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July 2, 2013
The recent fifth edition of Sofia Design Week in Bulgaria's capital city marked a milestone for this international festival devoted to design and visual culture from Eastern Europe and beyond. The theme for 2013 was 'The Balkan Date'—a fitting topic for a region brimming with innovative design ideas as well as cultural expressions that are innately complex. Sofia Design Week's curatorial team felt that is was vital for this year's program to encourage creative exchange between Balkan countries, as well as facilitate a more tangible global presence for regional contemporary design.

"When speaking of design on the Balkans, the usual reaction to the topic ranges from embarrassment to bewilderment to a smile. Until recently we were surprised at the growing interest of large-scale design platforms into the region. With its fifth edition, Sofia Design Week counteracts the skepticism and scant availability of information by putting you live in contact with the new wave of Balkan designers. Here and now, Bulgarians, Romanians, Turks, Greeks, Serbs, Kosovars, Slovenians, Albanians, Montenegrins, Croatians, Macedonians, Bosnians and Herzegovians are creating a surprisingly interesting, different and potentially characteristic design. " —Sofia Design Week curators/organizers

Fuchila Two Seater by Marina Dragomirova

Fuchila Two Seater by Marina Dragomirova. Photo courtesy of the designer and Sofia Design Week.

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Sparks exhibition curated by Adriana Andreeva Dimitrova

Sparks exhibition curated by Adriana Andreeva Dimitrova. Photo courtesy of Sofia Design Week.

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In A Nutshell exhibition at SAMCA during Sofia Design Week

"The Balkan Date examined challenging themes such as East meets West, communism meets capitalism, and the desire for material things versus the aspirations for spirituality. In this controversial and dynamic context, a new breed of artists has emerged. They harbor a particular kind of sensitivity and form parts of the puzzle to our cultural identity through design. What's more, they successfully counteract the global tendency towards unified cultural products." – Sofia Design Week curators/organizers

Typography by Croatian Designers in the 'In A Nutshell' exhibition at SAMCA during Sofia Design Week. Photo by Abigail Doan.

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Sofia Design Week 2013

Sofia Design Week 2013 featured a professional forum with prominent international speakers, as well as a one-day 'Balkan Talks' agenda. This year's speakers included names like Konstantin Grcic, Matali Crasset, Michael Marriott, Mark Chalmers, Erik Kessels, Ji Lee, Marti Guixe, Stefan Sagmeister, Genevieve Gauckler, David Carlson, Peter Bilak, and Tomek Rygalik. Between June 12 to 30 there was also an extensive line up of events throughout the city in the form of exhibitions, workshops, screenings, parties, book openings, and interactive events for children. Photo courtesy of Sofia Design Week.

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Sparks group design exhibition

The 'Sparks' group design exhibition curated by Adriana Andreeva Dimitrova highlighted regional makers who employ novel approaches to natural materials, sustainable methods, and the re-interpretation of traditional forms. Don't DIY's Plywood Table demonstrated the modern functionality of hand-crafted dining furniture that was striking in its simplicity. Photo courtesy of Don't DIY.

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Objects for Cleaning by Raya Stefanova

'Objects for Cleaning' (2013) by Raya Stefanova, also featured in the Sparks' exhibition, encourages household dwellers to re-consider the beauty of and possibilities for engagement with utilization of sculptural tools, which the designer envisions being left out in plain view as part of the domestic dialogue. Photo courtesy of Raya Stefanova and Sofia Design Week.

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Tableware collection by Studio Odd Matter

Studio Odd Matter introduced their 'Holiday Eyes' tableware collection during Sofia Design Week 2013 featuring designs inspired by traditional Bulgarian ceramics and the 'slip trailing technique' created by local artisans. As two designers living abroad, Odd Matter's team of Els Woldhek and Georgi Manassiev view these pieces as being a link to their respective home countries as well as creating an opportunity to celebrate everyday objects with fresh eyes. Photo courtesy of Odd Matter and Sofia Design Week.

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Tzuri Gueta at Testa Gallery in Sofia

Designer Tzuri Gueta showcased his sculptural accessories in a solo exhibition at Testa Gallery in Sofia. The Paris-based artist, craftsman, and scientist has extensive experience as a trend forecaster as well as a being a collaborator with Haute Couture fashion designers. With a background in textile engineering, Gueta's patented technique of 'lace fed with silicone' allows for a surrealistic and sensual approach to organic form building. Photo courtesy of Tzuri Gueta and Testa Gallery.

