Designate to liberate

“Kuna Zlatica” is Martes Martes in Latin. Casually speaking, it is the name of the graphic design duo, running a respective studio in Zagreb – the nickname “Kuna” refers to Ana Kunej and “Zlatica” stands for Zlatka Salopek, both graphic design graduates from the University of Architecture iz Zagreb, starting their own studio pretty soon as they finished their studies, sometime during 2006. I happened upon them through a mutual friend, Microslav, an electronic musician and also a graphic designer – who introduced me to Ana and Zlatka’s tip of the iceberg of otherwise truly inspiring, excellent body of work.

“Kuna Zlatica” is focused on publication, offering various interactive elements – in both, visual and tactile terms of “graphic”. Already participating in various individual and group exhibitions, both home and abroad, “Kuna Zlatica” recently exhibited in Jelsa, Island Hvar – presenting a truly unique and much awaited retrospective.

SD: To you, what is independence – being creative or being rich?
K: Being creative and manage to live from it. Unfortunately, there is no independence without any income. It is indivisible.
Z: Haha, that’s a tough one! I hope there’s a small overlapping area there. Honestly, it is very hard for me to imagine being rich without being creative. Or, it is easy to be creative once you’re rich. The problems lay in the fact that a lot of really creative people who do wonderful things are having a tough time making ends meet. One can preach about art being more important than earthly possessions, but sooner or later we all have to pay the rent, and bills, and food… So, I would say, independence is in one’s state of mind, it is more of an attitude than a fact. You decide on your actions, your projects, with whom you are going to work or not, along the way, but you are always inclined to be independent.

SD: How do you balance graphic design over the contents? Which one is more important? Does graphic design absolutely always have to make sense?
Z: I do not see design separated from the contents. Design is part of the contents. In our work, we try to give our view. And there aren’t any subjects that are “more important” then the others. Everything is “important enough”. Everything that is part of our world deserves to be re-evaluated, commented on, or extended. And yes, graphic design absolutely always has to make sense, and is making sense. Sometimes that sense is not rationally obvious, but it’s there. It doesn’t mean that it always has to be functional in a modernist meaning. Emotion is also a function. If you just decorate surfaces (what happened a few years ago with the flood of floral ornaments on everything from cosmetics to clubs) without thinking or feeling, you have bad design or kitsch.
K: In our work we use design in explaining the content, so it serves us as a tool.Usually, the purpose is to communicate a message, sometimes only we know the meaning, and sometimes everyone else does.

SD: The retrospective exhibition that you just gave in Jelsa – was it unique or are you considering touring with it, in form of a guesting exhibition in other cities as well?
Z: We haven’t actually given it a lot of thought, but since you are not the first person to ask that, we are starting to think about it. But we are thinking mainly of Zagreb. At the time we were preparing the exhibition, we were only interested in having a few glasses of good Hvar wine and inviting as many of our friends to Jelsa as possible, so this is a completely new idea…
K: It is not so common for designers to put out solo exhibitions, especially not two in 6 years, but in both cases we were asked and were happy to do it. The Jelsa exhibition is not connected to the place in any way so it could tour, but we are still considering it. The only thing we were instantly certain about, since both of our solo exhibitions took place in the summer, was the title – 1st and 2nd holiday works rewieval pageant.

SD: As graphic designers yourselves, who do you find the most inspiring? Among the work you did, is there any tribute to other designers? Which design by Kuna Zlatica makes you feel most proud?
K: I always look for inspiration among the same designers – Alan Fletcher, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Push Pin Studios…This way of simple/clever thinking is timeless.
Z: Well, forgotten aesthetics interest me the most, and places of underappreciated visual significance… alternative spots, if you like, often contain lumps and chunks of something good. Then you see how you feel about that and how you feel about your project, and something completely new comes out. I never manage to make the design the way I pictured it. It always ends up something different, I do not have that much to do with it. Sure, there are some designers who I look up to, but good stuff is in everyday things and around us, and it is not where it’s supposed to be (e.g. galleries, books, etc.). I do not want to point out one of our works alone and say it makes me feel more proud of than other work. All of our work brings me joy. Maybe I could mention the book “The Discovery of the City” by Fedor Kritovac, because late Fedor was a person, an explorer and a poet of the urban, who I have great respect for and our work on the book was a partner-like experience through which I learned a great deal.

SD: Throughout the last twenty years, graphic design became popular to the boiling point of excessive kitch. Professionally speaking, is there a way to save graphic design from piracy?
Z: No (ha, ha)! There will always be kitch. Aiming to live in an omni-designed world is a sick thought. In this earth, we need poorly made, undesigned, kitchie things also. Well, to some extent, anyway. What I am saying is, there always needs to be a balance. By practicing graphic design, we are striving to achieve that balance, in a way. It is an endless job, but someone has to do it (ha, ha).

