Looking at the early history of industrial design in Bulgaria, we can highlight numerous links to other phenomena in the country – from party politics to technological innovations, periods when the economy contracted and expanded, to how different individuals and institutions shaped professional communities.
The history of Bulgarian industrial design is inextricably linked with the way in which the Comecon (the main economic organization of the countries of the Eastern Bloc) operated after it was founded in 1949. In 1963, the first meeting of member nations on the "problems of industrial aesthetics" took place in Warsaw. According to the publication Achievements, Appearances, Publications 1963 - 1988 published by the Central Institute of Industrial Aesthetics, this was the first step towards the introduction of this kind of design in Bulgaria in accordance with established standards and strategies. Documents from that period refer to it as "organized design” and it covers all aspects of visual communication – a "Center for New Merchandise and Fashion" was also created.
"In 1963, the Council of Ministers issued a decree "On improving industrial aesthetics in the NRB.” This is how the State Commission on Industrial Aesthetics and the Central Institute of Industrial Aesthetics (CIPE) were created, an Industrial Forms university track was established, etc.,” says Prof. Dr. Dimitar Dobrevski, who finished a degree in Industrial Design in 1979, and then got a PhD in Art History and Fine Arts, and currently teaches at the National Art Gallery in the Department of Industrial Design.
“Everything that happened or was organized in the 1970s and 1980s had to follow the planned economy of the Comecon.”
A system for encouraging professionals in individual fields was quickly established. The Golden Hands award was first awarded in Plovdiv in 1964, the first students in the Industrial Forms track began their studies, and the first general exhibition on mechanical engineering design opened that year.
Professionals in this field climbed the socialist ladder – Bulgarian representatives appeared at industrial design conferences in Warsaw in 1966, in Moscow the following year, and at an international symposium in Tbilisi in 1968. Another official form of recognition follows – the exhibition Bulgarian Industrial Aesthetics in Moscow. The relationships between the countries behind the Iron Curtain also led to educational exchanges – a large number of specialists in the field over the next two decades graduated from schools in the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, GDR. "The ratio of students in Bulgaria and abroad was approximately 1 to 10," recalls Prof. Dobrevski.
A leading figure in the early years of industrial design was Dobrolyub Peshin, born in Ruse in 1936, who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts where he created decorative-monumental paintings, and later became part of the newly established Center for Industrial Aesthetics in 1964. Four years later, he specialized in Italy at the design offices of Olivetti and IBM. His most famous professional successes are from the 1970s and 1980s. He was the head of the team (which included Alexander Vasilev and Boryana Glavleshka) which designed the Bulgarian electronic calculators and cash registers Elka (1973-1974), a brand that even made its way to Japan after an Elka prototype appeared at an exhibition in Osaka in 1970.
In the 1970s, the government has an increasingly favorable attitude toward design: an order of the Central Commission of the Bulgarian Communist Party named the field of design as falling under artistic culture, which led to the creation of the National Center for Industrial Aesthetics (1972) and an increased focus on interior and fashion design, packaging design and an emphasis on the visual elements of the urban environment.
In the early 80s, Peshin also worked on the Pravets series of personal computers, as well as on products and sets produced by SO IZOT and SO Microprocessor Systems, jointly developed with the Central Institute of Computing Technology, the Institute of Information Technologies and BAS. In 1974, Boyan Kachulev presented a prototype of an “electrophotocopier,” and Raina Dragoshinova and Rumen Kiskinov – “a series of command buttons.”
In 1976, Peshin, Glavleshka and Vassilev showed their work in an exhibition in Sofia, and a few years later Peshin began working on Pravets; the wide distribution of computers began in 1983. Although it’s difficult to find the exact numbers, it is estimated that in the 1980s 300,000 Bulgarians worked in electronics and technology manufacturing, with annual incomes reaching 8 million rubles. The rise of the computer industry and the production of appliance parts stalled with the financial crisis following the fall of the regime in 1989.
In the 1980s, Bulgarian industrial design (and especially electronics design) increasingly ventured beyond the borders of the Eastern Bloc and visited symposia and exhibitions. In 1980, the Centre Pompidou in Paris presented the exhibition Designing with electrical computing machines in the field of visual design and architecture, and representatives of all the Comecon countries visited Varna for the conference “The role of design in developing the economy and culture of socialist countries.” In 1981, Bulgarian leaders visited Helsinki, and in 1982, they visited Brno (then Czechoslovakia) and Dessau (GDR, at the Bauhaus university, which inspired the movement of the same name earlier that century).
“At the time, we designed electronics because this is the sector that was supposed to grow in our country. General art exhibitions (OHI) were organized by the Union of Bulgarian Artists, and one of them was dedicated to Design in Electronics,”
In 1985, Bulgaria was part of the exhibition Design for a Socialist Society in Moscow. In 1987, the Design in America exhibition was organized in Varna, presented as part of a new exchange between NRB and the USA. Peshin remained a leading name in industrial design until 1990, and according to AMuseum.bg data, in 1988 he presented the design of another Bulgarian computer – Paldin 601, manufactured in unknown quantities by the Factory for Sensors and Sensor Devices Factory (ZSSU) in Plovdiv until 1992.
In the early 1980s, designers increasingly turned their attention to logos, fonts and elements of the urban environment, which led more coverage in industrial design publications of the graphic aspects of the field. Although most of the logos from that era are now defunct, there are some well-preserved signs of state-owned enterprises and institutions that have not been changed in decades.
In the last decade, there is increased interest in the work of Stefan Kanchev (1915-2001), who gets periodically rediscovered, though he was widely renowned when he was at his zenith:
"Kanchev's art seems like a completely natural and normal part of public life in the country (...) his signs are preserved on every corner, and his impressive postcards, original book covers, fonts and posters are absolutely everywhere," writes Evgeny Atanasov in an article for the 1982 issue of Interpressgraphic magazine.
The role of design as a tool for imposing socialist ideas seems to have been at its most effective in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1981 issue, a review of an exhibition in Plovdiv discussed visual and technological innovations, but also praised how the exhibition was "a step forward in connecting social management to creators of artistic culture.” An anthology issue of Design magazine from 1982 focused on the "upbringing and education" of professionals and how they should contribute to the "socialist living environment."
This change in tone has to do with the fact that technology is part of daily life and the home sphere, and thus designers have a growing responsibility towards the society that the regime wants to build. Specialized publications often talk about socialist life, homes, and everyday tasks. This also affected the focus of the publications: a publication by the Institute for Industrial Technology from 1986 was devoted entirely to home video and audio technology.
From today's perspective, visual design between the 60s and 80s serves as a symbol of unrealized ideas in a larger context, the difficult balance between government control, creativity and imitation, new discoveries and the absence of a market where they could be fully established.