Niko Kralj, the unknown famous designer

January 2012

Anthological exhibitions highlighting the lifetime achievements of an individual designer are extremely rare in Slovenia despite the fact that every time we speak about design we are actually speaking about our material culture that we experience on a daily basis and, in many cases, we also identify with.  In fact, we speak about the most tangible element of our material culture, which builds our environment and yet, because of its apparent self-evidence, it remains its most ignored aspect. It is for this reason that exhibitions that bring to light the individuals who are responsible for the excellent work that adorns our surroundings and ease our every day life are so precious.

And the exhibition of Kralj’s achievements aims to draw attention to this particular aspect. Our objective was to highlight the work of a designer whose products were all around us without us knowing who designed them.

Today, when we think of Niko Kralj, we think of his most famous chair – Rex.

Rex armchair, Stol Kamnik, 1953, kept by Museum of Architecture and Design. Photo: Domen Pal

However, at the same time the fact that Niko Kralj is an extremely creative author and pioneer of Slovenian industrial design is often overlooked. Kralj was born in 1920 at Zavrh pri Trojanah. When looking back over his professional career, it is important to note that his father was a joiner and young Niko spent most of his formative years in a joiner's workshop. After the Second World War and having played an active role in the national liberation struggle, he decided to study architecture. His professors were Edvard Ravnikar and Edo Mihevc, under whom Niko Kralj also graduated in 1952 in the development of seating furniture. Before defending his diploma and on the recommendation of Prof. Mihevc, he was invited to undergo training at the Stol Kamnik furniture factory, which soon developed into a regular employment relationship. There, Niko Kralj established a department of development and design, the first in the former Yugoslavia, and headed it up until 1960. In 1960, he was invited to become a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy for a newly established field of study (B). In 1966, he was made head of the Faculty's Institute of Industrial Design where he lectured and was engaged in research and design in the wood industry.

Niko Kralj – the pioneer of Slovenian industrial design

Lupina chair, Stol Kamnik, 1955-1959, kept by Museum of Architecture and Design. Photo: Domen Pal

In addition to a carefully chosen collection of his personal works, the exhibition shows, to a greater extent, the result of the research carried out on the Niko Kralj collection housed at the Museum of Architecture and Design.  The collection consists of around 60 units of the primary museum material (prototypes and final products) and around 400 units of the secondary museum material (rolls, maps, files, boxes containing plans, sketches, articles, etc.). In researching large quantities of material, a great deal of time has been spent since Niko Kralj kept his professional and personal material in one place.  The material has been roughly divided into two large groups that we can also see at the exhibition. They represent two main periods and the aforementioned jobs that Niko Kralj carried out. The first group relates to the Stol Kamnik factory and to the main focus of his work – the chair – while the second group relates to the Institute of Industrial Design at the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, where he worked until his retirement.

His opus has been divided into a project part and a theoretical part. The latter can be seen in the relationship between the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. We have established that Niko Kralj was an extremely productive writer on the subject of industrial design. The documents include over forty texts – mostly lectures and speeches – which have never been published. In this context, it is necessary to highlight that Kralj's publishing part needs to be read in conjunction with his practical work. Both parts form the integrity of Kralj’s design and at the same time reveal a thus far lesser known aspect of his thought.

While designing, Kralj always had in mind a user

Replica of Mosquito chair, Impakta, 2011, private property (the first prototype was made in 1953, but the chair was never mass-produced). Photo: Domen Pal

The texts help us understand his need for continuous research and the improvement of existing foreign and his own products. While designing, he always had in mind a user to whom he wanted to offer quality designed products at the most attractive price. Furthermore, Niko Kralj was the first professional and industrial designer in Yugoslavia, who already in his first year of activity set his creative mind on designing his most famous chair, the most renowned of his pieces today– the Rex chair. His Lupina chair is also well worth mentioning, as it is a particularly functional and durable piece of furniture and still used in a variety of public settings. As with Kralj's chairs and a number of variations of office furniture, our memory still keeps the furniture equipment from the seventies. We see it in practically every home.  We took the furniture compositions of Savinja, Javor, Dota and others too much for granted to think about the system which was developed for each assembly separately with extreme care.

Obviously, Niko Kralj, with his Rex chair in Slovenia, is one of the few generally recognised designers, but also the brains behind many ‘anonymous’ quality products that we have used or still use on a daily basis without realising who designed them.  So here an opportunity presents itself for us to put a name to the product.

Text by Špela Šubic and Barbara Predan / MAO, Sinfo, January 2012