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Ariadne's Thread by Kommigraphics

The traveling exhibition, 'Crisis is a Greek Word' features fifty top Greek designers in the field of visual communication, all coming together to create positive thinking and creative solutions in the form of graphic design expression. "Fully respecting the very important heritage they carry from the past, the Greeks aim to establish a new cultural identity that will help them overcome the problems caused by depression. Designers hold an essential role in the country’s creative and cultural development, so they choose to lead the way towards the achievement of this new identity."

'Ariadne's Thread' by Kommigraphics. Photo by: Abigail Doan.

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New Bulgarian Typography exhibition at Vivacom Art Hall

The 'New Bulgarian Typography' exhibition at Vivacom Art Hall featured twenty artists from different generations who employ traditional Cyrillic fonts and schooled methods as well as youthful experimentation with calligraphy and bold contemporary typefaces. Photo courtesy of Sofia Design Week.

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New Bulgarian Typography at Vivacom Art Hall

'New Bulgarian Typography' at Vivacom Art Hall highlighted the work of designers Ilya Gruev, Philip Popoff, prominent members of the Art Directors Club of Bulgaria, as well as new typefaces from TypeDept and Ivan Hristov. Photo courtesy of Sofia Design Week.

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Vienna Bike by Valentin Vodev

Valentin Vodev's 'Vienna Bike' was featured in the 'More than a Bike' exhibition, also curated by Vodev. Its mission was to demonstrate the evolution of the bicycle and various methods of contemporary production. Bulgarians are a bit crazy for their bikes and feel a deep connection to life on wheels since the first local model, the 'Spider', made its debut. The 'More than a Bike' showcase quirkily demonstrated how the streets of Sofia and many other Balkan cities aim to be green on the road to bypassing antiquated Eastern Bloc stereotypes. Photo courtesy of Valentin Vodev.

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Fuchila Two Seater by Marina Dragomirova

Fuchila Two Seater by Marina Dragomirova. Photo courtesy of the designer and Sofia Design Week.

We interviewed Adriana Andreeva Dimitrova, one of Sofia Design Week's curators, about how their mission and vision has evolved over the past five years. She shared the following ideas and observations.

Why do you think that Balkan designers are unique in terms of their ability to reference specific cultural/historical phenomena but also find common ground in a design language?

Balkan designers have common roots in terms of natural resources, strong and highly influential folklore, and (for most of them) a burdensome half a century Communist past when the creative scene was entirely devoted to the political regime and its needs. In the case of product design this meant turning it into one and the same mass produced commodity goods ubiquitously available in every household. Now that these years are long gone and over, designers are doing their best to prove and show their individual talent. Yes, it might be said that their approach is still very rough, not refined and missing the link with the manufacturers, but more and more designers are traveling, acquiring training and education, and implementing the best practices into the local community. Balkan design is on the road, developing streadily into a peculiar, multicultural, and colorful amalgam of great ideas and unexpected end results.

What might some of these qualities be? The new folkloric? Humor in the face of crisis? True (sustainable) resourcefulness? The spiritual married with technological empowerment?

Designers are truly resourceful when it comes to combining materials and applying ideas into real products. They might often lack new equipment or extensive training, but they often innovate with imagination and a sense of humor. Many are also working with the most common materials—wood and textiles, i.e. no fancy mixtures of hi-tech surfaces or 3D printing. The new folklore theme appears often in the works of the designers from the region—this is inevitable. The aesthetics and the patterns are peculiar and prove to be a winning decision especially when combined with a contemporary touch—be it a pottery table set from studio Odd Matter, a Croatian-made fashion design piece from the 'In a Nutshell' exhibition, or a furniture piece by Marina Dragomirova, hand-woven using traditional textile techniques (featured lead image in this article).

Why is Sofia an ideal crossroad right now for these design dialogues?

Sofia is quite active when it comes to featuring cultural events. We have established a tradition in terms of supporting the creative industry. We are at an excellent and unique location—on the road between Asia and Western Europe. Sofia Design Week at large strives to serve as a platform which stimulates and supports the development of design professionals in Bulgaria. At the same time the festival aims to present and promote sustainable and sensible practices for a better and beneficial visual environment globally.

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