Mario Milaković, the founder of Yugodom, a stay over museum of mid-century modern Yugoslav design, discusses his creation, tourism, and Yugonostalgia.
A Young Pioneer cap, a red passport, and the Yugoslav Tootsie also make an appearance.
Episode Transcript (and More)
MARIO MILAKOVIĆ [GIVING A TOUR]: So, this is Lepa Brena’s corner, but’s also like a corner of few different things from 80s, one of them is Yugo car, that’s like Yugoslav made car in Zastava, in Kragujevac, which is another typical symbol of Yugoslavia.
Next to it is a clock from Sarajevo ’84, which is Sarajevo Olympics. Here we have this ashtray that’s called Biljana and it’s for like a powder for washing machine. It’s very kitschy.
We can have a stop by this plastic bag that I framed because it shows the department store of Yugoslavia and it’s [an] original plastic pack from then, made in Jugoplastika.
So, and Tito is here, like we already mentioned before. This is a very typical orange phone, this color is very typical of 70s anywhere, so… And all these things were, of course, made in Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Mario Milaković, giving me a tour of a one-bedroom apartment that’s part of Yugodom—
MARIO: —a guest house, or a stay-over museum, which is completely created as a tribute to Yugoslav design, cinema, and working class—
PETER: —which he created and manages in the center of Belgrade. During my most recent visit in Serbia’s, and formerly Yugoslavia’s, capital I stayed in a studio apartment that’s adjacent to the unit where he and I spoke and toured.
I am Peter Korchnak and this is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show that explores how the people of that disappeared country remember their former homeland.
In this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, I’ll talk to Mario Milaković about Yugodom, Yugoslav design, and tourism. A Young Pioneer cap, a red passport, and the Yugoslav Tootsie will also make an appearance.
I first asked Mario about the inspirations and motivations for Yugodom.
The Story of Yugodom
MARIO: My concept when I started the whole thing was that everything that is displayed here is made in Yugoslavia. Because it’s also a guest house, another thing that was important for me was that it’s comfortable for people, so, of course, we have air conditioner, central heating, wifi, comfortable mattresses, and things like this are obviously new, but all the chairs, sofas, credenzas and all the little objects that I displayed around, including the building itself, windows and the doors and stuff, everything is from Yugoslavia.
The reason why— there are actually [a] couple of reasons. First, I’m a big fan of mid-century modern design in general, so including the one that came from Yugoslavia and I wanted to do something that reflects local community and the local environment, like I didn’t wanna inspire myself as it is very common nowadays in Serbia to just replicate the concepts that already exist, like Paris, New York. I just thought it was kind of interesting and inspiring for me as a designer to find my inspiration just around me and also something that’s been part of my life.
I haven’t got to live in Yugoslavia too much, I was born there and I was eight years old when Yugoslavia fell apart. But this kind of furniture and design kind of continued to live with us, in our home, so it’s something that remained a bit longer.
PETER: Mid-century modern is all the rage these days…
MARIO: I like mid-century modern because it’s very esthetically— I find it, I just like it, and also in a sense of function: it’s very easy to maintain, it’s easy to move things around, and just the fact that these pieces are made in [the] 50s, 60s, few of them in 70s and they still live and serve its function. It just says it’s a very good quality, which we cannot really say for most furniture we buy nowadays, so, yeah…
PETER: Where did you buy all this stuff? I’d imagine you’re a frequent shopper at area buvljaks [flea markets]…
MARIO: Hm, the sources were just like, many different sources. As you already mentioned, “buvljaks” or flea markets; also few things we actually did have in our family. So, I first put that in; then I went online like different websites, like local version of eBay and stuff, but most of the stuff I did find in flea markets and kind of second hand shops, or just ads, like people sell the stuff of their grandparents or something they have for a long time in family, but they just want to change. So, yeah, it was a very long ongoing process that went on for a couple of years actually.
PETER: About the interludes in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia. I thought, why not intersperse a conversation about a place filled with objects Made in Yugoslavia with 1980’s commercials for products Made in Yugoslavia. To watch these, and many more, head over to YouTube and search for “Yugoslavia reklame.” This one is for the Day to Day medical toothpaste.
PETER: Before we met I asked if you could bring with you an object that you most associate with Yugoslavia. You brought a Young Pioneer cap, part of a Young Pioneer uniform. Why this cap?
