Jovan Jelovac Interview - Design Curial, Architecture and Design Portal, UK

By Herbertt Leslie Wright, 30.10.2014.

HW: In 2012, you were telling everyone at Belgrade Design Week (BDW) that design was simply not on the Serbia national agenda. What's changed with 2014?

JJ: For the first time, we had the patronage of the President (Tomislav Nikolic)and the Mayor of Belgrade (Sinisa Mali). After 9 years, we broke the ice of bringing it to the attention of some of the key stakeholders and decision makers in Serbia. There was no institutional support for BDW at all, in contrast to the love and affection of the audiences, visitors, sponsors and partners... But now we finally have different leaders on top - the President, the Prime Minister (Aleksandar Vucic) and the Mayor. And an open minded, young, funky City Architect (Milutin Folic) for a change.

On 7th October, the President of Serbia and the First Lady came and did the huge honour of opening the festival opened BDW. The President spent two hours at BDW, and concluded to a stunned audience: "Design is the future of Serbia!".
I tell you what, I can retire now!

HW: Talk is one thing, but will he make anything happen?

JJ: I certainly stand at his disposal to help!

HW: But why is design so important for Serbia?
As a society we need a chance to develop our society of knowledge. Design is a fundamental tool for shaping a society in the 21st century, to support our communities and generate new jobs. The true story of our time is, in fact, that every single creative person is a potential business start-up, which creates new value. A country that doesn't use these tools is in trouble! In Serbia, the creative community is victim of of pop culture's values domination. Rediscovered and reread nowadays, (German philosopher Theodor) Adorno considered pop culture to be an instrument of economical and political control, which imposes conformity behind its permissivefacade. "The culture industry offers the freedom to choose what is always the same".

And that is why BDW again in 2014, in the worst year of crisis in Serbia, it doesn't offer "the same".

HW: The BDW venue switched from the Museum of Contemporary Art (a significant 1958 building by leading Yugoslav-era architect Ivan Antic, now closed and in disrepair) at the last minute- what's the story there?

JJ: Well, the truth is, a few days before the event, the Ministry of Culture said that it was now a "dangerous building site". What the heck? We had been there last year, we care about it. We left the place in better order than when we found it then, and would have done so this year again.

We lost the most important exhibition because of that: a sensational world premiere of the new Audi TT Pavilion (a wood and aluminium installation) by (German-based) Konstantin Grcic. As author, he is so important for the promotion of design in Serbia today. Not even the German Ambassador could help us.

After one year of planning and inviting everyone, and already moving the original BDW dates in May due to (nationally disruptive) floods.

HW: And yet you hosted BDW 2014 in the old Staklopan glass Factory, a 1920s building. How did you get from the streets to having a great multi-storey pop-up venue with conference, exhibition floors, chill lounge, workshops etc?

JJ: My talk with the esteemed Minister was on Friday. We were out on the streets just ten days before opening, with more than 15 exhibitions, some on trucks already crossing our borders, and over 50 top global speakers and lecturers on their way to Belgrade, not knowing where we would stage BDW 2014.

We found this space, around the corner from our offices, over the weekend. We couldn't believe our eyes as we were gazing at its closed doors and boarded up windows from across the street. We visited it first on Monday. There were dead rats in the building, no electricity or running water, broken walls and windows everywhere. It reminded me of the early Design-junction state in London. A much worse state, by the way, than the huge Ventura Lambrate central hall (Milan). Perhaps comparable to that one-offDesignersBlock venue on St. Johns Street, few years ago... But there we had it then, our own Belgrade Design-junction in the middle of Belgrade's bustling "Silicon Valley", Strahinjica Bana Street, in the Dorcol district, where all the cafes and restaurants and creative studios are. Yet it was covered by a layer of invisibility - like the phantom building in the movie "The Shadow". We had to include maps in all the materials!

HW: It's not the first time you've brought life to a dead building, is it?

JJ: We have (in previous years) rejuvenated, among other places, the then empty Palace of Federation, the bombed out hotel Jugoslavija, the abandoned legendary Kluz warehouse, then last year the shut down Museum of Modern Art... And in 2014 we proudly gave the audience the old STAKLOPAN factory, converted into this sort of "Dorcol Republic of Design" for one whole week!

HW: And to do that, you turned the building around very quickly?

JJ: We had exactly five working days, and no contract signed with the building owners, until Friday. The cleaning and demolition of old office walls to create the clear loft spaces was done till Friday, and electricity, lighting and water reinstated. We build our own exhibition plaster walls to each exhibitors' specifications over the weekend on all four floors with over 3000 m2. The trucks with 15 international and local exhibitions and the conference high-tech rolled in on Monday morning, like in a special-op scene with the Navy Seals who-whooooing in! Some of the exhibitions had to be inserted through windows with cranes, as the staircases where too small. The painters, big print guys and the amazing entry canopy builders arrived on Monday morning as well, and the opening was set for 7pm sharp on Tuesday.

