Shortly before I left Belgrade a woman said to me. “If you write about us, don’t make us seem like savages.” For natives and blow-ins alike it can be hard not to conjure the dark days of war but I was in the capital for altogether more cheery reasons.
Belgrade Design Week was underway; a diffuse event of talks and installations - and lavish dinner and late parties - taking in architecture, city planning, product design, art, curation, graphic design, video game making, advertising and branding.
The festival, now in its eighth year, had innovation set out an underlying theme with an impressive variety of speakers, from celebrated French designer Christophe Pillet to UK adman Paul Belford and Sebastien Noel of the London based experimental design collective Troika, roaming freely across topics of their own choosing. Genial Dutch designer designer/engineer Daan Roosegaarde offered his plans to reinvent roads while Polish designer Oskar Zieta displayed his ingenious ways of bending metal at will to create products.
Elsewhere, in a nice touch, the event was embedded in the city with a series of design installations in shopfronts all over town. As you walked around and noticed one, it was like a wink from a shop telling you they were in on the idea.
There wasn’t really a trade element to the week, with the audience seemingly made up of students, interested locals and independent entrepreneurs working across different design disciplines. A number of volunteers helping out I spoke to were architects. Perhaps one idea behind Belgrade Design Week was to show these groups, the city itself and the wider world that interesting ideas and events are taking place here. That the city can be a new incubator for debate, creativity and innovation (its reputation as a city for partying was done no harm either).
Belgrade’s City Architect, Dejan Vasovic, presented a talk on a number of projects in various stages of development. The plans suggested a new growing ambition. Some were low-key school nurseries, others more grand: a new bridge across the Danube, dubbed “the Chinese bridge” because of the source of financing; a new municipal building with a dramatic sweeping structure designed by Sou Fujimoto (he of the current Serpentine Pavillion). Also being planned is a large commercial and residential development from Zaha Hadid Architects.
The event was run, with the help of a small coterie of staff, by Jovan Jelovac, an advertising entrepreneur. Throughout the week Jelovac was cheerleading for Belgrade, cheerleading for the festival itself, cheerleading for the speakers. However he ended proceedings on a downbeat tone, suggesting that this could be the final Belgrade Design Week - though Jelovac and others involved would later strike more positive notes on the future of the conference.
But despite occasional downbeat perspectives, the event itself was proof that new things can happen. This year’s design week was staged for the first time in Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art, an impressive 60’s modernist building on the banks of the Sava river by Serbian architect Ivan Antic. The museum however has been closed for several years awaiting redevelopment that has yet to arrive but authorities had been persuaded to let the organisers reopen the gallery, albeit briefly. “It had been closed for seven years,” announced Jelovac, “but look how easy it is to make an event happen here.” It occurred to me that a wider application of this premise could serve as a motive for Belgrade Design Week. Long may it continue.
On the first night of the event a series of designers made brief presentations. Slightly nervous, a woman discussed her work, speaking quickly and concluding cheerfully, “Ok, happy happy.”