More than ten years ago Nauris Kalinauskas created a folding chair "Mutabor” out of solid cardboard plate. Photo © Nauris Kalinauskas
Three chairs and the Lithuanian design
by Norkus Vaidas
Jul 12, 2013

Lithuania? Yes, a tiny country near the Baltic sea. And no, we do not call Riga as our capital, because Vilnius bears this earned title. No, Lithuanian language does not have any similarities with the Russian language. Though yes, the forties and the older generation still understands and speaks Russian quite well, because in the secondary school it was compulsory to read passages from Dostoevsky‘s novels and to learn Pushkin’s poems in the original language.

These are probably the most popular questions about this small country in the geographical periphery of the European Union that have to be answered by the Lithuanian themselves. The question about the Lithuanian design, unfortunately, is not included into the list of the most popular questions. But is it still a contemporary issue?

In the early 1990‘s the three Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – holding their hands tightly, declared their independence, joined the European Union at the same time, but the idea about the united Baltic region has almost vanished in the air. Therefore, the talks about the national design of the countries in this region should also be separated. Estonia due to its cultural mentality is the closest to the Scandinavian countries. Lithuanians like friendly jokes about the supposed slowness of the Estonians, who, on the contrary, are the fastest in chasing the other modern European countries. Philosophy, aesthetics and functionality of the Estonian design most closely resemble the Scandinavian style. Lithuania and Latvia are neighbors with languages belonging to the same Baltic group, however, today one third of the inhabitants of Latvia have Russian nationality and this fact has quite significant influence on the state’s cultural and economic development. So the Latvian industrial design also has the signs of that exaggerated emotionality, stylistic surfeit, which is more characteristic to the Slavic cultural tradition.

Lithuania is home to more than 80 percent of Lithuanians, it has a maritime border with Sweden; however, it is also the furthest from Scandinavia. Still due to the modest form of expression, purpose philosophy and respect for the traditions Lithuanian design has some similarities with the Scandinavian one. Designers themselves would add that Lithuanian design is much more emotional, warmer and more ironical than the Scandinavian style. Lithuanian and Scandinavian design has the same roots in traditional crafts, but the Lithuanian industrial design has been evolving since the second half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, today Lithuanians still do not perceive design as an integral part of their lives and as an inevitable condition for the quality of life, as it is in Scandinavia. Two decades of independence only prove that it would be unfair to blame the Iron Curtain only, as at that time Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Today woodworking and furniture industry is one of the most important industrial branches in Lithuania. Technological opportunities of the Lithuanian companies make them strong competitors to the companies in Western Europe. This is one of the reasons why more and more European furniture manufacturers, as well as the Scandinavian companies, prefer the Baltic States, including Lithuania, instead of China.

However, relationships between the Lithuanian furniture manufacturers and the local designers are still quite cold, despite two decades of independence. Furniture companies are satisfied with the profitable production contracts with the foreign countries or companies, such as Ikea, for example. They describe local market as too small for the creation and production of authentic design objects, therefore long-term investment into the production of value-added goods and competition in the international markets seems to be a longer and a more risky way, which requires a lot of investments and is chosen only by a few strong companies.

At the moment household objects, such as furniture, illuminators, interior accessories and details are the best representatives of the Lithuanian industrial design. 70 percent of the Lithuanian territory is afforested, therefore it is natural that wood is the most popular material for creative people and designers. Most design goods created in Lithuania are more authentic than have the features of mass production. Most of the products are oriented into a local niche market, therefore the future has no optimistic tendencies.

It is really difficult to explain, why Lithuanian designers are so fond of creating chairs. Designer Mindaugas Žilionis once said that creation of a chair for a designer equals the creation of a church for an architect. Lithuanians are persistent and non-stopping creators of multi-purpose chairs – from stools to rocking chairs and armchairs. And of course, in nine cases out of ten the Lithuanian design chair is wooden.

More than ten years ago perhaps one of the most famous designers Nauris Kalinauskas created a folding chair “Mutabor” out of solid cardboard plate. It is not wooden, but made out of paper – material close to the latter. In Lithuania the chair „Mutabor“ still enjoys the glory due to its incredible cheapness. On the online shop of the producer it costs only 18 Euros, and in Lithuania it is even cheaper. Authentic design objects have objective price, but they are also too expensive to the Lithuanians – this is one more important reason, why most of them ignore contemporary design. This chair always leads to two questions from the buyers. The first one has got the answer already due to its cheapness. The second one concerns its stability. The chair can withstand a weight of 100 kg, but maybe due to the non-stopping questions about its stability the designer has created a metal version too.

Young designer Paulius Vitkauskas has created the first prototype of the rocking chair „Ku-dir-ka“ from plywood in his own kitchen. The designer has broken certain stereotypes about the appearance and purpose of the rocking armchair. The legs of the armchair can be fixed in the sitting position; therefore it is comfortable for swinging, as well as for working or dining. It is probably the most popular Lithuanian chair, which has travelled across the most prestigious international design magazines and internet sites. Vincas Kudirka – a public figure of the nineteenth century and the official author of the Lithuanian national hymn – could not have ever imagined that this rocking chair would make his name so popular in the world.

“Spina” (“Lock”), created by the designer Mindaugas Žilionis, is not concrete furniture, but a unique profile instead. Interlocking them together it is possible to form not only a very comfortable deckchair, but also a coffee table, a partition, a bench or even a bed. Though this idea, presented by the designer a few years ago, it still is waiting for its glory hour.

These three chairs reveal the originality, creativity and potential of the Lithuanian design. But still there is a doubt whether it will be discovered in the global world. But maybe it is not necessary, as in the 21st century the main question concerns your personality, not your place of origin.

"July” by Zilvinas Stankevicius. Photo © Zilvinas Stankevicius
"Mutabor M” by Nauris Kalinauskas. Photo © Nauris Kalinauskas
"Pirst“ by Dalius Razakuas stands on the carpet "Rug“ by Nauris Kalinauskas. Photo © Dalius Razakuas
Don’t be afraid of conventions: Rocking chair "Ku-dir-ka“ by young designer Paulius Vitkauskas. Photo © Paulius Vitkauskas
"Mutabor Table” by Nauris Kalinauskas. Photo © Nauris Kalinauskas
The components of "Spina" (Castle) can be combined differently. Photo © Mindaugas Žilionis
"Spina” by designer Mindaugas Žilionis is not concrete furniture, but a unique profile instead. Photo © Mindaugas Žilionis
Though this idea, presented by the designer a few years ago, it still is waiting for its glory hour. Photo © Mindaugas Žilionis
"Pixel” chair and table by Nauris Kalinauskas. Photo © Nauris Kalinauskas