I must say we were lucky to have had so much support and understanding by so many partners and contractors. They charged us mostly only materials and minimal work... For example, we got the building for free, in return for exposure by the owners, the esteemed Gorenje corporation (local retro-style fridge manufacturers). We proudly state that the ethnic Albanian minority canopy builders, from the south of Serbia, Preševo Valley, have done more for Serbian design and the creative community in 2014 than the entire Serbian Ministry of Culture. Amazing people, proving my key point: it's only and exclusively about goodwill.

Over the weekend before the opening, we had over 200 people working on the premises at any time. Then, after living and sleeping a week at the location, the Presidential security detail threw everybody out at 6pm, the sniffing German Shepherd dogs got into every corner of Staklopan, security check booths were installed at the entry like at an airport, and we thought - "What have we done? Is it really ready? What if nobody comes?"...

An hour later, a packed house of people, journalists, every single Serbian TV station, media outlets, ambassadors, creative leaders, beauty queens and their kids and dogs were there, for the biggest and most relaxed opening we had in ten years of BDW. What an irony!

HW: What did the name for the BDW conference, 'Brand New World', signify?

JJ: It accurately described what we did. The whole artistry is reflected in the name. We invited the world's best of 2014 to Serbia, carefully selected from over 20 nations and all walks of the global creative industries.

HW: The conference is always international, but how did BDW promote Serbian design?

JJ: We included a new sub-program in the conference called "Serbian Innovation Session". At the same time, the BDW DizajnPark exhibition was spread over three floors above the conference. Before the conference, we staged international workshops for creative professionals, the PKS DizajnLabs, organised for the first time with support of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. BDW again staged BD 100% FutureSerbia, displaying fresh local talent in over 100 shop windows in the city centre from Kalemegdan to Slavija. Add to this BDW DizajnPremiers, our vibrant evening vernissage program with openings, VIP dinners and parties.

BDW exploded throughout the city! If you can transform a conference experience into high art, then it becomes something completely life enhancing.

HW: The conference often showed the divide between a data-driven digital approach to design for an ever-increasingly connected world, and a sort of back-to-basics, hands-on approach. Which way is it going?

JJ: I have seen this discussion unfold over the last two years. It's not for me to state the answer, as for us as conference makers it is an imperative to provide an impartial framework for all schools of opinions. Still, it's the big question of 2014. The key quote was I believe from Jeremy Ettinghausen (of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London ad agency) in his BDW presentation, when he said that future generations will tremble and ask 'where were you in 2014?'

All the confluences are coming together - analog and digital, Russia and China, old world and new world, old school and new school, business and creativity, understanding arts and creating new workplaces... And its all happening now! It has never been a better year for your own start up, away from any corporative overload. The moment of truth has now arrived, even for leading multinational business models. They have to fear one-man-studio competitors for the first time in design history. In only a few years, everything we knew about economics will be changed, and that global change will come from within the creative industries and design, and the amazing power knowledge has gained with this new technologies and platforms of communication. And remember, it all came together in 2014. I'd call it the year of the long awaited web 3.0. 

HW: But Zuzanna Skalska of 360inspiration was talking about no trends, how we have everything already, and she quoted Philippe Starck who said 'design is dead'

JJ: I have been fretting for her to come to BDW for 5 years now. So I was not surprised with her thoughts, at all, and that's why I secured Ralph Nauta (of Studio Drift) as the next speaker, arguably to prove her wrong. That, in a nutshell, is the famous BDW conference rollercoaster!

Imagine this: You hear Zuzanna, the "Goddess of Future" as I call her, or simply "The Witch" as she calls herself, outlining those realities and inviting us to buy "Nothing". And then we're shown Studio Drift's movie of how (studio partners) Ralph and Lonneke pick dandelions, to create that famous light installation (Dandelight). That contrast on stage was pure magic. Even more than Ross Lovegrove competing in push-ups live on stage with Karim Rashid to show who a fitter designer is, with shirts taken off. Or Gaetano Pesce hugging Luigi Collani during ten minutes of standing ovations after his speech, telling him he is his biggest fan since 30 years, and how amazing it is that they first met in Belgrade of all places...

HW: And what presentation inspired you most?

JJ: For me, best lecture at BDW 2014 was by (Swiss installation artists) Lang/Baumann. I cried, I saw definitions of spaces I never thought possible. BDW, among other things, serves to remind one what complete ignorants we really are... Live on stage, Sabine Lang taught us that we can see and learn architecture and space from scratch, like babies, with total virgin eyes, thanks to their art.

(Belgrade Design Week is reviewed in Blueprint 337, appearing November)

All pictures courtesy Belgrade Design Week

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