20 Years of Design Without Borders: “The human connections are the most important”

Given that ‘design’ is popularly associated with a limitless reality, an unrestrainable questioning, a pushing at the open doors of possibility, it does tend to get hemmed in quite a lot, we do tend to like place it within an awful lot of borders: geographic borders, category borders, practice borders, conceptual borders, historic borders, etc, etc, etc.

Or at least most of us do. For the past 20 years Budapest has been home to a borderless design, to Design Without Borders, an institution that has grown from a four day showcase featuring a handful of local protagonists to a six week exhibition programme presenting the work of some 200 international creatives, alongside concerts and film screenings.

Ahead of its 20th edition we met up with Szilvia Szigeti and Tamás Radnóti, instigators and curators of Design Without Borders, to discuss the past, present, future. And the hows, whos, whys……

Szilvia Szigeti and Tamás Radnóti a.k.a Design Without Borders

Szilvia Szigeti and Tamás Radnóti a.k.a Design Without Borders

For all that the (hi)story of Design Without Borders is closely, intimately, associated with Budapest the story, in many regards, begins in the vicinity of Stuttgart where, in 1992, textile designer Szilvia Szigeti and interior designer Tamás Radnóti, both mid-1980s graduates of Budapest’s Academy of Applied Arts, undertook scholarships in context of Akademie Schloss Solitude’s Artist-in-Residence Program, and thereby become part of the Akademie Schloss Solitude network, networks, as one quickly learns in conversation with Szilvia and Tamás, that are very important to them. A period in Germany that also saw them make contact with the European Textile Network, ETN, a platform established in 1990 very much in context of the political changes of the period, not least the removal of that, apparently, so immutable border that had long divided Europe. Contact with the ETN which led to Szilvia and Tamás being asked to organise the fringe programme for the ETN’s 1994 conference in Budapest; a commission for which the pair developed the so-called Textival, a mix of exhibition, show and theatre on Margit-sziget, Margit Island, that defining, formative, disruptive, feature of the Danube as it flows through Budapest, and that, as Tamás points out, in a time before the international fashion houses had established themselves in Budapest, was a period when clothing in Budapest was defined by, disrupted by, “lots of small studios, lots of independent designers, fashion was fresh and full of new ideas”.

Small studios and independent designers who also found a home, found support, in Eventuell Studio, today Eventuell Galéria, a platform established in 1994 by Szilvia and Tamás in the heart of downtown Budapest; an institution that not only provided a home in the late 1990s for further, if smaller scale, editions of the Textival but which 30 years after its opening, in its dual function as shop and gallery, exists today in downtown Budapest as an island, as a disruptor, representing independent Hungarian textile and jewellery designers, a location for individuality and creativity amongst the international fashion houses, and inevitable ubiquitous high street clothing chains, who are now resident in Budapest, who now globally define the local clothing narrative.

A late-1990s that also saw Tamás invited to curate an exhibition of contemporary Hungarian furniture design at the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, an exhibition we didn’t see but whose title BútoroSOKKFurnitureSHOCK – we’re fairly certain offers informative clues as to the direction of the featured furniture; furniture that was, we well imagine, ‘fresh and full of new ideas’ in a Hungary which a few years earlier had led the aforementioned removal of the inner-European border and was now in the process of finding its way in the new realities, and that also in terms of furniture and interiors.

And a late 1990s where the path to Design Without Borders begins to become visible. Tangible. Specifically in context of the 1998 instigated trade fair Lakástrend és Design, Home Trend & Design, at Budapest’s Kunsthalle, essentially an international furniture fair, a, if one so will, late 20th/early 21st century attempt to establish international interior and furniture brands in the new Hungary, much as the international clothing brands had, and which from 2000 hosted the platform Contemporary Hungarian Furniture Collection, a curated selection of, as the name implies, contemporary Hungarian furniture, design; and thus a format that sounds very similar to Magyar Design’s presence at Otthon Design, although, we suspect, hope, there were notably fewer jacuzzi hot-tubs at Lakástrend és Design. A curated selection of contemporary Hungarian furniture that included works by Szilvia and Tamás; and a curated selection which in 2003 found itself curatorless, a void Szilvia and Tamás, not least on account of their experience, and their networks, were asked to fill. Which they did. And in doing so began to lay that path which leads to today.

A path initially titled madeinhungary and which, as the name implies, saw Szilvia and Tamás continue to run the platform as an Hungarian showcase, before expanding the format in 2012 with the addition of regional designers; specifically designers from Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a, if one so will, Visegrád (Design) Group, if not necessarily a Visegrád (Design) Group in any way aligned with the (contemporary) Visegrád (Political) Group. And a Visegrád (Design) Group presented alongside madeinhungary under the title Meeting of European Designers, MeeD.