MARIO: The reason is that I was, in a way, lucky to be a [Young] Pioneer because the last generation that got to have this experience were born in 1982, and I was born in 1983, and the only reason why I was able to be a Pioneer because I was born in the beginning of the year and my parents enrolled me one year earlier to school, so other people in this region who were born in 1983 or later they didn’t got the chance, so I kind of feel really super lucky that I got that, and it was just like moment of pride of every kid back then, so just, it’s a nice memory and I’m happy I kept mine all this time, that it didn’t get lost anywhere and now it’s exactly 30 years old.
PETER: Tell me, what do your parents think about Yugodom and your passion for Yugoslav design and well, stuff? They lived in the former Yugoslavia much longer than you, obviously…
MARIO: My parents are, of course, they like the whole story and everything around it, but in a sense of Yugoslavia they are very, very realistic, so I wouldn’t call them, neither myself, Yugonostalgic. They just enjoyed the times back then; things just changed and they had to adjust to new circumstances.
We were not in any sense privileged family during the Yugoslav times; we were like really, really typical middle class family which in reality meant—because we were not too big family or too underprivileged or over-privileged—for example, we never got an apartment from the country like lots of families. This is just a stereotype that everybody would get a house, it was not that easy as we like to think. So, who would get apartments? Either the people in power or really closely connected to the power, or the ones that were so underprivileged, but the ones who were in the middle, for them was actually like kind of the biggest struggle to gain any of these things.
But yeah, of course my parents always fondly talk about Yugoslavia and it’s also the time they met, when they spent their youth, but they are not fans of those typical stories that they met on one of these like youth work actions or whatever it’s called in English.
The Response to Yugodom
PETER: How do people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia respond to Yugodom?
MARIO: I would say that I got more reactions from abroad and internationally than locally, and when whole media attention started internationally and once when few significant media houses spoke or wrote about Yugodom, then kind of local media got interested. I mean, I never put any—neither [do] we have—resources in any sense that really work on PR. It just really came on spontaneously and we would just respond to it, like we met today; somebody reaches out and we just— I’m happy to meet anybody who is interested in Yugodom.
I think it’s kind of like what I mentioned in the beginning that it was really important for me to inspire locally and we often don’t really reach out to resource of our inspiration locally, but we kind of look at somewhere else, which is, of course fine, I mean either is fine; but also talks a lot about like a little… sort of almost complex we have nowadays here, that like we don’t really value we are not able to really value anything; like we are so focused on criticizing everything, there is so much to criticize, I am completely there, but also in this cycle of being really, really negative and cynical about everything people often forget about things that are actually valuable and even though there are so many things that were problematic with Yugoslavia, I found something that I like, and that’s design and that’s cinematography and that’s working class that I already mentioned as for me it’s like the people who are just a figure, or not even that, and that’s why I felt like it’s important that I give them a tribute, because on the end they made all these things we now sit on and use.
So, yeah, back to your question, I think it kind of like attention from the local community came once when was justified from the international one, so that’s kind of symptomatic, I think.
PETER: That said, I’d expect most of your guests are foreigners, and that of course includes myself. Where do your guests come from?
MARIO: Obviously most guests are international, usually that’s like, northern America, northern, western Europe, Australia; those are kind of like locations I would say 80 percent of our guests are, but also we have northern Africa, Asia, South Africa. I think by now— because now we run more than six years— we covered pretty much like, not every country in the world, but pretty much every part of the world.
PETER: And what about the locals?
MARIO: Even though, of course, there are not so many locals, there are, like really interesting stories when locals would actually come. I had this— I think they were even younger than me, they are a couple and one of them is in startup, other is in marketing. So they are not, I don’t think they are Yugonostalgic or anything, but it was their anniversary and the boyfriend wanted just to give a surprise to [his] girlfriend, he wanted to take her to [a] hotel or something like that, so they booked Yugodom for one night.
So we do have local people, some people who are actually very Yugonostalgic, that are from here or around here, then they book for one night, just for experience and seeing and kind of remembering the objects.
But booking for accommodation is not only thing we do. We also rent the place for smaller events, like we move the bed there and we just open the whole space and then it can accommodate up to 30 people, so we had quite a few of those. Also, sometimes place is rented for shooting, for like commercials or editorials or stuff like that, videos, so that’s another option.
Also, I leave option open when I’m available that people can book just for tour, like for an hour tour where I personally guide them through the space and talk about objects, usually it’s around one hour and then they pick up a drink from mini-bar, sit down and talk, so, there a quite a few options available.
Actually just these days we’re gonna have a visit from University of Belgrade, Faculty of Anthropology, I believe; they have a chorus and their teacher reached out and asked can he come and kind of have a live lesson here, so we are just now finding the moment convenient for both of us. So, yeah, it’s not so easy to be flexible because it’s a small space and then once when it’s booked, it’s booked, but yeah, we are open and very happy to meet anyone who is interested to come.
