“We’re in the process of clearly defining what it is that we do and who we should talk to, as well as how and what to communicate altogether. In principle, we are interested in a wide context of design, since we, as a graphic designer with experience in photography and a product designer, are a strongly compatible combination.”
Life, creative, and business partners Dorja and Ivan Benussi, who together go by the name of Benussi & The Fish, welcomed us to their spacious and smartly designed apartment in Martićeva Street, where they live with their daughter Zima. The apartment doubles as a working space, as is often the case with creatives (and young apartment renters!) of the younger generation, and it is teeming with various trinkets (but also with not-so-trinkets) they treasure as memorabilia of the many places they lived in or travelled to, and the people they met. The working space of the apartment is a classic designer’s “cockpit” with two computers and a myriad of publications, whose titles quickly reveal the variety of the interests of this duo.
Bojan Krištofić: A common question to begin with – how did you two decide to live together exactly here?
Ivan Benussi: Before we met, I used to come to Zagreb regularly for some 10 years because I have some good friends here. To me, Zagreb and Belgrade are in fact one city. My friend Davor lives nearby, in Erdödy Street, so I know this area and have always found it okay. Architecturally, it reminds me somewhat of Gornji Dorćol in Belgrade, where I grew up, even though there’s no real analogy between the two. In Belgrade, that’s a central part of the town built at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s an urban area where something is always happening. We decided to move here exactly because this neighborhood was the closest to what I wanted in Zagreb – life on the streets and in the parks with a variety of activities on the side…We arrived just as the first Design District Zagreb was happening, so we got exactly what we wanted in its three days. But, besides the festival, this kind of action generally doesn’t happen, unfortunately. The hood should and could look like Design District during entire year. Overall, I think that Zagreb lives less on the street than Belgrade, which I began to love while living in Barcelona.
BK: I see a lot of interesting art in your apartment… Can you tell us something more about some of them? This painting, for example?
Dorja Benussi: This is a triptych by Ivan Marković, a dear friend of ours. Our apartment is full of his works which are mostly gigantic, so we can barely find a room which they deserve. But this time next year… Maybe we are going to get rich by selling ’em (laughs)! The photo you see next to the painting is by my longtime friend and bridesmaid Nives Milješić, which is my favorite work of hers and Ivan and I agree on this one. It’s a good example of a photograph which radiates. If you ask me, emotional engagement with a work of art is essential for it to flourish, whether it is a photo, performance or something else. I don’t want to read an artists’ statement to be moved by the work.
IB: Yes, Nives is one of the first photographers which I’ve noticed here, along with Mario Pučić. I saw his photos on several exhibitions. He didn’t do much yet, came to just a few exhibitions with his photos of architecture and sceneries, without people. He catches the color and the atmosphere well, sets the composition right… This is just my personal opinion, but it seems contemporary photography in Croatia is overwhelmed with purely conceptual approach, which I don’t find much interesting. I like strong stuff both visually and idea-wise, which is not an easy goal to accomplish.
BK: I’m aware of some projects that you two worked on, some together, some alone, but I don’t know all of them. How do you approach working together?
IB: We’re currently in the process of clearly defining what it is that we do and who we should talk to, as well as how and what to communicate altogether. In principle, we are interested in a wide context of design, since we, as a graphic designer with experience in photography (and an archeologist earlier in life) and a product designer, are a strongly compatible combination. At the same time we two began, I had the lucky opportunity to do exhibition room design, but I’ve never done any product design…
DB: We both found opportunities in other fields. But, if we go back to the start, I should mention I used to work in the Degordian agency, where I worked on digital design, that is, designing visual communications in general ― identity, branding, and the like… Only a few months ago did we set the foundation for our future work on our central project Tink Things, a brand of furniture for primarily children, which is a bit crazy since we just had a baby a while ago, but it was also necessary, since the project was crawling behind for two years. Of course, we had to work for a living at the same time.
IB: It’s just about that that we managed to sit and work again after stabilizing our living situation, I did, at least… So we thought that we should really structure everything now and put it on its feet. I was personally also prompted to do this because of the fact that the way people approach business and design in Croatia is a lot different than in Serbia, even though we’re otherwise quite similar in character, culture, and language… Still, Serbia is a jungle. It is very hard to do anything there, but I’d still kept myself relatively afloat, in spite of the circumstances. At least I didn’t have to do bad things. But, having moved here, I found that there’s a Croatian Designers’ Association that does something. There is something like it in Serbia, but there’s just a feeling here that the profession is given more importance, so there’s a severe difference from my perspective. This encouraged me to think differently about what I do, and I worked in different sectors, from civil to market…
DB: Of course, it can be hard in Croatia too, but it’s five times worse in Serbia, both in the civil and the market sectors.
IB: On one hand, people will treat you as a cog if you allow them – they will expect maximum attention from you and the highest quality in the product, as well as time invested, but when it’s time to pay, then there’s a problem, which is especially problematic if it happens in the NGO sector, in the sphere of human rights. Still, I focused in my work on the cultural sector. I have nothing against advertising, but it doesn’t interest me. Considering how much I learned during my life about archeology, cultural heritage, and similar things, I wanted to work with design in this way – I felt I could give something to that field, to the protection and nurturing of culture.
My minors were not about graphic design (while my master studies were), but as I slowly began to work, I learned how things work by reading… Everything takes a process. You have to know what and how to do, and you have to make a certain plan, and after that, everything goes much smoother. If you do an obvious mistake, you will be able to stand by it. If I did something wrong even though I thought about it in advance, at least there’s something to talk about, while otherwise, everything’s just on the level of form, which can really be anything.
DB: The point is that anything can, that is – must, look good. In that sense, the final product is almost unimportant. It is taken for granted that there must be a suitable form, but if it’s only about that, then there’s almost no design there. Anyway, the most important thing we’re working on right now is the previously mentioned line of furniture – the Mia and Ika chairs and the Cufi table are the first products of the brand. We’ve been working on it for two years, and we would have been working on it even if we had no money… But, we only just realized how much more we have to do besides just prototypes – project presentation, distribution…
We are having an exhibition in CDA’s gallery at the very end of May, and an online campaign launch to bring the project to EU countries. The focus of the exhibition will be showing the production process of our furniture, from the concept to the final product, of course. We feel that industrial design for pre-school children and young mothers in Croatia is an unexplored and neglected territory. It is mostly done by making smaller versions of adult products, which is nothing, and it could be anything! Generally, our plan is to support ourselves financially through our products, with occasional freelance work.
IB: Meeting the managerial part of the job for the first time is very interesting, and fun, to me. I’d like this project to evolve to the level of a small start-up, to expand a bit more and gather a crew of several people where I could be the creative manager. Regarding where we are going to work and how… We will get there. Our intention is to realize some other plans as well in the next three to five years. But, about that later.