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The Process of Graphic Design Projects: The Establishment‬ and Practice of an Experimental Design Bureau
Karolina Jakaitė
TARA: a miracle and a curse word
Graphic design projects involved various objects, from packaging, boxes, and trademarks to advertising notices and posters, labels, or simple factory brochures. In the Soviet years, these types of design projects were relegated to the category of "industrial" or "applied graphics," "artistic construction," or "technical aesthetics," or were sometimes known by the rarely used terms "advertising" or "commercial graphics."
Graphic design projects were created by so-called "artist-constructors" receiving commissions from various ministries or the "Dailė" network of arts workshops, offices, or specific enterprises. The overall evolution of the design field in the Soviet system – and perhaps even artistic quality in general – was determined by decrees, rules, and resolutions "handed down" from above, as well as by priorities adopted by various commissions and councils. Graphic design was a creative field that existed between industry and art and between the technical and the aesthetic, marked by constant shortages of everyday products as well as modern showcase projects displayed at various exhibitions. Moreover, the field depended greatly on the initiative or inactivity of leaders and institutions and their policies. All of this transpired within the overarching context of a socialist economy, where the rules of competition, marketing, and advertising did not apply and where the functions of graphic design objects were never entirely clear:
While advertising may have a purely commercial purpose in the capitalist world, i.e. trying to push a product by any means possible, the purpose of socialist advertising was to provide objective and correct information about a product, its characteristics, and utility; it was meant to "suggest and advise," not "push." Jonas Urbonas, „Į kiekvienus namus ateinantis grožis“, Literatūra ir menas, 1968 02 17, p. 2.
In addition to propaganda texts about industrial graphics, artistic design, and the significance of advertising, there were also discussions about rhetorical questions that reflected the realities of the day: what could possibly be advised, much less advertised, when better quality products were being snatched up so quickly that most store shelves were always half empty?
A discussion of Soviet-era Lithuanian graphic design is made all the more difficult because of the fragmented state of information available about the period, with many archives destroyed or disbanded and surviving collections still in need of cataloguing. Any account must therefore begin with individual stories, a review of the period's most important institutions, their operating principles and the artists who worked for them, and with specific examples of graphic design using contemporary sources and eye witness accounts.
The renewal of Lithuanian graphic design was encouraged by several factors, including the modernization processes that began in the latter half of the 1950s; increased industrial production and a growing assortment of products; the "Art into Life!" program; and the Cold War's race to modernity (recalling Nikita Khrushchev's assertion that "We too have such things."). One of the keywords of the era "Tara" (Lithuanian for container or packaging), the simplified name given by artists working in the design field for their place of employment, the Experimental Package Design Bureau. The importance of this institution, as well as the specific circumstances imposed on graphic design, is revealed in the words of Kęstutis Gvalda, a long-time employee of the Bureau:
I don't know who came up with the idea to establish 'Tara', but it was a miracle. […] Though the name itself was horrible - students laughed at, it became a curse word. Tara ('container'), labels – this was the worst humiliation, but artists still went there to work. Everyone wanted to eat, so they went and paid no attention to anything. Interview with Kęstutis Gvalda, recorded by Karolina Jakaitė, December 16, 2009.
The initiative to open a specialized agency for container and packaging design was born in 1961, a time reviewed in the memoirs of the Bureau's founder and first director, Antanas Morkevičius:
At the time, there was a great urgency to increase exports of all types of goods, requiring artistically designed and modern containers and a very large amount of accompanying documentation (prospectus, instructions, posters, etc.) and advertising material in various foreign languages. So by late 1961, I was tasked with founding the Experimental Package Design Bureau. Antanas Morkevičius, „Tarp dangaus ir žemės“, in: Lietuvos medienos pramonė: nuo ištakų iki 2000 metų, Vilnius: Homo liber, 2001, p. 132.
In 1963, a Container and Packaging Design Department opened as part of the Lithuanian SSR Regional Economic Council's Central Planning and Design Bureau, employing 8 artist-constructors. The official opening date of the new Bureau, however, is considered to be June 9, 1964, when the Soviet Lithuanian Council of Ministers State Academic Research Works Coordinating Committee approved the establishment of the self-financed Experimental Package Design Bureau, which became the most important center of graphic design creation, production, and promotion in Lithuania from the 1960s to the 1980s.
