number of Ruskin’s ideas are being played out in a contemporary economic context.

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum in Davos predicted that automation will contribute to a net destruction of 5.1m jobs over the next five years. Yet if jobs are being destroyed faster than they are being created, what impact does this have on a country like Bosnia where employment is already low? The Italian designer and artist Bruno Munari observed in 1966 that industrial design was simple “planning done without preconceived notions of style, attempting
only to give each thing its logical structure and proper material, and in consequence its logical form[...] It is therefore a question of coherence.” Fifty years on, that definition is worth adding to – a topic that brings the economist in Nikšić to the fore.

“We all like minimal modern design, but nobody really asks why it became minimalist,” he says. “I don’t believe it was because of any such thing as an aesthetic force. Rather, it was the result of socio-economic trends. You needed simpler designs that were conducive to mass-scale industrial production, which was democratic because it was done at a time when you could create many jobs in factories. So it was an approach that worked for that society. But now when everything is produced by robot, does it still make sense to think of production and design in the same way? I think it doesn’t. Technology and labour are often competing inputs in production because where labour is more expensive, it makes sense to be technologically advanced. But it doesn’t make sense for Zanat to be as technologically advanced as, say, a Finnish company, because objects cost the same to make labour-intensively in Bosnia as making them elsewhere by machine. So it makes sense to make production more labour-intensive in Bosnia, because that creates jobs. It’s good for the society.”4

In other words, Munari’s argument for coherence can be broadened out beyond a product itself to cover all aspects of its production and the resultant social implications. Design ought to be as interested in the logical form of processes as it is in the logical form of objects. “Universal sustainability,” paraphrases Nikšić.

Zanat’s social edge is pronounced, but not unique among the new Bosnian furniture brands, all of which conceive of design and manufacture as a potential force in shaping society. It was a trend initiated back in 2007 with the foundation of the first contemporary Bosnian design brand. “Everything about design in Bosnia started with Artisan,” says Redzovic. “They paved the way by proving that design in the Balkans could be done. Before Artisan, there was nothing.”

Artisan was founded by Fadil Custovic, a Bosnian entrepreneur who had cut his teeth in design through a relationship with Pilat&Pilat, a Dutch brand that outsourced its production to Bosnia in the 2000s. “Furniture production in Bosnia at that time was generally for large clients like Ikea,” says Custovic. “We executed their designs, often producing semi-finished products that were not technologically demanding and which had a questionable profit. But I wanted to develop my own furniture collection because I realised that we had the skills and the know-how. At first, we received negative comments from people in the industry – ‘Since when was Bosnia a design country?’ – but over time we managed to break those prejudices.” Producing contemporary, Nordic-inflected furniture – with production operating out of a former Yugoslavian production facility in Tešanj in the north of the country – Artisan set the pattern that other Bosnian companies now follow. Despite its early links to Pilat&Pilat, the key external input came from international development agencies such as USAID, bodies which provided funding to support the purchase of new technologies like CNC, as well
as wider investment in design. USAID’s reasons for investing in design in Bosnia were predominantly social. The EU had previously emphasised Bosnia’s need for a bolstered private sector (“stronger and sustainable economic growth will require the development of a more dynamic private sector”) and a 2012 USAID strategy report makes clear that design was to be a key factor in this, citing constraints to growth such as low productivity and poor-quality products and recommending the use of computer- based design techniques to improve consistency and enable more complex product designs. “[Bosnia’s] wood processing industry could capture a larger size of the EU market by improving the quality of products,” it stated. Salih Teskeredžić, who USAID employed as a consultant to help develop its design strategy for Bosnia, puts the idea more plainly. “The goal was just to create a few companies that had their own products,” he says. “If you give an example of a British, Dutch or German brand, people think of them as from a civilised, western country. By contrast, Bosnia seemed something imaginary. We wanted to show that design was possible here, because it creates a path. Now every factory is hiring designers. When your neighbour has any kind of success, it makes people see that they can do it themselves.” Statistics seem to back Teskeredžić up. In 1991, Bosnia’s furniture industry had 46,000 employees; in 2009, that figure stood at 7,900. “By now,” Nikšić suggests, “we can assume that the figure has grown to somewhere under 20,000.”