But an expansion of the geographic scope of the showcase at a 2012 edition of Lakástrend és Design that was also the final edition of Lakástrend és Design; a decision to discontinue Lakástrend és Design that meant, as Szilvia, reflects, “we were alone…”

¿And then?

“…we decided OK, no problem, let’s move on and present madeinhungary plus Meeting of European Designers during Budapest Design Week.”

A decision which posed the next question, ¿where?

One possible option was the new Bálna centre which, at that time, was approaching completion on the Pest bank of the Danube between Szabadság and Petőfi bridges; a steel and glass construction by Dutch architect Kas Oosterhuis resemblant of a whale, and a multi-use space amongst whose residents was to be the contemporary art focussed New Budapest Gallery. Szilvia gave them a call. “They were immediately very open to the idea”, she recalls warmly, “but wanted it to be art and design with them curating art objects and us design projects”; a proposition Szilvia and Tamás readily agreed to. And a discussion, a proposition, from which a new name for the project arose: Design Without Borders. Thus a name not so much referring to geographic borders but the borders between, if one so will, the utilitarian and the decorative, between technical functionality and emotional functionality, between art for arts sake and art for everyday living. Those borders that, one can argue, the creatives of the Szecesszió didn’t see, couldn’t comprehend, and which the Modernists subsequently defined. And within whose borders creativity still tends to navigate.

If a newly monickered Design Without Borders that did also increasingly cross, or perhaps better put, increasingly remove geographic borders: the 2017 edition seeing the Visegrád (Design) Group expand to encompass Scandinavia and the Baltic nations; 2018 seeing the debuts by designers from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Romania and Slovenia; debuts made in 2019 by designers from Spain, France, Italy, Portugal.

Designers, and design, invited to Budapest by Szilvia and Tamás: participation at Design Without Borders is, and always has been, by invitation not by application. A concept that means one regularly finds popularly well-known designers such as, for example, the Bouroullecs, Cecilie Manz, mischer’traxler or Oskar Zięta alongside both students who may or may not become popularly well-known designers and also alongside designers who’ve been quietly, and successfully, and interestingly, working away for decades outwith the popular media spotlight, without becoming popularly well-known; design without borders of popularity. And also means that design from all the various and varied categories we all like to separate design into exist in one free flowing, borderless, presentation. As they inarguably should.

Invitations issued which mean that whereas other design festivals have to decide who to accept, Szilvia and Tamás need to decide who to invite. ¿But who?

“The background to the project is always the most important for us”, elucidates Tamás, “we don’t select based on objects fitting in or relating to other objects, the most important question for us is it interesting or not? Has it a message or meaning or not? What does it mean to be innovative? What are the borders of design?”, there’s that design without borders again, or at least without internal borders, design as something that can’t be, shouldn’t be, contained in, limited by, a category or a nationality or an identity, but still needs to be, somehow, defined. And while, yes, it means each Design Without Borders edition is based on a subjective assessment by Szilvia and Tamás, so is any and every exhibition a subjective assessment, it’s what curators do, make decisions as to what to present: sometimes within the framework of exploring a curatorial questioning, sometimes by way of taking delight in the exploration of questions by others. But always based on a subjective questioning if a work should be exhibited. Much as viewing any and every exhibition is also subjective for the viewer; you don’t have to like everything, just because something is presented in an exhibition doesn’t mean it is good, it means the curator considered it good, worthy of exhibiting. ¿But what do you think? Any and every exhibition as a basis for discussion, reflection, challenging, not as definitive facts.

An approach to curating Design Without Borders that also means that commercial considerations don’t play a role: whereby, yes, some, many, of the projects are commercially available, and every designer needs must sell things in order to survive, that reality of design, as with music, literature, theatre, et al, as part commerce, part culture. But commercial aspects that are of no interest to Szilvia and Tamás. An ignoring of commerce in the selection, an ignoring of that “unmerciful censor of all ideas”1 once denounced by, then, Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum, and also an ignoring of the equally ‘unmerciful censors’ of t*****, brand names, popularity, or the selfish motivations of social mediaists, that allows Design With Borders to focus on the design, on the paths and processes to that before you, on the positions therein, on that which is mediated by the project, on where you go from that project. For an interesting, communicative, engaging, project always takes you somewhere new.

And a lack of a commercial focus that also means the invited designers exhibit free, there are no fees to be paid, another important aspect for Szilvia and Tamás of the Design Without Borders concept; and a very rare reality in a contemporary, and very commercial, international design festival market in which the fees to be paid often exist as the border between participating and not participating, fees as gatekeepers. At Design Without Borders Szilvia and Tamás and their subjective, if very open, borderless, commerce light, view of the world are the only gatekeepers.