It should be noted that other institutions were also active in advertising graphics both prior to the Bureau's emergence and after 1964. These agencies included the Lithuanian SSR Art Fund (Dailės fondas), which received commissions for graphic design projects for production by the "Dailė" art workshops in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda, and an advertising department that operated in Vilnius from 1973 as part of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, overseen for many years by Rimantas Žilevičius. Some government ministries had their own in-house design units, while larger enterprises had full-time artist-constructors on staff, as was the case with the Pergalė (Victory) confectionary plant and the Stumbras liqueur and vodka factory in Kaunas.
The Tara Bureau: structure, image, and "the unhappiest day"
The Tara Bureau's founders took into account the experience of socialist as well as Western countries, both in the establishment of a specialized graphic design agency and in the outlining of strategies for its various activities. The Bureau's organizational structure, incorporating artistic design, planning, production, media affairs, and academic research activities under one roof, was chosen after studying the experience of Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Finland, as well as the operations of similar organizations. The goal of the Bureau was to fulfill graphic design commissions in one location, from concept to production, including economic research and the creation of an enterprise's corporate style, from trademarks to signage to custom designed clothing.
The Bureau opened its doors in Vilnius, on the grounds of the newly constructed Cardboard and Lithography Plant at 12 Paribio Street, near the Pergalė Candy Factory. Initial plans called for a small staff to work in the non-production design unit, consisting of a department head, a senior architect, five so-called category one designers, four category two designers, and a senior technician. But the scope of the Bureau's operations quickly grew and the design team expanded. In the first year and a half of operations, an additional twelve artist-constructors were hired, and by 1969 their number had grown to nearly fifty. From today's perspective, this would constitute a sizable advertising agency, not even considering the additional hundreds of workers employed on production lines.
As a new graphic design institution, the Bureau itself focused on the creation of its representational image. A competition was held in 1965 to create a logo and style for the Bureau. The winner was a young artist, Kęstutis Ramonas, who linked the first letters of two key words ("Tara", for container, and "įpakavimas" - packaging) to create a powerful and memorable logo to be used on all Bureau promotional materials.
The Bureau had separate units for economic research, scientific technical information, and graphic design research, all engaging in the study of consumer container demand as well as trends and opportunities in artistic design and packaging. The Bureau also set up a special methodology laboratory, a small but unique type of graphic design museum for the collection of archival documentation and examples of graphic design projects. Bureau designers and artists had access to a special library and its collection of the latest publications from the Soviet Bloc as well as an impressive collection of Western advertising and packaging periodicals, books, and albums. Graphic design research unit employees organized conferences, seminars, and exhibitions. The Bureau even had its own sports department, led by artist Vladas Lisaitis, who had designed custom athletic uniforms for the Bureau, but which unfortunately never made it into production.
The Bureau had a separate publishing department where editors and translators produced advertising publications, preparing more than 2,500 publications in the first five years of the Bureau's operations. The informational periodical Tara. Reklama (Packaging. Advertising) began running in 1966, meant to inform the public about the Bureau's activities. The publication showcased graphic design projects created by Bureau artists, and included informational and trade-related articles, a bibliography of the latest publications (books, magazines, specialized publications) from Soviet Bloc and Western countries, and information on terminology related to containers, advertising, and packaging (usually translated from English).
The Bureau had a large industrial facility, consisting of numerous different divisions, including: printing, cardboard and photomechanical units, an experimental printing process laboratory, the first imported flexographic printing machines in Lithuania, letterpress printing machines, offset printing, Rotaprint machines, the ability to print on polyethylene film and laminated paper, punching machines, and other complex printing equipment.
Though this list of capabilities may appear impressive, printing limitations ("this is not permitted", "this won't work") and the inferior quality of printed material were nevertheless constant sources of disappointment for designers. Bureau designer Lidija Glinskienė's recollections of that that period are rather telling:
The unhappiest day would be the one on which you'd actually see the printed version of your design project. Interview with Lidija Glinskienė, recorded by Karolina Jakaitė, October 15, 2010.
High-quality printing and paper was usually reserved for export products or samples intended for display in foreign exhibitions, and even these were usually sent for printing abroad, to Finland or France.
Lidija Glinskienė's remark about her "unhappiest day" also aptly describes the story behind the Bureau's closing. Throughout its history, the agency went through several reorganizations, each time undergoing a change in name, legal or organizational form, jurisidiction, structure, and leadership. The Bureau's longest-serving name, toward the end of the 1960s, was the Experimental Artistic Construction Bureau, known by its Lithuanian acronym EMKB.