A number of the new brands that have launched in Bosnia exploit this renaissance. Teskeredžić and Tanovic founded Gazzda in 2013 in conjunction with the Dutch entrepreneur Kenny van Halderen. The brand develops prototypes in-house at its Sarajevo studio before working with factories across Bosnia to produce them. “Worldwide, the idea of local industry is getting more and more interesting,” says Tanovic. “If you walk through Brooklyn there are a bunch of brands operating out of garages and consumers are getting used to that. They’re interested in buying from a smaller brand that gives some story, perspective or view on the world.” It’s an arena that Bosnia is in a position to capitalise on. “The nice thing about working here is that our producers can grow with us,” he says. “We want people to know where we are and where we’re from and where we make things because that matters. People used to think that Bosnian furniture must be shit because it’s Bosnian, but that’s not true. Now, in the past five years, people have started to say ‘Oh, Bosnia: Bosnia has great furniture.’”

Challenges still remain however. While Gazzda, Zanat and Artisan have flourished as private ventures, the lack of state support continues to stymie. Italy and Scandinavia’s design industries both arose out of dedicated, state-backed policies and professional groups: the Svenska Slodforinengen was an early champion of design as an economic asset, just as Italy’s golden age of industrial design grew out of the postwar Italian economic miracle. In both cases, the private sphere relied upon the backing of the public. Not so in Bosnia. “The greatest obstacle so far – and I think this will be the same in the future – has been the state institutions,” says Custovic. “We still have not received any support from the Ministry of Industry and Entrepreneurship and institutions such as the Foreign Trade Chamber do not respond to our letters. With this inaction
and lack of understanding for my and similar business models, they could keep Bosnia and Herzegovina at the bottom of any scale that indicates a state’s success.”

So where does this leave design in the country? One answer lies back in the hills of Sarajevo, in the Koševo neighbourhood close to Bijela Tabija. It’s here in the north of the city that you find Asim Ferhatović Hase Stadium, a devil’s punchbowl of an arena that is sunk into the hillside. Next door is Parents’ House, a new facility opened in April to provide accommodation for the families of children being treated for cancer at the Sarajevo children’s hospital. It’s a simple, white-clad building, whose four floors jut over and under one another at jolly angles, with coloured panels glinting in the bedroom windows. “Its a place where parents and kids who are not from the city can come and live for however long the treatment lasts,” says Emir Salkić, the founder of the Sarajevo-based practice Normal Arhitektura and the architect behind Parents’ House. “In the past, if the families were from another city, then on top of their child being sick they had to pay for accommodation in Sarajevo. We needed something for them.”

Salkić leads a tour of the house. Each room is bright and friendly, each designed by a different local designer or artist. In some rooms the beds become vast moveable forts, whereas in others the space is themed around animals or the sea. An open-plan communal area fills the ground floor, while the roof houses a small community garden. “How easy is it to be a designer or an architect in Bosnia?” asks Salkić. “I would like to rephrase that question: ‘How hard is
it to be a designer or an architect in Bosnia?’ We received some state funding to create Parents’ House, but not as much as there should have been. In fact, funding only started when we began to build it – not before – and we still don’t have sufficient funding to be self-sustaining. There is no governmental organisation in Bosnia that covers architects or designers, so the problem is political. To change that is a long process.”

Yet Parents’ House still exists; its presence in Sarajevo is a reminder that design is growing in the country, as well as a symbol of the positive social effects that it might have here. “You have to be a self-starter in Bosnia, but that doesn’t mean that things can’t happen,” says Salkić. “In 2001, a Bosnian film, No Man’s Land, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Before that, there was no funding
for cinema in Bosnia – and now there is. When somebody makes something good, the politicians start to see the potential. And that’s true of all aspects of society. It’s true of sport, it’s true of film. And it can be true of design.”

  1. A small number of Gazzda’s pieces are executed by Mustafa Čohadžić, Teskeredžić’s former student from Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts.

  2. A fine example of this is the fact that until recently, Zanat went by the name of Rukotvorine. “‘Rukotvorine’ means handicraft, and ‘Zanat’ means craft, so they’re more or less the same thing,” says Nikšić. “But Zanat is much easier for an international audience to say than Rukotvorine.”

  3. Konjic woodworking has been nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List. “We’re very optimistic,” says Nikšić. “We applied before and didn’t get it because of the lack of a good government strategy for the protection and promotion of the craft, but we’ve moved forward a lot now. I think we’ll get it.”

  4. A 1998 report from the International Crisis Group titled The Konjic Conundrum made the following recommendation for improving postwar life in the town: “donors should shift their assistance from housing projects to job creation and training programmes.” It is tempting to see Zanat as enacting this recommendation.