Unknown Famous Designer was the name of Niko Kralj’s anthological exhibition highlighting the lifetime achievements of prolific Slovenian designer, architect and lecturer few years ago. I used it as title of this story because it perfectly sums up the relationship we have with pioneer of Slovenian industrial design – he was often overlooked. Nearly every Slovenian has encountered objects designed by Kralj – whether in kindergarten or school, in waiting rooms or municipal offices, at work or at home…He’s work was/is all around us without us knowing who designed them. So who was Niko Kralj and what is his legacy?
Milestone no. 1: Early Years
The fact that Kralj learned carpentry in his father’s workshop was very important for his professional career and later influenced his advocacy, both as a designer and a teacher, of shop work and direct contact with materials. After the Second World War he decided to study architecture. In 1952 he graduated 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 in Slovenia.
Rex (King in Latin) is named for its designer, Niko Kralj, whose last name also translates to King in Slovenian.
Milestone no.2: Stol Kamnik Furniture Factory
His training days developed into permanent position, and his years at Stol Kamnik became his prolific era. He was at his creative peak at that time. He was head of development and design services, the first in the former Yugoslavia. The purpose of the design office was to break through with one’s own idea and raise the level of design in the company and broadly at the national level. In 1957, he went on a six-month training course in Stockholm, where he became acquainted with Scandinavian design culture, which had a great influence on his approach to design and as a result on the development of design in Slovenia.
The most known Kralj’s work from this era is his series of wooden chairs – the Rex, the Shell, the 4455 – and many other products from the Stol Factory. Kralj also received numerous awards at international tenders and exhibitions, and he was still very young, aged 35.
Kralj developed the idea of plywood moulding and perforation further than the Eameses, by using it in a much more radical way. He took plywood that had been moulded in one direction and perforated it so densely with parallel cuts that it could also be moulded in a second direction. The form of the secondary moulding was determined and arrested by the two end laths using a shaped groove. This is how the basic shell of the Rex 120 chair was created.
Milestone no. 3: Lecturer Years and Innovation
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 in Slovenia. 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. He founded and managed Design Institute at the Ljubljana Faculty of Architecture; there he carried out several dozen research projects and contributed to the development of the theory of design. The most important achievements in the field of furniture systems include the Futura furniture system (1973), that became part of Slovenian history and collective consciousness. Systemic furniture was upgraded with modularly dimensioned furnishings, such as glass and ceramic dishes and pillows. Kralj applied for and registered 118 patents and models and produced 39 research essays. He was an innovator and inventor in various fields, but he particularly specialised in the construction and rationalisation of production. In 1975, he received the Boris Kidrič Fund Award for his inventions.
His design principles – seeking problems and functionality, innovativeness, interdisciplinary teamwork, the use of natural materials, especially wood, the use of new materials and new technologies and the adjustment to the needs of society – are still topical today.
Niko Kralj is the most significant Slovene designer of all periods. His role can be compared to the Aalto’s in Finland or the Eameses in America. Through their modernity Kralj’s chairs have come to represent a key part of the Slovenian cultural identity. His career as a designer is long and apart from several versions of the famous Rex armchair, it encompasses many other chairs, living room sets, wardrobes and furniture programs. Innovative solutions used by Kralj in the design of furniture and other products have contributed to the recognition of Slovene furniture industry and development of the culture of living in Slovenia. They are proof of the designer’s vast knowledge and the social aspect of his work. Because of timeless design, many of Kralj’s products are considered the classics of world design. His work can now be found in numerous places around the world.
But above all, Kralj was in favour of functionalism in the broadest meaning of the word: not only concerning the functionality of the product; he also pursued aesthetics as a function, in the belief that an aesthetic object affects the psyche of the user and thus their well-being, which he believed was also a certain type of function.
In order to preserve Kralj’s most important work and show the world the eternity of his great designs the production of this legendary furniture from 50s and 60s was revived under the brand Rex Kralj. The products are studiously loyal to Kralj’s vision. “We have not changed the original designs – they are our essence, we’d be crazy to touch them. There is a touch of handiwork in all the pieces, and plywood is essential to all our products. But we have modernised the finishing techniques, put great attention to many, often unseen, details and adapted the chairs to today’s requirements. We have also added new materials – oak, walnut, teak – to the collection to meet contemporary demands,” said Žiga Vrhovec from Rex Kralj.
Long live The King!
The article is a combination of excerpts, all photos are from Rex Kralj archive.
Shop Rex Kralj timeless selection