A Serbian and a North Macedonian graphic designer discuss Yugoslavian design as an inspiration for their work.
A legendary Yugoslav designer, Donald Niebyl, and Alexander the Great also make an appearance.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
Yugoslav design is one of the aspects of socialist Yugoslavia that continues to impact both public and private spaces in the region helping to preserve the memory of that disappeared country. I’ve already discussed architecture, World War II monuments, furniture, and movie posters on the show. Today I’m going to explore graphic design, an under-appreciated aspect of Yugoslav reality. There’s a handful of graphic designers in ex-Yugoslavia who draw inspiration from Yugoslav design.
My first guest hails from Serbia. Ognjen Ranković, no relation to the notorious Alexandar, is a graphic designer in Belgrade. I discovered his work on Instagram, where at yugo.logo, that’s Y-U-G-O-dot-logo he has posted nearly 300 logos of Yugoslav companies, with about 500 more to come (you can also find Yugo Logo on Patreon under the same handle). Ognjen’s other design work can be found under Oran Design on both Instagram and Behance.
PETER KORCHNAK: A legendary Yugoslav designer, Donald Niebyl, and Alexander the Great also make an appearance.
Ognjen Ranković: From Brutalism Photography to Yugoslavian Design
PETER KORCHNAK: Ognjen Ranković, you were born in 1991. You’re a street artist, photographer, and professional graphic designer. And a lot of your work is very much related to Yugoslavia. Walk me through your creative journey. What draws you to Yugoslav design?
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: I just always was more interested in what’s behind us then, what’s ahead of us, I’m just more more of analog than digital type of guy. So yeah, a lot of people call me hipster you know because I’m, I like vinyl and stuff like that. I always found that we, however, this may be sound cliche, we could learn from our past.
My formal education has nothing to do with the visual arts. Both of my parents, they were self taught designers they were making when I was kid, I grew up in a workshop, let’s say they were making lamps, they were making jewelry, they were making stuff that they later sold. And so yeah, I was interested, always interested in the crafts. But my first visual art expression was actually when I was in elementary school, I started doing graffiti. And I was always fascinated and interested by the street art or basically the world that surrounds us.
And after I finished the business school, I started doing photography as a hobby.
Today, I’m part of the team, which is behind the biggest street art festival in Serbia is called the Festival Rekonstrukcija. Yeah, I’m more man behind the whole thing. Because the thing is, my girl girlfriend, she’s a doctor of arts and she is really into muralism and, and wall art. So So yeah, it’s the when I started dating her, I just refreshed those, those interest in in three times as such. So I’m trying to contribute to the local scene and to build the local scene.
I always loved traveling. So I just finished some really basic course in photography, just how to use my camera and basically that’s changed my whole perspective and my goals. I wanted to capture my observations.
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Basically, I started doing photography. And shortly after that, I started learning graphic design from online courses, reading books, and just experimenting.
PETER KORCHNAK: You photograph brutalist and modern architecture. What inspires you about it?
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: I actually grew up and I’m still living in Banjica neighborhood, it’s part of Belgrade, which is, in my opinion, the urbanistic masterpiece. The whole neighborhood is really well planned. Each building is not each but most of them are really functional. Every building, every block has its own playground, and you have a lot of forests, parks. It’s [a] really great place to grow up. So me as a kid, I was really fascinated by my neighborhood, which most people would say is ugly. It is completely concrete. Five skyscrapers, the Military Medical Academy is also close by. I love my neighborhood. And I was really, really inspired by it. And I also always doing graffiti around that part. But you know, I know, me and my friends we never destroyed or vandalized anything we always try to do to add some colors to what other people may say it’s ugly, and there’s that gray color.
As I said, most people find it ugly, I don’t and I’m trying to present it in some nicer way. And what is interesting a lot of people are like, “Wow, where is this?” You know, people are so used to it, they don’t even pay attention, you know. I’m always trying to look [at] my city as, as I’m a tourist here.
I am trying to find the beauty in everything and then some meaning, let’s say. The fact is that Belgrade has a lot of, if not abandoned then neglected architecture that is actually falling apart and it’s no one’s responsibility, you know.