If a commerce light concept that also means the financing of the next edition of the festival is always uncertain until it is certain, or a Tamás elucidates, “every year we have to apply for new funds, for example, to the Visegrád Fund or the Hungarian National Cultural Fund, and once, if, we get that funding as a base then we can start to work on the project, and then, when you can say for certain the next edition will happen, you can start trying to arrange further support from other institutions, it’s like a snowball, but you need that base. There is also the problem of timing, museums plan years in advance and need to know if we can stage an event and when, but we need to know funding is there before we can say. Which makes it all very complicated.”

Complications which pose the very obvious question, wouldn’t it be desirable to try to arrange ongoing financial support, a fixed based, from, for example, a company or a central agency?

“No, absolutely not”, they reply in unison, Szilvia expanding, “we want to be independent, it is important for us to be free and independent”. And sitting with Szilvia and Tamás in a shop and gallery for textile and jewellery designers that they’ve ran for three decades, three decades in which Budapest has become ever more commercial and Hungary has become, well, contemporary Hungary, it’s very easy to not only believe them but to appreciate why. “It’s also a very nice feeling to work with the different cultural institutes”, adds Szilvia, “and to work with different universities and our many other partners”. Which again in conversation with Szilvia and Tamás it’s very easy to believe and appreciate. While the briefest of views of the 2024 website indicates just how many partners they work with. The extent of their network.

Complex funding and scheduling problems exacerbated in 2019 by the closure of the New Budapest Gallery, a fate we very much get the impression from reading around is/was closely related to the troubled, controversial, curious, fate of the Bálna centre, a centre that, certainly from the distance we’re viewing it, increasingly appears to resemble a beached whale, a whale beached on the Pest bank of the Danube in urgent need of refloating.

Yet regardless of the whats, whys and wherefores, ’twas a closure in 2019 of the New Budapest Gallery that meant, once again, Design Without Borders was in urgent need of a new location. One, however, quickly found: the New Budapest Gallery is/was connected with, is/was an institution of, Budapest History Museum who also operate the Kiscell Museum, a museum of everyday life in Budapest since the mid-18th century, housed in a complex set high over Margit-sziget bequeathed to Budapest in 1935 by the Austro-Hungarian furniture and interiors manufacturer Miksa Schmidt, “a beautiful, amazing, space”, enthuses Szilvia, “as soon as we saw it we knew, this is the place!”

Which it became for the 2020 edition; and a location which Design Without Borders, having found its way through the challenges of Covid, through a period with very tightly defined and controlled borders, defined and controlled borders Szilvia and Tamás partially managed to navigate thanks to the power of dance, still calls home.

And where for the 2024 edition Design Without Borders will present, appropriately, although we know not if by design or pure good fortune, didn’t occur to us ask, designers from 20 countries for the 20th edition; 20 countries that have Europe covered from Norway in the north to Greece in the south, from Romania in the east to Portugal in the West, with particular foci on the 2024 guest countries: Slovakia, Italy and Austria, all three being represented by both individual designers and presentations by design schools. Slovakian, Italian and Austrian design students joined by colleagues from, and amongst other institutions, HAWK Hildesheim, Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, Kraków, Escola de Disseny de València or Budapest’s own Moholy­ Nagy University of Art and Design.

Beyond the new and the recent works on show the 2024 edition will also include a presentation of rarely seen objects from the Kiscell Museum archives by way of exploring both the (hi)story of the development, and continual redevelopment, of not only the complex, but the Hungary/Austro-Hungary complex in which it stands, and also the connections between Kiscell, Hungary, and Mariazell, Austria, the Kiscell Museum as (hi)story without borders; and will also feature a presentation of textiles realised in context of Szilvia’s Texhibition platform which brings textile designers and textile manufacturers together, and which represents a further network. And will also feature a retrospective of some of the ca. 1200 designers whose works have been shown at Design Without Borders over the decades, a selection that in addition to featuring works by designers as varied as, and amongst others, Yrjö Kukkapuro, Nóri Vidó, Helena Dařbujánová, Gábor Munkácsi or András Kerékgyártó should also provide some informative insights into how Szilvia and Tamás define ‘interesting’, ‘message’, ‘meaning’, et al. How Szilvia and Tamás define ‘design’. And a retrospective that will also introduce their works: 2018 textiles by Szilvia and a 1996 desk by Tamás, works by Szilvia and Tamás that serve as a reminder that the people behind Design Without Borders are designers, with designer biographies and positions to design inextricable from those biographies.