Yugodom: Not a Museum
PETER: When it comes to the material culture of the former Yugoslavia, the objects, the things made there and surviving til today, I’m interested in contrasting the kitsch and retro of it all with its politics. There are tour agencies that take tourists around in old Yugoslav cars, Yugos or Fićos, for example, giving tours of communist or Brutalist architecture, the House of Flowers and the whole Museum of Yugoslavia, so there is a political aspect to it, to varying degrees. And then there are people who still have Tito photos in their homes…
MARIO: When I started Yugodom, I really strongly wanted to avoid these very obvious symbols of Yugoslavia, such as flag, red star, Tito, because they are overused, I have seen them everywhere and I just thought: “Ok, this is more about design and more about storytelling.”
But, Tito you see here is a needlepoint, so it’s very kitschy, like his lips are done that they look like he has a lipstick on; the frame is kind of baroque style and these kind of needlepoints are very typical of those times and lots of them back then would spent their free time doing those, not only Tito—Tito was actually— I’ve seen many as a kid, but I never saw Tito, it was usually just some kind of nature, river, pastel and stuff like that, flowers. So for me that was more in that direction, but I didn’t want to be stubborn and be like “I don’t wanna Tito.” I thought this is hilarious and funny and kitsch and kind of very storytelling so I decided to have it.
Also I have Yugoslav passport— which for us, it’s in the place where you’re spending your time— so called “red passport”, as we call it and after that passport came 90s and sanctions which were very difficult; we were all of a sudden isolated so people really, I don’t know, almost idealized this passport because from the moment you could travel to almost any country, now you just wake up one morning and you couldn’t travel to any of it. So it took us long time to get back on the track that we can sort of travel freely again.
So, that was also like another political— but what I personally did, another that can obviously be interpreted politically, but it’s not so obvious as these symbols that we just talked about— are for example the movie posters.
We have in total three rooms and each room I dedicated to a different decade of cinematography. So the one you’re staying at is 60s; the one we are now are 80s and there is another one, 70s. So for example, 70s one is all tribute to movies from 70s that were banned by government, yeah, exactly, the one there, and the thing is, actually kind of the interesting thing is that these movies were funded by government, completely, and then when they were shown, then the government was like “Oh, my god, what did we give money for, so now you cannot show it,” so it’s kind of absurd and also many people think that these movies wouldn’t be able to be made today, that today’s government wouldn’t give money; todays probably sponsors wouldn’t give money because they are too provocative; also production houses wouldn’t give money because they are not commercial enough…
And the room we are in now is 80s and that’s kind of like tribute to cheesy comedies, which in kind of contemporary interpretation, each of them has some queer affect to it, which of course wasn’t obvious back then, but all those things are political.
MARIO [GIVING A TOUR]: We can have a look at the posters from [the] 80s they are all cheesy comedies made back in 80s, they are all kind of super well-known. Most people kind of neglect in their interpretation, like they all had some kind of queer context to it, so one of them has the first gay character in cinematography, another one has…a transvestite or like a guy who dresses up as a girl to go in—and this was instructed by his boss—so he checks the competition company, and of course they don’t recognize him. And in this third one all these things in today’s context would be like super problematic in the way they’re expressed, but it kinda just shows development of the society that things were a little bit opening up to that direction as well.
PETER: Yugoslav memorials—to which I’ll dedicate a number of upcoming episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia—have kind of blown up in the West, from Instagram to the MoMa, and the same goes for Brutalist architecture. But experts here critique this as aestheticization, as a kind of objectifying, you know turning objects into pieces of art to gaze at that were products of their time, signifying something, the ideology, or commemorating something like the National Liberation Struggle and those who died fighting in that war.
So here at Yugodom you have objects on display, or for use, that your guests will recognize in terms of the style or esthetic and as belonging to certain historical periods, but they won’t necessarily know or understand their context and meaning. So a Westerner may see a red star as a sign but not necessarily understand what it signifies and how Yugoslavia’s system may have differed from others, for example.
MARIO: The first thing I didn’t wanna do is put tags under each object, like I didn’t want it to look like museum, but I want it to feel like home, so that was not an option.
