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Taking local color global

In order to bring the country success, Hungarian designers must perform well abroad, often at the price of anonymity.

Some people measure success in profit, others in sales. Rita Halasi, founder and organizer of the Budapest Design Week, measures it in continuity. In an era of bankruptcies and business shutdowns, it sounds like a reasonable reference point.

The Budapest Design Week is being held for the eighth time this year. Despite the downturn, when spending on culture is usually considered a luxury, the event has managed to expand, although that is not something you could tell from the number of journalists present at the opening of the event. But as with success, Halasi also measures popularity in an unorthodox way. She focuses on the general public and the trade rather than purely on the media. Budapest Design Week is an excellent occasion to build the prestige of Hungarian design, as it showcases all the important players of the local scene, which is what the (international) media is interested in.  

Halasi’s main aim is to foster trust between the main actors of the design profession: designers, producers and consumers. Designing good objects is not enough to become a relevant economic factor. They need to be marketed, produced and sold with a competitive edge, she claims.

That does not mean that there is no media attention: hundreds of publications from around the world are represented at the fest-event, as proof of the organizers’ open mindset. The world seems to respond to that: international media response, as well as the number of foreign visitors is continuously on the rise. Given the competition, however, maintaining this is tough.

Almost at the same time as the Budapest events, design weeks are held in Vienna and Prague, two cities that have a history of rivalry with the Hungarian capital, and not only in terms of culture.

Building confidence between Hungarian designers and the market is just as difficult. “Almost 90% of the Hungarian economy is generated by micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises in volume terms,” Halasi said. “We try and explain to them that by employing a designer or selling goods with the added value of local design, they can become more competitive.”

She is optimistic. In the past 20 years a generation of consumers has grown up to whom design comes naturally. They have a visual culture that makes them seek out and buy these goods. But clearly, a bunch of design-eager consumers won’t sustain a whole country of designers. That is why Hungarians should, and need to, produce for the international markets from the very beginning.

“Unlike Poland, a country of 60 million consumers, which makes it possible for Polish designers to earn a name both at home and abroad, Hungarian businesses have trouble building brands even on their home ground,” Halasi said.   

For best practices, designers should look no further than the Budapest Design Week. It was the professionalism and commitment of the organizers that enabled the event to grow with limited resources and a handful of staff. “We have had the same modest budget for the last couple of years, from which we have been able to organize an increasingly bigger and more popular festival each year,” Halasi noted (see table on growth). With no significant increase in spend, media presence has grown fivefold and the number of programs has quadrupled since 2004.

Leafing through the pages of this year’s guidebook, a fourfold increase in programs seems little. Design tours are organized around some distinctive features of Budapest, such as wrought iron or stained glass, guided by renowned professionals. Open workshops help those interested familiarize themselves with the manufacturing techniques of some design products.

Couleur Locale, the main theme of 2011 designed to draw attention to the unique features of the country’s creative industry, offers a remarkably wide choice of pastimes. It is also the title of Design Week’s international opening exhibition, subtitled “The Colors of Europe in Objects”, which presents design objects from nearly 30 countries. The exhibition tries to answer the question of whether it makes sense to talk about national character in a globalized world.

Arkadiusz Bernaś, head of the Polish Institute in Budapest, believes it does. With a similar per-capita GDP level as Hungary, Polish design is more successful internationally. The country is the fourth biggest furniture exporter in the world after China, Germany and Italy. Some 80% of Polish furniture goes to exports and a significant part of it can be found in IKEA stores worldwide.

Bernaś cites the C’eed model of Korean carmaker Kia as a Hungarian example. “Kia’s new factory in Zilina, Slovakia cannot currently fulfill the orders for C’eeds. They have had to introduce three shifts to meet demand and employ extra workers, many of them Hungarian. This car is popular around the world thanks to its successful design, executed out by a Hungarian designer.”

There may not always be a nametag on the parts stating their origin, but the country and the local design industry definitely benefit from it.