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20 Hours in Sofia

Blocks of social housing. Photo Michael Marriott

Blocks of social housing. Photo Michael Marriott
Water Tower. Photo Michael Marriott

Water Tower. Photo Michael Marriott

16 June 2011
by Michael Marriott

Michael Marriott travelled to Sofia for the Design Week supported by the British Council.  The theme for this year's festival is 'Design Is All Around' - 10-18 June 2011.


Left home at 6am to arrive in Sofia with a little time to look around the Central Mineral Bath House before my workshop started there at 1.30pm. At the airport I'd met Nelly Ben Hayoun, also there to deliver a talk & workshop via the British Council, so we explored this fantastic crumbling old building mid way through restoration, housing three or four small exhibitions as part of the city wide event; a really nice café set up as a backdrop to a show of young Austrian designers, with a handful of sweet intelligent products on display. A kind of pointless show of swish Italian furniture from the big manufacturers by the likes of Philippe Stark and Karim Rashid. Refreshingly beautifully and simply displayed, but essentially a smattering of some of the industries excess'. Upstairs a much more spirited show of young Bulgarian design, including pieces from one of the events curators, ex RCA graduate Valentin Vodev. Beautifully installed in a series of tiny brick rooms, completely dusty and un-restored.

My workshop consisted mostly of design students or young graduates, each asked to bring an (un-designed) object along for discussion. After going around the table discussing each object and it's aura in turn, I became aware that most of the objects were circular in one axis, and asking to be stacked, in to something more like sculpture? It looked convincing. A bit Tony Cragg? Might need further investigation at some point.

After the workshop came to an end, we headed off to see an exhibition in a disused water tower in the south of the city. Nelly, plus Bouraka & Krassi, who were part of the organising team, Johanna, a London based writer we'd bumped into, and myself all piled into a small yellow Skoda taxi.

Arriving in a very different part of town, and passing blocks of social housing punctuated with occasional post independence tinted glass commercial buildings, raised a discussion of the relative merits of these building types. I told Krassi, from the Bulgarian BC office the story of how we'd had similar social housing schemes in Britain that were once hated but are slowly falling back into favour, and what I felt determines these things. I'd included a small discussion of Ernö Goldfinger in my presentation, so it was all in the front of my mind, and I was interested to try to understand the feelings of a local.

Anyway, moving on, we went up the water tower, almost completely obscured by ivy on the outside. Inside it was essentially a tall white cylinder with an elegant circular stone staircase pausing every three metres or so, to show of the ideas of another group of young Bulgarian designers called Cherga. More spirited projects in a fantastic ex-industrial setting. Outside, on the grass, were a series of stalls, one serving very very nice Bulgarian beer, and some live music from young men wearing dresses.

After this a caravan of taxis took us back into town, for a delicious meal; mostly Italian, delivered on large platters, at a very nicely relaxed pace.

After that, most headed off to a bar, I somehow managed to not go along, (5am start / new dad?) Nelly joined me as she had a presentation to finish off. So another, shorter, cab ride, and straight to bed for me.

Next morning; breakfast, where Alex & Jerome from Design Marketo joined us, plus Johanna, then the three Rich, Brilliant & Willing guys from the States, who we'd met at the dinner. Nelly & me headed to the Military Club Main Hall, the venue for all the events'  talks. Quite fancy for a military building? crystal chandeliers, pink walls and lots of gilding.

I was first up, so after a bit of technical discussion (usb sticks, macs, pc's, and adaptors), a quick intro, then I made my presentation. Seemed to all go ok, but only got questions from Valentin!

After that, I caught half of the next presentation from Some Vienna based graphic designers, bought some beautiful hand knitted thick wool booties for the boy in a little street market (5 Lev), then straight off to get a cab back to the airport.

Twenty hours went fast, but nevertheless managed to fit in quite a bit, and see quite a lot. Wonderfully hospitable people, lovely energy around the event, felt like a good size, unlike so many design weeks, that have got too corporate around the middle?