Interior of FAINA gallery in antwerp

Contemporary Ukrainian Design Put to the Test

Standing for the resilience of an entire nation, the work of Ukrainian creatives exudes spirit and soulfulness.

The stories told by Ukrainian architecture and design reflect the country’s history. Beginning with the ancient Greek period, the Tatar-Mongol invasion in the 13th century, to the cultural oppression by the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries and the modern age, material culture of Ukraine illustrates the awakening of a strong national consciousness.

A rich pool of creative talent shapes this awareness and has placed Ukraine in the top 50 in the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index in 2021. According to its website, the index, which draws on 81 different indicators, is “a formula for measuring an economy’s innovative capacity and output.”

Architect and designer Victoria Yakusha says that Ukrainian design started to evolve rapidly after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the year she founded her studio FAINA.  

The studio, which opened a branch in Antwerp, Belgium, at the beginning of the year, follows a “live design” philosophy, which is anchored in the reverence for the earth and ancient craft.

“This primitive-modern aesthetic, showing a respect for roots and traditions, became part of the identity of modern Ukrainian design and how the world perceives it,” says Yakusha.

“I think this tradition of returning to roots will only deepen in the future.”

Yakusha explains that 2014 was a moment of self-identification for people across Ukraine and many new names emerged in the design industry.

A bar cabinet in white plaster material that looks like broken cement
PANOPTIKUM DESIGN’s BreakFree collection emphasizes “brutal materials,” an aesthetic apparent in this bar cabinet made to look like blasted concrete. COURTESY PANOPTIKUM DESIGN

“Our visual codes and design language are different: they aren’t minimalist as the Scandinavian and not so emotional as Italian design,” Yakusha says about her industry’s defining features.

floor lamp made of dark wood discs

Black cherry wood floor lamp НС7 by Michael Samoriz

With this handmade piece, Samoriz pays tribute to the traditional Hutsul wood carving craft. It embodies the understanding of beauty and goodness, and a life-affirming worldview.
Samoriz currently serves in Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

wooden credenza with black spots

“Bugs”-series by Valery Kuznetsov

The surfaces from this series showcase one of the Ukraine’s oldest crafts—pyrography. This is a hand-made technique of applying images on wood by burning. The craft, which over time has experienced several rises as an art form, has now entered the realm of design, where it has retained its spontaneous character.

PANOPTIKUM DESIGN, a collaboration between Kassone Individual Furniture and Maino Design, which describes itself as a research and realization agency offering Ukrainian creations in Europe, is one such newcomer.

In contrast to FAINA, which mainly works with clay, wood, willow twine, and natural textiles from the region, PANOPTIKUM designers prefer to create with “brutal materials”, as can be seen in the first collection called “BreakFree.”

The PANOPTIKUM DESIGN Showroom is a celebration of contemporary Ukrainian design. COURTESY PANOPTIKUM DESIGN

“The items’ surfaces are enhanced with asymmetrical elements, which remind of geological rocks and fragments of Martian landscapes. The material visually and tactilely imitates the natural texture of broken concrete or stone or ice, but it’s made with plywood,” says Halyna Proskurina, who heads up PANOPTIKUM’S export department.

While prioritizing team and family safety, work at both organizations has resumed, including the sales of existing stock and the search for new, international collaborations.   

Yakusha has relocated production from Kyiv to Ukraine’s West, and PANOPTIKUM DESIGN keeps working in the capital.

“We don’t want to sit and wait until the war is over,” says Proskurina. “We work to pay taxes to support our army and employees and to donate money to everyone in need,” she says, adding that creation often happens to the sound of destruction around them.    

Accepting that things will never be the same, Yakusha says it’s too early to wonder about the war’s changes for the industry and its design language.

portrait of Victoria Yakusha standing by a sand colored arm chair in front of a fireplace
Architect and designer Victoria Yakusha leads FAINA, a studio with showrooms in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Antwerp, Belgium. COURTESY VICTORIA YAKUSHA

“We need time to convey in our work what we live through now. At present, designers don’t think about design; we think about what we can do for our country,” she says.

Anastasiia Biletska, creative director of Maino Design, is convinced that the industry will experience a mirror phenomenon and points to the innovation and immense development of design that emerged after the two world wars.

“The Ukrainian effect recodes the whole world, she says, “and this struggle between the new and the old, destructive and creative, will surely inspire not only Ukrainian creators but designers from all over the world.”

Yakusha calls for peace and harmony in the world, even if it sounds utopian. However, the credence in her profession is imperturbable.

“I believe Ukrainian design is only at the beginning of its path. We still have a lot to show.”

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