Writing a guide— it would be a really, really long guide and I don’t think anybody would really read it. And another thing is that objects change here, they are not always the same, like, for example, this one here, these postcards I kind of change, I don’t know, every two months or so or maybe seasonally. So, things are fluid. I don’t think there is like one compact guide that could really be kind of sustainable in a sense— but I’m very dedicated as much as I can, because this is obviously not the only thing I’m doing— just to kind of personally meet guests and I’m very happy every time I can either to greet them when they’re coming or when they leave, or if they just show interest we can meet during their stay. So yeah, I’m always happy just to have a dialogue and talk about things that interest them.
What you mentioned about “spomeniks,” I don’t really see that problematic at all personally because I just think that it’s important that somebody documented it and I think it’s better that something exists than nothing. People here often prefer just to critic[ize] when other[s] attempt to do something so I think that’s kind of [a] really awakening call for us; if somebody had to come from [the] U.S. and document, like why nobody from here did it?
Even on a very, as they say, superficial level which I don’t find superficial, and same about Yugodom. Anybody who comes here it’s not his duty to know everything about every object at all. So, everybody takes for themselves how much they want and need and whatever. So, people come here from Australia or New Zealand, for example, like from very far, and have no contact with today’s Serbia, or Yugoslavia, they are like 25 and they say this place feels nostalgic, you know. And it doesn’t feel Yugonostalgic, it just brings some emotions to them, reminds them of their home, of their grandma in Australia, who was not from Yugoslavia, but it’s a mid-century modern design here, it’s a bit mid-century modern design there, so everybody takes— You know, I wouldn’t be so rigid on judging the others, there is never just one way to interpret things.
The Commercialization of Yugonostalgia
PETER: One thing I’ve noticed on my trip so far, through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia, is that, apart from flea markets, it’s impossible to purchase objects from the Yugoslav era or their replicas. Which to me suggests Yugoslav stuff, so to speak, hasn’t been commercialized a whole lot, in the way of vintage shops.
Until I came to Belgrade. The gift shop at the Museum of Yugoslavia is now several times the size I saw in 2013 when I visited. The Blue Train organizes ticketed trips for big anniversaries. I already mentioned the car tours…
Why do you think that is, why has Yugoslavia and Yugonostalgia been commercialized here in Belgrade so much more than in other ex-Yugoslav capitals? Why does Yugodom exist here and not in Zagreb, say?
MARIO: Well, it’s a super complex question and it’s much wider than two of us can cover here, we could really include a round table in probably hours of discussion, but few things that are coming to my mind instantly.
First of all, Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia. So, it’s the biggest city of the former Yugoslavia. With these two things being said, it explains a lot, like the museum that you mention just existed before and it exists nowadays; it would be very sad if we just shut it down or turn it into something else. Tito’s grave is right next to it. It’s good these things are preserved. I guess it was a challenge during the nationalist 90s and nationalism is still very alive, so I guess they struggled and as every institution of culture in this country they do struggle, but they are very enthusiastic and they work a good job.
I’m sure if this kind of place existed in any other city or town of former Yugoslavia, I’m sure it would still be alive, it would be the same thing, it just happened it is in Belgrade.
Yugodom itself could exist even if Yugoslavia existed nowadays, because it’s a tribute of [a] certain era of design. So even if Yugoslavia— maybe it wouldn’t be necessarily interesting to call it Yugodom, maybe it would have another name, maybe it would be just the Museum of 60s, 70s, 80s, whatever— but in exactly the same form, it could exist.
PETER: I was actually going to ask about that, why is it called Yugodom if it’s the tribute to just design and not the country?
MARIO: I didn’t do anthology of design, I didn’t do anthology of Yugoslav history; this is a personal designer project and I had no duties over anything that I had to—so I just play with the stuff that I personally felt attached to or I find inspiring.
So, the name itself, back then lots of different companies would be Yugo- something; so if they made plastic they would be Yugoplastic; if they work with wood, they would be Yugodrvo, which means wood. So, there was no— I mean, actually, yeah, it did exist, few different small companies around called Yugodom that were either like producing stuff for households, but they all are shut down as most of these Yugo- something. So, yeah, but also I think that the same inspiration had a Dutch guy who opened here company that are also doing cars, it’s called Yugotour, so, yeah, it’s basically the same pattern that we used.
PETER: Given Yugodom’s success, do you have plans to expand it, add apartments or even houses perhaps?
MARIO: There was kind of a breaking point where the thing was growing and I thought of expanding, but I realized I don’t wanna do another apartment or just apartments. This size I can run by myself and two more people and we all work part-time— one of them is cleaning lady, other one is the manager—
So I didn’t want to expand in a sense that I need to manage the whole team, but I would like to— one day, if the opportunity comes along and this actually does serve as a prototype of my wider idea and that’s a Yugodom hotel, which would be completely, like entire building from the era, completely tribute to design and being comfortable at the same time, but also fully inspired by Yugoslavia, but also very aware of the moment and of the time we’re living in.
