16.–22. SEPT


How can a national design distinguish itself in today’s globalised society, and what kind of impression does Estonian design leave to bystanders? Is it an exemplary Baltic phenomenon or more like the little brother of the Scandinavian countries? Estonian cultural identity is largely based on the sense of being part of the Finno-Ugric peoples, who are scattered from the Urals to Hungary. One of the crucial factors in preserving a unified cultural identity has been the Estonian language. Estonian designers value acquiring international experience through connections with the outside world. Estonia is grateful to its Nordic neighbours Finland and Denmark, which have helped to develop an awareness of design in Estonia.

Despite the fact that designers familiarise themselves with contemporary developments and styles, a design identity is influenced by idiosyncrasies of the cultural heritage and economy of the country. Ascetic, oriented towards basic needs and functions, a smart aesthetic, not focusing on luxury – these are the intrinsic qualities of Estonian design. National identity has always been a political question and that has been the driving force behind many consciously but also unconsciously launched defence mechanisms. Estonian art, especially applied art, has managed to preserve a certain detachment from politics. Nevertheless, during occupation as part of the Soviet Union, creative people used every opportunity available to protest against the official ideology by renewing artistic expression.

Many nations can brag about their internationally known art and design icons. Unfortunately, Estonia rarely finds an opportunity. But still, let us name a few: Walter Zapp, the inventor of the spy camera Minox we all know from Bond films. Zapp developed the first model in Estonia in 1934, but as he did not find a manufacturer, he took the prototype to Riga where it was put into production a couple of years later. Architects are familiar with the name Louis Kahn, yet the fact that he was born on Saaremaa, in Estonia, is little known. Fearing that the head of the family would be mobilised into the Russo-Japanese war, the family moved to the USA. The well-known artist Kalev Mark Kostabi, based in the USA, also has roots in Estonia: his family emigrated during the Second World War. Estonians are especially proud of the Luther furniture company that began production in the 19th century and, due to its high quality technology and level of innovation, drew designers from all over the world. The factory is linked to names like Alvar Aalto and Bauhaus. The pinnacle of the factory’s production included bent plywood items and humidity-proof cardboard and plywood suitcases.

A new Estonian design was born during the 1990s. As the country was exposed to the market economy, an understanding of design as the creator of a contemporary and high quality environment started to take root. Design education was first established in 1966 when Bruno Tomberg started the first programme of its kind in the country at the Estonian State Art Institute. As the word “design” was deemed too “western” at the time, the use of it was forbidden and it was replaced with “industrial art”. Today, design is taught at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA ), two colleges and with a joint programme by EAA and Tallinn University of Technology. Various contemporary directions, such as service design and excellence in craftsmanship, can be acquired at different colleges like Tartu Art College and the Viljandi Culture Academy. There are more than 2,500 designers with a higher education. More than half of them are also actively working in their field. Not many have the opportunity to work as in-house designers and the number of designer-entrepreneurs is growing. Graphic designers have the most opportunities to find work. There are around 90 companies exporting design products and services.

Outsourcing has been a main source of income for the Estonian industry. Now domestic production has also increased: that is creating jobs for designers and they have found recognition. The designer Martin Pärn received the Red Dot Best of the Best award for his table “Martin” and together with the manufacturer, Martela, was included in the compilation of the 200 best design products of the 20th century published by the renowned design magazine MD. In 2015, the sauna heater Drop, designed by Mihkel Masso for a trademark called Huum, earned a nomination for a Red Dot Award and Karl Annus got Red Dot award for Glens glasses.

A strong tradition of furniture design has greatly impacted the furniture and lighting fixture industry in Estonia. Interior design for public buildings has been a special focus for companies such as Standard, Thulema and 4Room. The most well-known furniture designers in Estonia are Maile Grünberg, the Mang family, Katrin Soans, Toivo Raidmets, Taevo Gans and Anu Vainomäe. The most notable younger designers are Jaanus Orgusaar, Martin Saar, Argo Tamm, Igor Volkov, Maria Rästa, Veiko Liis, Pavel Sidorenko, along with a few brands: Oot-Oot, Ruumilabor and Warm North.

Leftovers from the German furniture industry inspired Elmet Treier to create easily built, solid, modular wood floors without special tools and steel joints, and spirited lamps, tables and chairs. Some of the most successful lighting fixtures designers include Tarmo Luisk, Margus Triibmann, Johanna Tammsalu and Tõnis Vellama. Mait Summatavet could be considered a true classic in Estonian design. The bath and shower industry has grown into a considerable branch of production, represented by two larger companies, Balteco and Aquator. There are also successful designers in the bathroom product development area: Villi Pogga, Aivar Habakukk and Sven Sõrmus.

The heavyweights of Estonian design include Matti Õunapuu, the founder of the first design agency and the designer of the innovative electric scooter Stigo. There is Tiit Liiv with his lengthy Finnish experience, Heikki Zoova, and Üllar Karro, the designer of the solar powered scooter. There are also products for niche markets like retro motor vehicles (Andres Uibomäe, Gabriel Verilaskja) and ergonomic bicycles from contemporary materials (Indrek Narusk). Companies offering industrial design services like Iseasi and TenTwelve are also enjoying increasing success. There is even an Estonian designer recognised within the car industry in the Germany-based Björn Koop.