PETER KORCHNAK: Your photography, which people can find on Instagram at o.r.an, is heavy not just on brutalism but also abandoned factories and other abandoned or vacant structures. How did your photographic explorations inspire you to re-create Yugoslav logos?
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: Basically those two things were happening at the same time. While I was traveling the region and photographing, I was most always mostly photographing that socialist architecture, I started paying attention to the logos.
In 2017, I and my girlfriend started renting a small studio in [the] BIGZ building. BIGZ Building is Belgrade Publishing and Printing Institute. It was built in the 40s, it’s like [a] concrete castle, literally, and it’s another example of [a] neglected building is actually protected by the state but it is sold to the private owner who doesn’t have— It requires a lot of investment to repair the building because it is literally falling apart.
Timeless Yugoslavian Design: “Those Logos Will Always Be Great”
At that time I was photographing brutalist architecture, I was working from one brutalist building, and I’m living in one brutalist building. And most of those factories and stuff like that have the logos that is like peeling and falling apart. And for instance I wanted to find out who did the logo of BIGZ, and I started digging, digging, digging, and I found online and actually bought one monography [sic] from Miloš Ćirić, who is like the legend of Yugoslavian design. He made more than [a] thousand logos and the coat of arms and stuff like that. And with that book, which was published in 80s—it’s literally falling apart—I was like, so fascinated with that guy’s monography [sic], I was like, “Wow, this guy did a lot that I didn’t know that he’s standing behind.” And even though he’s, let’s say, [a] famous designer, a lot of other people also, “Oh, really Miloš Ćirić did this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. I didn’t go on [sic] the faculty of Applied Arts, maybe if I went there, I would know. So I was like, “Okay, this guy is legend. And then he doesn’t have the attention he deserves.”
Most of those logos in today’s standards are great. By all standards, they are very up to date, and they could be used, they’re even better than most of modern companies’.
I have his body of work, and I started thinking okay, “He was not the only one.” And while I was photographing abandoned factories and stuff like that, I also always photograph logos included in the factories. But I was like, “Okay, there is no much point just showing them, let’s pay the attention of [sic] the authors who are standing behind them.” Because, I mean, it’s timeless design, those logos will always always be great.
Nobody else did this because, you know, Yugoslavia fell apart and most people are pretending like Yugoslavia never happen, like it’s Yugoslavia’s fault that we are living today, which is total bizarre, in my opinion. It’s only our fault that we are living this way. We are living today in in in not not great countries. Everywhere except maybe Slovenia, which is all and always have been like 20 years ahead of other countries in the region.
So whatever the reason for that is, no one else wanted to take that job. I was like, “Okay, I think all these guys deserve and all these marks—” Because let’s say in 40 percent of time, I’m just unable to find the author.
I still want to preserve those symbols because they are like the part of more popular culture and they meant a lot to our parents and our grandparents and us as kids and they are now neglected and going in oblivion because they are no longer in use because most of those factories and companies no longer exist. And so I just wanted to, to save them, to not be forgotten.
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Honestly I expected to stop at hundred logos and then just like I did my part and this is enough I save the most iconic ones. But I’m actually working as a full time commercial designer and I’m getting tired and more and more tired of working for the clients and working on projects that I don’t support myself, I’m working them just so I can pay my bills.
And I’m doing all this stuff after I finish my eight-hour shift. I go home and I dig up logos and I just realized why wouldn’t I invest my time and energy in something that I support and I think it’s needed. I don’t need a lot so I decided to switch from commercial work and invest 100 percent of my time in those self-initiated projects and try to make also money out of it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ognjen has a lot going on in terms of these self-initiated projects. He and his girlfriend have moved out of the BIGZ Building to an apartment slash art studio in the center of Belgrade where they are creating a small showroom and gallery called Objekat 505, showcasing and selling works by local artists. Yugo Logo, too, will have some dedicated space there, with a limited-edition fanzine and a book, slated to be published in 2021.
