Post-communist community

The ‘Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe’ exhibition explores shared characteristics.

Maxim Velèovsk's ‘Ornament and Crime (Lenin)’ 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maxim Velèovsk's ‘Ornament and Crime (Lenin)’ 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is truly a land of miracles and wonders. We live our lives – even at the best of times – in seemingly perpetual danger and yet, through it all, life goes on. Teachers teach, students learn, books are written and read, and the arts flourish with a level of vibrancy seen almost nowhere else in the world.
As the most recent round of fighting began, a fascinating exhibition resolutely opened at the Design Museum in Holon – the only design museum in the Middle East, and one of a mere handful of museums in the world dedicated solely to design.
Opened just a little over two years ago, the Design Museum cut its teeth on a series of exhibitions featuring some of the best in international and local Israeli design.
Now the museum brings us a show that involves designers from no fewer than 10 European countries, a guest curator from Poland, nine subcurators from central and eastern Europe and two large galleries filled with more than 200 design objects from both the present and the past.
Called “Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe,” the exhibition – two and a half years in the making – redraws the map of Europe to display design works from countries that share the experience of a long, bleak period of communism and a common flair for creativity that somehow survived and is now bursting into full bloom.
The museum’s chief curator, Galit Gaon, says, “This is the most complex piece of curating carried out at the museum to date. We had 10 curators for this exhibition, in addition to me, and we are all still alive. I think that this is a good example that curators can work together and share ideas. I think that this is the first time it has ever been done, and I’m proud it was done here in Israel.”
The exhibition brings together design pieces from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Why these countries? Why are these the countries included under the definition “Central Europe,” a term that has had several different definitions in the past? “This was one of the most difficult questions I had to answer for myself,” says guest exhibition curator Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka.
“Looking at the map and making layers of the different so-called ‘Central Europes’ and analyzing the objects, I realized that if we want to compare countries, we have to look at the clear lines in time. I decided to choose countries that have the same time lines – like the end of the Second World War in 1945, the fall of communism in 1989, and then entering the E u r o p e a n Union in 2004 and 2007. I think that the term ‘post-communist countries’ says more than the term ‘Central Europe,’ which I think says nothing.”
Jacobson-Cielecka thus includes countries that were traditionally considered to be part of Central Europe, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, and adds such countries as Lithuania and Estonia in the north as well as Croatia and Slovenia to the south. Countries like Ukraine and Belarus – both “post-communist” – are excluded from her design map because severe economic problems have stifled development in design in those countries.
The idea for the exhibition originated when Jacobson- Cielecka began to notice some uncanny similarities between design objects from different countries in the region. “I started looking at jars from Poland and Slovakia. They were very similar, but I knew they could not have been made by one designer. So I asked the designers from Poland and Slovakia if they knew each other. They did not. And then the concept was born,” she explains. “We find that we have very much the same ideas in Estonia and in Romania, in Slovenia and in Poland, in Hungary and in Lithuania.”
Are the similarities in design essentially the result of a shared drab, gray, authoritarian communist past, or do they possibly spring from somewhere deeper? “I think the heritage of communism has determined a certain way of thinking that we can see throughout the exhibition – practical thinking, knowing how to improvise, knowing how to make something from almost nothing,” she says. “But I think it also goes deeper. We can see in this exhibition that this design is rooted – in tradition, in natural resources, in knowing crafts, and in thinking by making.
And if we think again about Central Europe, we know that the borders of these countries were moving around a lot in the past 100 years, the historical winds were blowing, but the traditions stayed in the same place.”
A KEY point of this exhibition is that the “common roots” that link these countries to each other also connect them tightly to Israel. As one part of the exhibition clearly demonstrates, many of us here come from countries “back there.” Chief curator Gaon recalls visiting a Polish design festival in Lodz and remarking, “This is i n c r e d i - ble. It looks like Israeli design.”
Jacobson-Cielecka, who is head of the design department at the School of Form in Poznan, says, “I think it’s very important that this exhibition is showing here in Israel. There are a lot of people here that come from these countries. For me, it’s been a very important experience to come here and understand this better. We have been together for many, many years. We have this common experience in our DNA.”
The exhibition is displayed across two large galleries. The upper gallery focuses on design work of the present, grouped not so much by country but rather by similar themes or categories.
These include Creative Minds, Folk Attractions, New Elegance, New Democracy, Lasting Tradition, Citation and Ironic Joke.
As is so often the case these categories are much clearer and more evident to the curators than to the museum visitors who view them.
Nonetheless, the objects gathered and displayed here are interesting, sometimes playful and occasionally disturbing.
The lower gallery features a fascinating array of design objects from the communist period. Here we see everything from tables and chairs to radios and portable TV sets – and even a Rubik’s Cube from Hungary. This part of the exhibition covers a period spanning from the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of communism in 1989. The main point made here is that the aesthetic awareness of Eastern European designers under communism was not significantly different from that of their counterparts in the West. What differed was the lack of opportunities available for designers in the communist bloc. Says Gaon, “Even in the darkest days of the communist period, the designers kept on designing and their creativity still soared.”
Also featured in the lower gallery is the story of the great “textile aliya” from Poland to prestate Israel during the 1920s and ’30s. Through a series of photographs, contemporary posters and newspaper articles, we are able to follow the story of immigrant clothing manufacturers, chiefly from Lodz, who came to Israel to establish factories – called “Lodzia” – primarily in Holon. The pictures and other information not only belie the myth that these people came here “with only the clothes on their backs,” but also reinforces the notion of our “common roots” with the designers of the rest of this very appealing exhibition.
“Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe” is showing until February 23 at the Design Museum Holon. For further information, visit