In many ways, Romania is a land whose stereotypes precede it. But don’t let vampires and gypsies fool you. While cloaked in tradition, the ‘island of Latinity’ in a sea of Slavic countries is hurtling toward modernity, ever-liberalizing after the fall of Communism. In fact Bucharest has just been named a contender for the title of European Cultural Capital in 2021, a distinction with the potential to transform the city into a premiere artistic cosmopolis. Romanians are already campaigning hard — and you thought the American presidential election was a big deal.
This was the optimistic atmosphere in which I made my way to Bucharest for Romanian Design Week. Now in its third edition, RDW showcased no fewer than 130 artists and designers working in a panoply of disciplines — architecture, graphic design, and product design, as well as fashion — throughout the cavernous halls of a renovated 19th-century factory in downtown. But it was craft — practically a métier in Romania, particularly craft from the secluded, folk-oriented Transylvania region — that seemed to be the star attraction. Which makes sense in a country where a peasant museum counts among its most illustrious institutions and the minimalist sculptor Constantin Brâncuși could go from simple farm boy to one of the greats of modern art.
Romania became a full member of the European Union in 2007 and you get the sense they’d really like to see what the rest of Europe is all about. That may be the reason behind the debut of an international dimension this year. The Netherlands were the first outside nation invited to present at the festival, showcasing contemporary Dutch design through exhibitions, workshops, and lectures across Bucharest, with the support of the Dutch embassy. The Dutch takeover, if you will, culminated with the Dutch Design Awards, which recognized Freyke Hartemink and Aura Luz Melis for their live-weaving installation The Architecture of Textile, as well as artists Sorin Bechira, Niels Hoebers, Dave Hakkens, and fashion designer Liselore Frowijn (who showed in the Hyeres Festival in 2014).
The Architecture of Textile by Freyke Hartemink and Aura Luz Melis
Liselore Frowijn for Dutch Design Awards
On the conceptual front came a revelatory little exhibition called Braun & Brauner, juxtaposing famously minimalist Braun appliances — designed by Dieter Rams, idol of product designers everywhere — with the surrealist oeuvre of Romanian artist Victor Brauner. Aside from the nominal similarity, both men had a prolific mid-century period following WWII, encapsulated in a profound little exhibition.
Braun & Brauner
No modern city would be complete without a street-art collective, which, in Bucharest, is Artskul. For Romanian Design Week, they enlisted a range of local artists to create new works in a variety of hands-on media — everything from sound design and turntablism to serigraphy and graffiti art, with a little astrophysics mixed in. Meanwhile, another collective, Kolektivul TotNoi, created an ironic, playful homage to the region’s assorted dictators, notably Romania’s own Nicolae Ceaușescu, the notorious Communist tyrant of the 1980s from whose hard-line rule the country is still recovering. Miniature head paperweights seem like a suitably useless tribute.
Aural Eye is another collective looking to shed new light on a broken-down Romanian construct — its old fountains. Many of them were erected in the interwar years, yet none remain in operation. Using projectors, the Aural Eye crew mapped the fountains and created original art with which to illuminate them, combining century-old monument masonry and contemporary light design.
The Nod Makerspace project, which launched during Romanian Design Week, brings together designers from various fields, allowing them to share common resources while working out of small studios of their own. Traditional practices like wood carving and glass blowing go hand in hand with higher-tech operations with large machines busily printing this or that in 3-D. Elsewhere in Bucharest, Made in RO ranks as the largest design fair in Romania. It focuses on home items, e.g. furniture, interior design, lighting, toys, and ceramics, many with a humorous bent.
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Made in RO
Made in RO
Visit Romanian Design Week