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: I decided to stay here and not leave Serbia while I try to make this a better place, however, that may sound. We’ll try to to make that small gallery to support local artists. There is also going to be the section of that area will be dedicated to the Yugoslav design because I also think that deserves much more attention.
PETER KORCHNAK: Given all that you do that’s related to Yugoslavia, architecture photography, logos, what about the country itself? What does Yugoslavia mean to you?
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: Yugoslavia, well, I can say I’m Yugonostalgic obviously. We are today living in post utopian states. In my opinion, as someone who didn’t live in that time and don’t know what was the laws of it, I probably see it better than it was. When I compare how my parents and grandparents live, I wish I was in their position because I think their normal everyday life was much less stressful than what came after with wars and tensions and stuff like that. And even though my parents and grandparents they’re also not Yugonostalgic, you know, everyone knew this is not going to work forever is just sad the way it fell apart.
Yugoslavia is the dream that is over, not my dream but someone else’s dream for which I was born too late.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a quick peek at the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond and spend a good amount of time and energy writing and recording and editing to bring you the stories, interviews, and analysis two to four times a month. It is your support that makes this reporting possible. Ensure I can cover the next important story and keep the memory of the country that no longer exists alive by supporting me on Patreon. Please go to Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia and donate today.
Alright, back to the story.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
Zoran Cardula: From Russian Avantgarde to Yugoslavian Design
PETER KORCHNAK: If you are a regular listener of Remembering Yugoslavia, which I hope you are, or will become, you’ve already heard about the next guest. Two episodes ago—that’s episode “Ace of Spomenik Database” if you’re tracking— Donald Niebyl, creator of Spomenik Database, brought him up when we discussed the fetishization of Yugoslav World War II monuments.
DONALD NIEBYL: Some of the artists that I see that kind of portray the monuments in these kind of crazy futuristic spaceship perspectives are often people that live right there in, in the former Yugoslav region.
PETER KORCHNAK: Zoran Cardula [Kardula] is a graphic designer in Skopje, North Macedonia. A pretty well known one, too: to Ognjen, Cardula needed no introduction; another designer I spoke with said, “Cardula is one of the best designers from the Balkans.”
Yugoslavia-inspired or related designs represent a great majority of Zoran Cardula’s body of work. Predominantly they take the form of posters. You can find his work on Behance and Instagram under his last name, C-A-R-D-U-L-A. As with Ognjen’s photographs and logos, I’ve embedded some examples of Zoran’s work in the episode show notes and will be reposting others in my Instagram feed. You can also purchase some of Zoran Cardula’s work at Society6 or directly from him.
Zoran Cardula answered my questions via email. This is the story.
Zoran was born in 1967 in Kruševo, a small town some 120 kilometers south of Skopje.
“I lived during a good period in Yugoslavia,” he says. As a member of the Vlach or Aromanian minority, whose roots are in Greece and Albania and whose language belongs to the Romance group, he claims to have never had any issues related to his ethnicity or ethnic minority status in former Yugoslavia.
Indeed, Zoran’s relationship with Yugoslavia is, on the whole, very positive. He says, “People were happy, almost all were employed, traveled freely, with their own housing and not afraid for their future. Yugoslavia will always be a part of me, I am proud to have lived in it. I still feel close to the countries that came out of it.”
It is this positive view that underlies Zoran’s design work. He started out exploring the Russian avant garde and to this day designs posters and other works in the style of Soviet propaganda posters.
Though for political reasons this visual style had less of an impact on Yugoslav design than in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, Zoran’s interest soon shifted to design in his home country.
“Yugoslavia’s design [dominated] every segment of our lives,” he says. “It was a specific mixture of both Soviet and Western design, which resulted in a unique aesthetic.”
After 1991, Zoran was unhappy with the rejection of all things Yugoslav around the region, including North Macedonia. As a result he wanted to show how good Yugoslav design was, so much so it would not be out of place today.
He started redesigning visuals and promotional materials of famous Yugoslav brands. To date he has redesigned over 400 such posters he had found in old magazines or online. He says, “These redesigns are also meant to show respect and pay tribute to all designers that remained anonymous, most of them working in the factories and propaganda departments.” And though a lot of this work evokes nostalgia today, Zoran’s main goal is to promote the quality of the design.
