These days if you mention Slovenian design most would think of the talented young Nika Zupanc, but just 60 years ago the greatest designer of the region, Niko Kralj, became the country's first internationally known designer. His work is particularly highly regarded throughout the various countries of former Yugoslavia but is also part of some of the world's greatest museum collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2011, Rex Kralj was established to reissue his more famous designs and release a small number of pieces that had never gone into production.
Kralj was born in 1920 in Zavrh pri Trojanah - north east of Lubljana. His father was a joiner and the young Niko Kralj spent most of his early life around the workshop, taking on the work when his father suddenly died when Niko was still just 16. The war years were not kind to the Kralj family and by wars end NIko Kralj was the sole survivng member. Despite all of this family despair, Kralj continued his education immediately after the war, studying architecture at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Lubljana, graduating in 1952. On the recommendation of one of his tutors, Professor Mihevc, he underwent training at the Stol Kamnik furniture factory where he rapidly became head of the newly founded department of Development and Design. His first designs came into production with Stol in 1953, with his initial big success being the 'Rex 120' chair.
The 'Rex 120' went through eight versions over a two year period before it was finally decided to go with version six - the only armchair version which stacked. The original concept started out as a laminated timber frame, much in the Alvar Aalto mode, with vertical steam bent slats but by version three the slats had become horizontal and the frame solid timber. The sixth version introduced slotted moulded plywood and was the version Kralj finally settled on. Much of the research undergone to perfect the 'Rex 120' was used in the development of the folding version that came out in 1956.
Another chair, 'Mosquito', was designed the same year but due to its 'technological complexity', never went into production. This design finally saw the light of day in 2012 and took the world by surprise. The clever construction and ingenious meeting of seat and legs ranks the 'Mosquito' as among one of the most accomplished designs that followed in the footsteps of Charles & Ray Eames' moulded plywood experiments from the mid 1940's.
With around 60% of Slovenia covered in forests it's little wonder that the country had such highly developed timber and furniture industries. The 1950's saw rapid industrialisation and furniture companies grew into very large affairs - up to eight times larger on average than in neighbouring European countries. By the 70's nearly a tenth of Slovenia's workforce were employed by furniture factories. Kralj was an enthusiastic believer in the power of mass production and constantly worked toward the rationalisation of the production process.
Many of Kralj's best known chairs were released in 1956, including the 'Rex Lounge' and its variations, the 'Rex Chair' and 'Rex Rocking Chair'. These light weight folding chairs (and matching folding occasional table) used a combination of moulded plywood and routed slots to reduce weight. Over the years these chairs have become Kralj's most enduring design being enormously popular for their ability to move in and out of doors. Since it's introduction in 1956 the Rex line of products have sold in excess of one million units. The 'Shell Dining' and 'Shell Lounge' chairs were also released, transforming the aesthetic of the Slovenian design landscape with their two interlocking moulded plywood shells on a steel base. The basic principle of this design was reworked into a wide variety of forms, including restaurant and office seating along with versions with writing tablets for university lecture theatres.
Kralj lectured at the Faculty of Architecture, Civil and Geodetic Engineering in Lubljana from 1960 and became the head of the Faculty's Institute of Industrial Design in 1966. In the course of his career he filed and registered 118 patents and models, appeared in 94 exhibitions and published over 100 articles on design. The Swedish professor Erik Breglund commented on one occasion, "If Yugoslavia (which Slovenia was a part of at the time) had five Niko Kralj's, it would become a design superpower".
As the most important designer in Eastern Europe at the time, Kralj became an embassador and traveled widely, visiting Italy, the United States, Sweden, Israel and Africa. In 1957 he spent a 6 month sabbatical living in Stockholm and working for the architect Olaf Pir where he became good friends with the Finnish designer, Ilmari Tapiovaara and the three came close to forming a studio there. Later in 1963 he won a Ford Foundation Fellowship and travelled through USA visiting 25 universities and meeting some of America's most influential designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Richard Buckminster Fuller. He was also a UN expert on industrial development and was sent to Tel Aviv in 1966, 1968 and 1969 and to Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1988.
While Kralj's design work centred around furniture, over the years he designed an extremely wide variety of objects including glass vases, garden fences, aluminium ceiling structures and archiving systems.
The title of the monograph written in 2010 by Jasna Hrovatin on Kralj's life and work, Design for all, All for Design, sums up the motivation behind Kralj's career very succinctly. He was a man of the people and designed with the idea that good design should really be for everyone.