SD: How do recognized institutions, like Croatian Designers Association (HDD), ULUPUH, or others in that matter, react and therefore tend to deal with the public’s rather diminished responsibility for visual culture?
Z: Professional institutions have made, and are making, huge effort with minimal resources to popularise design in general as the foundations of economical growth and as an activity of public interest. Although they didn’t succeed (yet) entirely, some shifts have been made. The biennial exhibition of Croatian design has a lot of visitors, Croatian designs and designers are in daily papers and fashion magazines and are treated as stars of the cultural scene. However, the number of hours per week that the visual culture is being thought at elementary schools is scandalous. Croatian industry is still not using Croatian designers (a lot of them internationally renowned), but rather manufactures ugly and nonfunctional items instead.

SD: Of course, there are autodidacts who devotedly contribute to graphic design on professional level. What are your views regarding non-proffesionals who only happen to learn the “trick” technically and exploit this type of “graphic design” commercially? Do you feel endangered by such competition?
K: Competition is never a bad thing. It can be inspiring if you let it. We hope that we build something throughout the year that distinguishes us and that we are recognized for it.
Z: Definitely not! There is no difference for us between institutionally educated practitioners and the other ones, there is only difference between good and bad design. However, the importance of a high-quality educational institution responsible for raising young generations of good designers has been proven again and again. A non-institutionally educated good, or even excellent designer is more of an exception than a rule.

SD: Most commercial clients seem to be confused about graphic design – they accept it formally but refuse to understand the professional background of it, dismissing it by saying – anybody can do it. In your own words, can anyone really be a graphic designer?
K: Of course not, but the problem with our profession is that it is so available, and anyone with any awareness of colour and composition, and no professional education think they can do it.
Z: Without proper education, either institutional or “home-made”, no. However, the process of educating the clients is, in fact, a real challenge and a responsibility of every designer. That situation does not apply only to Croatia, it is a worldwide thing, and is also something that has always been like that, and it probably will remain that way. It is simply a clash amongst different professions.

SD: Would you agree the professionals are sometimes too self-indulgent in delivering specific work? In your opinion, how much pretentiousness is there in the professional graphic design field?
Z: Well, there is a flood of conceptual work of dubious value going on for the past few years. We have a paradoxical situation that the conceptual work seems to be more appreciated publicly than other work. Although we need “The Concept” (or, The Thought) before “The Practice”, a lot of those projects are stillborn in sense that those are nice ideas that never get developed in practice and do not really help this world. A real effort in real situations that need to be solved is something we see more rare.

SD: By provoking subjective thought, graphic design continually seems to provoke the general public, dismissing it either as “too abstract” or “too arty” – on the other hand it is the same with cheap and so-called “safe” design. In order to reach the client and the consumer, where does that leave people like “Kuna Zlatica”? How many of your projects pass this test immediately and how many actually fail?
K: Many of them pass, but some of them we often like the most, don’t. Throughout the years, we learned where to stop and where to let go, but passion is always there. Where there’s a will, there is a way to show a project or a way of thinking, maybe in some next project or in a self-initiated one.
Z: Ha, ha, that is a good one! Well, we kinda can estimate how far we can go with which project. The goal is to get the maximum out of every one. By maximum, I mean maximum of thought provoking and perspective shifting. Also, to get the maximum out of it visually in a sense that it stands out of the mainstream visual constants or trends.

SD: Can you say, you have the freedom of choice regarding clients you’re working with?
Z: Sure. That is one of the reasons we have our own studio.
K: Depends on the client and of course on the project. While building your career, you are building experience, the freedom becomes more natural, and you stop questioning it. When you’re certain what you are doing, you build confidence that becomes contagious.

SD: What medium do you personally find most accessible but at the same time, just as effective to work with?
K: During the creative process, I think through illustration and for me it’s the easiest way. It is not suitable for everything so it doesn’t always end as one, but in a way it is always there. One thing that we try to do in our work is when using a photo, illustration, sometimes even typography, we try to do as much as we can by ourselves.
SD: How do you balance stress and creative energy during any process?
Z: With faith, coffee and a lot of cigarettes! The curse of the white paper still terrifies me deeply, every single time. But I just act like it’s not there (I am not seeing the white paper, the white paper is not there, white paper doesn’t scare me, kill the white paper…).
K: We are our own bosses but without fixed working hours there is no way to avoid stress. It is sometimes hard to be creative in specified time, that’s why it is so good that there are two of us.

SD: When do you feel best ideas come about – of the moment or through research, arguments, and further brainstorming?
K: Usually while doing something else, while riding a bike, listening to the music or whatever. Sometimes the idea comes instantly, you just know what to do. Most common technique is joining brains in the kitchen, that lasts until one of us says – I KNOW!!!

Images: “The Ballad of the Penguin”, by Lana Šarić (2009), comissioned work for New Life Theatre; “Croatian Patriotic Songs” (compact disc by LeZbor, 2012), illustrated by Helena Janečić; Kuna Zlatica cropped negative from the original photo by Ivan Dorotić (2012);

Further information: kunazlatica.com

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