Zoran’s Star Wars series was inspired by the connection or association between the film’s aesthetics and the brutalist monuments of the National Liberation War, the spomeniks. He says, “I have always imagined these monuments as part of a Star Wars scene. And I even believe that the monuments were an inspiration for these movie series.”
The spomenik in Kruševo, called Makedonium, has become quite recognizable around the world for its resemblance to a heart with truncated valves jutting out of it. I’ve also seen it used in coronavirus memes. The Star Wars series reimagines it as the interior of a spaceship used by Han Solo and crew and as a hologram Darth Vader shows to the viewer.
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Star Wars isn’t the only series that meshes up Western pop culture with Eastern designs. He has fused Western comic book heroes with Soviet posters, and Disney characters with Russian avant-garde film posters.
One of Zoran’s main interests in recent years are political posters, what he calls social design. “I am really actively supporting the fight against discrimination and nationalism and in every work of mine you can feel the influence of Soviet and Yugoslavia propaganda design,” he says, adding that, “As a designer and artist with Yugoslavian origin I always try to portray its heritage in my work.”
In the Skopje Brutalism series he critiques the Skopje 2014 project, financed by the government of North Macedonia to the tune of some 560 million euros by some estimates with the goal of giving the country’s capital a makeover in the classical or baroque style purportedly reflecting the country’s history. Some 120 monuments and buildings were built or refurbished in this, dare I say, revisionist architectural project. The most notorious piece is the giant equestrian statue of Alexander the Great in the city’s central square.
Zoran calls Skopje 2014 “a catastrophe that completely changed the look of [the city],” “a ‘rape’ of the city” with out-of-place styles, and “a symbol of corruption” he hopes will never happen to any city. His Skopje Brutalism series aims to honor that architectural style, which became prominent, if unrealized in its envisages scope after the 1963 earthquake that leveled the city, as something that “is very powerful, a strong combination of concrete and geometric shapes that with their shape and size leave you breathless.”
From commercial redesigns to illustrations of the monuments of the National Liberation War to portraits of the heroines or movie stars of Yugoslavia, a lot, if not most of his work is related to Yugoslavia in order to, as he says “remind my audience of something we had and have already lost.”
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Yugoslavian Design: A Snapshot of the Past, an Inspiration
PETER KORCHNAK: I am fascinated by Ognjen’s and Zoran’s work. Recreating or repurposing visuals of another time period brings it all to life. It is indeed fascinating to consider how many of those socialist logos don’t look dated at all, or how brutalist architecture from the 1960s fits right in with today’s aesthetic preferences.
And yet, there is a certain distance in all this work. I’m not talking about time, I’m thinking about the emotional distance, such as you may feel in a museum when you look at an exhibit presenting a bygone era. It’s back, in front of your eyes, but it’s never coming back into your lived experience (unless of course you buy Ognjen’s book or Zoran’s poster and even then it’s going to become just an aesthetic object). It’s a reproduction in the now of work created decades ago, it honors its memory, but it’s still something that has little practical use in your everyday life. It’s a memory come alive, but the most likely medium you will use to view it, your smartphone, is in itself very much a hallmark of this day and age. You’ll look at it for a moment or two and then it will be replaced and gone in the swirl of images you’re bombarded with by the second.
Me, I’ll keep looking and I’ll keep drawing much inspiration from people like Ognjen Ranković and Zoran Cardula who put their skills and passion into keeping a memory of another time and another place in the minds and eyes of people today. See you on Instagram.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: It very much immediately, but also in the long run, entrenched ethnic identities as the new normal.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s been 25 years since the Dayton Peace Accords cemented peace and division in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What has Dayton wrought and where do we go from here?
In the next episode, two Bosnian policy analysts bring a feminist perspective on the male-dominated peace agreement, political order, and international intervention in their country.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find samples and links to Ognjen’s and Zoran’s work, additional information, and a transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.