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  Niko Kralj, designer of chair Rex Book Reviews

 
Getting to Know Niko Kralj
  Dr. Steve Diskin, Chairperson of Industrial Design, Pratt Institute, New York
 
About the Book
  Prof. dr. Fedja Košir, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of architecture
 
Unsurpassed Innovation in Industrial Design
  Prof. dr. Živa Deu, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of architecture

Getting to Know Niko Kralj
Dr. Steve Diskin, Chairperson of Industrial Design, Pratt Institute, New York

One of the pleasures of experiencing design - aside from the obvious visual, tactile and conceptual delights that can constellate around a beautiful object - is thinking about the intentions and character of the designer. As with the fine arts, design functions best and touches us most when it has complex layers of meaning that resonate through both body and brain. Designers, by putting their work into the world, also educate us, revealing through their experiments the potential of form, material and expression. All of these factors in a great work of design add up to a sort of portrait, and the object itself becomes a very sophisticated medium of human contact, with some of the same features as a talk with a good friend.

These were the thoughts going through my head a long time ago when I became the proud owner of a 1972 Citroën DS - yes, the crazy, controversial French car, but a work of design that very cleverly and wonderfully synthesized all the elements of engineering, aesthetics, function and user experience. But more than that, this automobile seemed to talk, somehow infused with the voice of the designer, exactly as if he were sitting in the passenger seat, explaining as you drove why the steering wheel had only a single massive spoke, angled down to the left at 45 degrees, or why the hydraulic suspension produced such a velvety ride. You could not help butlaugh out of sheer pleasure at the satisfying “conversation” between man and machine.

It was the same feeling I had when I met Charles and Ray Eames for the first time, experiencing the special vitality of their studio, seeing the great variety of shapes and materials in their work, watching little documentary films on toy trains or ethnographic artefacts, and hearing design described in very humanistic terms.

And it was also thus in “encountering” the work of Niko Kralj. As a foreign designer in Slovenia, it was inspiring to me to discover the way in which he celebrated wood, clearly resonating in the tradition of Eames and Aalto, with a love of material but also of process and form, “collaborating” with it to bring a simple chair, for example, to a higher plane of design expression. It was also satisfying to think that Kralj was part of an international, almost universal phenomenon of the times when industrial design was literally being invented: a small group of humanistically oriented designers using mass production techniques to touch people’s lives with the feel of a curved surface, soft radii, an economy of material, a sophisticated structural strategy, and the comfort and solidity of a good chair, still one of the greatest icons of our field.

Yet, more than the Slovenian love of the forest, more than the once-flourishing industry in this country that nevertheless left behind a wood tradition, more than the technology of bending and joining, more than the mechanical production of multiple units which distinguishes industrial design from its brothers and sisters of other artistic fields, and more than the numerous accolades and kind words bestowed on Kralj, there is a special human being behind all this, one who through his work as a designer and professor tried to show us what’s possible and communicate quietly but very effectively a personal vision of the man-made part of life and the twists, bifurcations and meldings of the creative process.

In these pages, we find a detailed portrait of Niko Kralj, and we get to know him just a little bit better through his choices, philosophy and output. In the end, we know that science will transform our understanding of the universe, technologies will come and go, aesthetic trends will surely morph from one to another, and the objects that inhabit our homes and offices will change their form as time goes on. But the constant in all of this is we, human beings, who in an ideal world strive to know each other better and make life richer through our interactions. We are lucky that Niko Kralj had this very intention and that the legacy of his contribution will remain in the Slovenian and international design spheres for a very long time.

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About the Book
Prof. dr. Fedja Košir, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of architecture

Architect Niko Kralj is a designer who deserves to be placed into each and every overview of Slovenian design achievements. However, those encyclopaedias are mostly too short to encompass his contribution fully and objectively. The book in front of you eliminates this deficiency. The author, Jasna Hrovatin, efficiently realizes the desideratum, a versatile presentation of the architect’s personality and work. An exceptionally plastic portrayal of a human being, who dedicates his efforts to a single but very demanding task, is laid in front of us. He makes every effort to design user-friendly items which can be linked into entirely recognizable ambiences.

The material collected by Hrovatin is exceptionally extensive, as well as skilfully arranged. Someone else would probably have drowned in the multitude of data that are logically divided into chapters encompassing the architect’s educational, design, research and even theoretical work, on top of his work as a publicist. Footnotes provide a reader with a useful and bibliographically correct list of numerous texts published by Kralj. It is no secret that he has mastered rhetoric (and implemented it in his texts) - not only because of his characteristic readability, but also because of the innovativeness of his viewpoints. He isn’t only a top-notch expert, but also an eloquent witness to the occurrences that he monitors and co-creates.
The present monograph is well organized in terms of content. A plethora of valuable details is arranged in a very transparent manner. It is clearly divided into five parts. It starts with an illustration of a period of the architect’s professional efforts, followed by his biography and bibliography, and several memoirs of the architect’s acquaintances, colleagues and last but not least, his closest relatives: an extra, regularly missed in such detailed overviews, which adds just what we call the colour of an era.