As the local market is small and access to mass production is extremely limited, the lines of design and applied art and fine art are often blurred, which is also evident in the works of Estonian glass designers (Maie-Ann Raun, Kalli Sein, Annkris-Glass), ceramicists (Raili Keiv, Ene Raud, Mariana Laan, Karmen Saat, Maria Sidorenko), jewellery designers (Tanel Veenre, Anu Samarüütel, Sofia Hallik, Darja Popolitova, Kärt Maran, Kadri Mälk, Maarja Niinemägi, Kärt Summatavet, Urmas Lüüs) and designers of leather goods (Stella Soomlais, Piret Loog, Kadri Kruus, Nulku, Craftory, Mokoko). Currently, the demand for small runs of semi-handmade quality products is increasing, which is great for Estonian designers with exceptional craft skills. The waiting list for custom-made crafted wooden spectacle frames (Karl Annus) or handmade footwear (Kärt Põldmaa, Sille Sikmann, Kaspar Paas) can be several months long. These products are in demand outside the country as well and happy customers include well-known actors as well as royalty.

The sector most involving design currently is the clothing and textile industry. The best known brands are Ivo Nikkolo, Monton, Xenia Joost, Lilli Jahilo, Katrin Kuldma, Aldo Järvsoo, Tiina Talumees, Oksana Tandit, Marit Ilison. Anna Viik, Kriss Soonik, Perit Muuga and Kristian Steinberg are making waves in the UK; Ragne Kikas worked in a Japanese Yamamoto fashion house; Mirja Pitkäärt was designing accessories for Louis Vuitton.

The fashion change agent Reet Aus took a bold step by applying up-cycling methods to make use of manufacturing castoffs as material for new clothing. As a result she reduced her ecological footprint by 20 percent compared to regular production with radical savings in the use of water and chemical treatments while still producing on a large scale. Traditional textiles are being reinvented in Estonia by a new generation of textile designers who are experimenting with new innovative solutions. Kristi Kuusk is involved with smart textile themes which are becoming increasingly popular. An artistically and technically high level of skill is demonstrated by textile designers who, in addition to traditional solutions, create “talking” and light conducting textiles; combine textiles with wood and concrete or old newspapers and even coffee packages - Monika Järg, Mare Kelpman, Annike Laigo, Kärt Ojavee, Elna Kaasik and Krista Leesi.

Estonia is also internationally renowned for its fondness for inventions and the extensive use of information technologies. Internet banking and m-payments (mobile payments, m-parking) are in common use; also e-parliament, e-elections, e-tax board and a digital ID-card. Estonia is creating a borderless digital society for global citizens as the first country to offer e-Residency. Companies like Skype, Playtech, Transferwise, GrabCad and Fits Me have become known around the world. In Estonia, internet accessibility is like a human right.

Estonian graphic arts historically also have strong roots and a distinct school of graphic design is developing. It has begun to shed a prevalent Dutch influence present due to the fact many of the designers studied in the Netherlands. Designers with a distinct style include Asko Künnap, Kristjan Mändmaa, Ivar Sakk, Jan Tomson, Eiko Ojala, Marko Kekishev and Indrek Sirkel. After recent education reforms, a generation of designers demonstrating a new way of thinking is emerging. Increasingly, the focus is on user-centred communication design (Disainiosakond), typography (Anton Koovit, Mart Anderson, Kristjan Jagomägi) and user interface design (Markko Karu, Velvet). Graphic design is primarily dominated by ad, branding and design agencies (AKU, Brandmanual, Der Tank, Identity, Creative Union).

Estonian Association of Designers created the Estonian Design House brand in 2010 with several showrooms and e-shop to give an unique display to 300 Estonian designers actively involved in design life and exports. The Estonian Design House presents a wide array of original design products from professionals and their manufacturers. In the work of Estonian designers and makers you will find northern coastal simplicity and chic, aesthetic beauty and functional quality – all brought to you with humour, user-friendliness and a mind for sustainability. A collection of Estonian design has been repeatedly displayed at fairs in Paris, Frankfurt, London and Milan and Venice Design Weeks and also been presented in neighbouring countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and different cities in Finland, in Germany, in France, also in St Petersburg and in China, Japan and the USA. “Estonian Design in Focus” was the first international overview exhibition of Estonian design, opening at the Helsinki Design Museum in 2000.

Thanks to extensive export activities Estonian product design is appreciated internationally more and more with each passing year. It has found its way into several exhibitions, fairs and the international market. Magazines like Elle Decoration, Dwell, Avantage, AD, Newsweek, Wallpaper, Monocle, New York Times and countless bloggers have published substantial articles about Estonian designers and their accomplishments. A narrative book by Michael Dumiak (a Berlin based American journalist) called Woods and the Sea: Estonian Design and the Virtual Frontier gives true picture about Estonia designers.

The Estonian Association of Designers (EDL) created the concept of Size Doesn’t Matter in 2014 to introduce Estonian design to foreign countries and present a cross-section of the contemporary design world in Estonia. It contrasts the smallness of the land, the density of its designers and the abundance of its achievements. Past exhibits included advanced industrial products and demonstrate the successful combination of a rich visual heritage with the very latest technologies and solutions. Size Doesn’t Matter concept has been exhibited in Brussels, Tallinn, Vienna, Stockholm, Caen, London, Paris and beyond.

In 2006, the association of designers launched the Tallinn Design Night Festival (Disainiöö). It was conceived as a 24-hour-long festival presenting Estonian design. It is now developed into an week-long international event where designers from over 25 countries have shown their work. At its core, the festival programme features exhibitions, competitions, educational lectures and workshops; it also presents fashion shows, PechaKucha nights, light installations and other fascinating events.

Ilona Gurjanova

Eesti Disainerite Liit MTÜ / Estonian Association of Designers

Eesti Disaini Maja / Estonian Design House