In addition Design Without Borders 2024 will feature the music and dance programmes that have long been an accompaniment to the design, performance art alongside visual art, a widening of the scope of the presentation from the Design of its title that can be understood as a reflection of an appreciation by Szilvia and Tamás that audiences of different types often have shared interests, points of intersection, like a Venn diagram; an appreciation of audiences without borders that more conventionally staged design or music festivals don’t always respond to. Can’t respond to. And also one suspects a confirmation that music and dance are as important to Szilvia and Tamás as art and design clearly are. To that end the 2024 edition will celebrate the Year of Czech Music with a series of concerts organised in collaboration with the Czech Centre, including one in Budapest’s Music Academy, and will also feature, as a component of the Austrian focus, a showing of films from the Mozarteum Salzburg’s Spot On MozART project which asked the question ‘What do you see when you hear?’ And then sought to approach answers with the help of Mozart. And music, and in many regards further reflections on the links between sound and seeing, music as a visual medium, and also in many other regards further reflections on the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt’s, claim that Everything is Music!, inherent in a presentation of sound, noise, music, generating objects, including works by George Koutsouris, Judit Pinviczki and Hemmo Honkonen whose Audible Furniture project we last saw at Ung Svensk Form/Young Swedish Design in 2018, and are very keen to be reacquainted with.

A programme, a scale and scope, that underscores not only the amount that has to be financed but the work Design Without Borders entails, and that by just two people, with next to no financial return. And which, as one sits in Eventuell Galéria with Szilvia and Tamás, munching Túró Rudi, very naturally leads you to ask, as madeinhungary/MeeD/Design Without Borders approaches its 20th edition, why do you still do it? You didn’t have to taken on Contemporary Hungarian Furniture Collection, and when Lakástrend és Design was discontinued in 2012 you could also have stopped, similarly when New Budapest Gallery closed ¿Why after 20 years, do you still do it?

“We enjoy it”, being the, very cheerful, short answer.

The longer answer being.

“Every year we say ‘next year we have to have our own lives'”, smiles Szilvia, “but no”, whereby one senses, not least through the ease of the answer, no regret, or frustration, at the failure to keep one’s own word to oneself, and that arguably because, as Szilvia continues, “the human connections are the most important, not only getting to know people, but building new networks and adding to existing networks, and also seeing what new projects you can begin with those networks. That is maybe an old fashioned way of thinking but it gives us energy and keeps us motivated.” An importance of and on personal connections, and Design Without Borders as a network, a homogenous, free-flowing network, as much as an exhibition, that can be understood in both the comment above about enjoying working with the different cultural institutes and other partners, and also in the meeting of the represented designers that traditionally takes place the day after the opening, and in which all designers are invited to briefly present their project to the community, have an opportunity to discuss their work with the community, to get to know the community. While beyond the community there is, as Tamás notes, the self, the Szilvia and the Tamás, “for us both it is important to always go deeper and deeper with the exhibition, which is also a process for us and we have learned a lot during the past 20 years, and we’ve also changed a lot during this process.” Which is surely reason enough to continue with any project, to continue not keeping one’s own word to oneself.

“Plus”, Szilvia adds, and returning to the community, “we have a very loyal audience who look forward to the next edition, and that is very nice”. And also a part of the network building that is so central to Design Without Borders, of exploring the borders of design as a process for expanding the landscapes in which an individual exists. And a network building that, as noted above, is clearly so very important to Szilvia and Tamás, to Szilvia and Tamás’s understandings of the world and society. Networks based on personal connection one notes, and not impersonal contemporary digital networks.

In addition, through chatting to Szilvia and Tamás one very much gets the feeling that both feel a sense of responsibility to continue, a responsibility to keep offering a platform for a design that is open, experimental, questioning, a platform that encourages visitors to engage with design free of labels, free of expectations and baggage, and then see what happens, a responsibility to present design as a cultural good, not as a commercial good. A responsibility to enable, to empower, others to explore the question ‘what is design’, without the distractions of the contemporary design industry. An impression that becomes heightened, almost tangible, when talk turns to the future, Design Without Borders is Szilvia and Tamás, there is no team, no guaranteed funding, no guaranteed context in which to stage the next edition, no obvious continuation into an endless future. ¿What happens when Szilvia and Tamás can’t organise Design Without Borders?

An important question, one we have no doubt Szilvia and Tamás will find an answer to, as they have found answers to all the challenges that have arisen over the past two decades…

…but a question for another day, Szilvia and Tamás have organised Design Without Borders 2024 and it is scheduled to open at the Kiscell Museum, Kiscelli utca 108, 1037 Budapest on Friday May 10th and run until Sunday June 23rd.

Full details can be found at https://design-without-borders.eu

All going to plan we will make it along at some point, and when, if, we do we’ll bring some posts back with us.

1. Rolf Fehlbaum, Ein Projekt mit ungewissen Ausgang, in Uta Brandes; Alexander von Vegesack [Ed], Citizen Office: Ideen und Notizen zu einer neuen Bürowelt, Steidl Verlag, Göttingen, 1994

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