Kralj’s biography is exceptionally dynamic. It belongs to a generation not indulged by history. However, whomever manages to survive all tests and ordeals and suffers no major deformations in the process is cut out of hardwood that persists. Occasional bending only serves the purpose of soon carrying what he lays upon himself in an untameable desire to realize the unrealizable. One consequence of the architect’s above-average diligence is an exceptionally long list of awards and recognitions that he undoubtedly deserves for his merits as well as creations. But above all, it is the architect’s concrete achievements that fully convince us in this book.

The core of the monograph is a remarkably illustrated analysis of Kralj’s design principles. Niko Kralj is an industrial designer, or better yet, a designer of mass-produced products. He is a living antithesis of the position which states that only unique, handmade products qualify as truly artistic work. But still! This is about two opposite facets of the same creative volition, which depend on extremely social as well as individual impulses.
An objective critic has to agree with both positions, with a single caveat: both cases are about genuine efforts. In the case of Niko Kralj, there are no doubts with reference to his authenticity as well as his diligence.

This book addresses a few issues that as yet have only been ostensibly explained, or sometimes not convincingly enough. The exception is the presentation of the legendary chair Rex. It has been traditionally believed that the product emerged almost incidentally, and that all the credit is due to its market launch, which resembles a violent volcano eruption. Hrovatin clearly shows the amount of precise experimental testing that is required before an all-out successful serial production can begin.

We find ourselves at the point which can also be referred to as the moment of truth. Many things that were considered firm facts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are now just an illusion, if not a very unpleasant delusion. However, even in a tense situation like this, beautiful past memories represent more than just a poor consolation. We need hope and trust to perhaps do it once again. All we need is sturdy enough wood.

The architect Kralj also represents a metaphor. He has been a central persona of Slovenian modern industrial design for more than three decades: from his inauguration in the mid 1950s all the way to the well-known aesthetic and social crisis of the mid 1980s. As one of the pioneers in the efforts for a more humane world—one without annoying absolutist ethical or aesthetic burdens, or even pastoral rapes—he leaves behind a fascinating, extensive and diverse oeuvre that will definitely represent a base for any future research, which will all rely on Hrovatin’s monograph: citandum is certainly unavoidable.

We are getting a good and comprehensive, and at the same time directly well-written book, which will be appreciated by architecture experts, as well as those who care deeply about their places of residence and would like to learn more about the issue.

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Unsurpassed Innovation in Industrial Design
Prof. dr. Živa Deu, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of architecture

The creative work of the architect Niko Kralj, a central persona of Slovene industrial design in the second half of the 20th century and a long-standing professor at the Faculty of Architecture, then a part of the Civil Engineering and Geodesy Department, is presented in a few articles published in various popular and professional publications. Most are dated correspondingly with the architect’s active involvement with scientific, research and pedagogical work. We as a nation lack insight into his contribution to the development of the Slovenian culture of living, a comprehensive depiction of his life, imbued with the quest for the new, technically thought-out, useful and beautiful in interior design, which needs to satisfy the demands of serial production.

Therefore, the monograph prepared by Jasna Hrovatin, PhD, is particularly valuable. The author, who was also Kralj’s student and a young researcher, divided the book entitled Niko Kralj into two parts, which differ with reference to their approach of address. The first part consists of three chapters: historical background of Kralj’s creative period and his biography, Kralj as a pedagogue and a designer, and characteristics of Kralj’s design, in which the period of time, in addition to the role and work of the designer-architect are not only described, but also critically evaluated with the passage of time.

In the second part we take note of the extent of his work. In the chapter entitled “Chronological overview”, his works are presented chronologically and according to their significance and value. The monograph concludes with short depictions, memories, aphorisms and visions of Niko Kralj through the eyes of his closest: his daughter, schoolmates, friends and long-time colleagues.

The first part of the monograph has a special value, although presentation of a creative personality requires a whole. In addition to revealing the importance and role of Kralj’s work in Slovenian industrial design, the alert reader can also distinguish the required capabilities for success in a certain space and time. Kralj aimed his creative talent, his extensive knowledge of materials and attention to technical and artistic detail, and his constant search for improvement at the professional void of which he rapidly became aware. Thousands of apartments designed by his colleagues and aimed at meeting the demands of a spatial minimum needed to be fitted and furnished with minimalistic, modular, easily dismantled, light and affordable furniture designed for industrial mass production.

His original seating sets, chairs, tables, wardrobes and cabinets did not only satisfy the demands set out, but due to their technical perfection and artistic uniqueness, also placed among the highest graded products of industrial design in Yugoslavia. The chair Rex, the most successful and particularly well described in the monograph, a useful, technical and artistic piece of Kralj’s furniture, positions the pedagogue and inventor in the catalogue of world achievements in the field of industrial furniture design.

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