And also what I would like that hotel to have—and that would be different from typical hotels— is that it actually has one area that would be like a museum, where people could visit, like experience [a] typical Yugoslav apartment, apart from staying in the Yugodom hotel or not.
So, that idea is kind of like developed, yeah, we’re just waiting for the right opportunity and the right setting, we are not rushing, but I completely believe that Belgrade and the region would really enjoy and needs one space like that, because, again, going back to the story, we have almost every few months another hotel opens, but they’re all part of some world chain, which is great, I mean economically, it’s sends some statement, but in a sense of developing something original, creative, local, it doesn’t really say anything, so…
MARIO [GIVING A TOUR]: Yes, now we are in the master bedroom. Let’s move here… I made one part of the bedroom that is a tribute to Yugoslav aviation. So, one is Aviogenex, which was like the Genex, the building that you mention, which is the symbol of how powerful they were as a company, and also there were tourist company, so they were so powerful that in one point they were like “oh, we have so much money, let’s buy some planes” and then they did what they did, they were kind of like the company that would rent these planes to different airlines when either their plane breaks or they need more, so they would sent entire crew, plane plus the pilots plus the flight attendants and everything. Of course, Aviogenex doesn’t exist any longer.
Another thing that doesn’t exist any longer by its name is JAT, which Is Yugoslav Airline Transport company, nowadays Air Serbia. And I have few objects here that are from JAT like a little tray that was used on airplanes; keychains with its symbols that were given to employees; then for overseas flights, they had, of course, as we have nowadays, the little— how you call it— kit with all the… comb and toothbrush and stuff so everything is included; yeah TV, radio with a clock…
Also obviously one of the things I did cover a little bit through the Yugodom is sexuality. So like these little frames that we are standing now in front of, are the pinup girls from [the] 70s and there was a magazine that was going out once a month and in the middle of it you would get like eight of these girls that you could cut and then just these are those photos. And also above there are these love postcards, which I never completely understood, because that’s how they “worked,” you could buy a postcard at a kiosk and you write to your loved one, but on the photos are some other people that you don’t even know, so it doesn’t make any sense, but it was an actual thing…
PETER: When my stay at Yugodom came to a close, I walked down to the street feeling as though I left a time capsule in the middle of Belgrade…only to enter another when my bus crossed the Sava River to New Belgrade, a vast development built up since the late 1940’s. As I got off at Hotel Jugoslavija, built on the Danube in the 1960’s, and walked to the best burek fast food joint in town, I knew I’d return, as I always do, to continue my journey across space and time. I’ll send you a postcard.
PETER: Find links, photos, and videos referenced in this episode in the show notes and subscribe to the podcast at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Transcript by Zorica Popović. Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Special thanks to Rebecca Schlessinger.
I am Peter Korchňak.
Additional Resources About Mario and Yugodom
- “This Vacation Rental is a Living Museum of Midcentury Eastern European Design,” Dwell, 8/10/2015
- “YUGODOM, BELGRADE: RETRO ROOMS THAT MAKE THE GRADE,” The Independent, 9/22/2015 – “The two-bedroom flat in Belgrade’s Dorcol district is on the first floor of a bland-looking low-rise building that housed army families in the 1960s. Inside is a social history of Yugoslavia told through its vintage furniture, decor, artwork, kitsch holiday souvenirs, books and even a display of vintage bathroom products. It’s all very stylishly done; its light and airy rooms certainly have much more flair than anything I remember from my first visit to Yugoslavia in the Seventies. In a way, it’s also poignant – a visual representation of a country that no longer exists.”
- “Promenila je mnogo imena, obnavljala se dvaput i formalno više ne postoji, ali ovde JUGOSLAVIJA I DALJE ŽIVI,” Blic, 4/12/2018 – [Founder of Jugodom] Mario Milaković is determined to keep alive what the politicians failed to. “Jugodom…is now the place where you can visit a country that no longer exists.”
- “Nostalgia Keeps Yugoslavia Alive A Century After Its Ill-Fated Creation,” Radio Free Europe, 12/2/2018 – “Mario Milakovic has managed to keep something alive that politicians couldn’t. The 35-year-old designer founded Yugodom, a stayover museum in Belgrade that allows visitors to see and feel a slice of what life was like in a country that is gaining popularity in its afterlife. One hundred years after the country’s creation in 1918, Milakovic’s venue is now one of the few places where Yugoslavia still exists.”