Starting in 1971, enterprises under the jurisdiction of local ministries in Soviet Lithuania began consolidating and growing in size. Following this trend, the EMKB was reorganized once again in 1975, folded into the newly established Vilnis Container and Packaging Industrial Association and its leading polygraphic printing company. When the Vilnis Association was liquidated in 1991, all of the Bureau's archives and methodological laboratory materials were lost. Since 1995, the former offices of the Bureau have been occupied by a private corporation, AB Grafobal Vilnius, which lists as part of its history a brief mention of the founding, liquidation, and privatization of the Experimental Artistic Construction Bureau.
A flexible work schedule and corporate identity
The newly established Bureau invited young artists, trained in different fields at the Vilnius Art Institute, to become members of its staff. Many of these artists were graduates of the Institute's Graphic Arts Department, but artist-constructor positions were also filled by artists with backgrounds in painting, set design, frescoes and mosaics, ceramics, and textiles. The first employees at the Bureau included Romualdas Svaškevičius, Kęstutis Gvalda, Rasa Dočkutė, Marija Trečiokaitė, Vladas Lisaitis, Kęstutis Šveikauskas, Jadvyga Laurinavičiūtė, Raisa Šmuriginaitė, Lelija Bičiūnaitė, and Feliksas Ivanauskas.
It is important to note that, between 1960 and 1976, the Vilnius Art Institute also offered specializations in industrial graphic art and packaging design. Among the graduates in this field were Bureau employees Teresė Bajorūnaitė, Juozas Gelguda, Danutė Umbrasienė, Monika Urmanavičiūtė, Gediminas Karosas, and Rita Rozytė. Starting in 1965, the Bureau's staff was joined by the first graduates of the industrial art program, including Kęstutis Ramonas and Romana Kungytė, and later Pranas Markevičius and Kostas Katkus, among others.
The Artistic Construction Department was headed by Romualdas Svaškevičius (who changed his name in the 1960s to Jurgis Raslanas [1926–2001], by which he is better known), who oversaw the Bureau's designers for the first ten years of operation. Svaškevičius had worked at the Spindulys Printing House in pre-war independent Lithuania, and completed his training in graphic arts in 1953 at the Vilnius Art Institute, later working as the Director of Advertising and Technical Documentation at the Republican Scientific and Technical Information and Propaganda Institute. Svaškevičius also completed internship programs at packaging and advertising agencies in Prague, Leipzig, Halle, and Riga.
Under Svaškevičius' leadership, the Bureau implemented a number of ambitious initiatives and recruited more artists who comprised the core of its creative graphic design group: Astrida Žilinskaitė, Lidija Glinskienė, Giedrius Reimeris, Irena Katinienė, Laimutė Puodžiūnaitė, Petrutė Masiulionytė, Elena Lisauskienė, Vaidilutė Grušeckaitė, Teresė Ivanauskaitė, Raimondas Miknevičius, Birutė Matijošaitytė, Benediktas Radzkas, Gediminas Žilys, and others.
Before coming to work for the Bureau, some of these designers were already accomplished young artists whose paintings, prints, and book graphic imagery was already being displayed in exhibitions and published in art albums. Once they took up work in the design field, they learned "on the job", consulting with more experienced colleagues, clients, manufacturers, and sales staff and by studying foreign examples in books and magazines, then choosing one or another graphic design field in which they most preferred to focus.
Nearly every Lithuanian artists working in the graphic design field subscribed to the Polish architectural and design journal Projekt, in circulation since 1956, or the East German Neue Werbung (New Advertising) or the Czech magazine Umění a řemesla (Arts and Crafts). All of these publications contained a considerable amount of information, articles, and illustrations about the latest Western European and US designs, as well as a selection of beautiful photography and font samples. Bureau employees recall clipping various details from foreign magazines and pasting them together, letter by letter.
The Bureau designed and printed all types of packaging and advertising projects, (such as labels, bottle-neck labels, wrappers), produced cardboard boxes, designed trademarks and posters, and edited and published various advertising publications. The Bureau also designed visual promotional materials, honorary plaques, and decoration projects for holiday celebrations. Project fees also varied. The figures used by another graphic design institution, the Chamber of Trade and Commerce, are interesting by comparison. Žilevičius recalls:
For one poster earned 150 to 250 rubles, one trademark – up to 250 rubles; for original flyer or diploma – up to 150 rubles. The average [monthly] salary for a government worker was about 150 rubles, so our commissions were a significant [source of] support for artists. Rimantas Žilevičius, „Ne vyturiukai tręšė reklamos arimus“, Šiaurės Atėnai, 2013 05 17.
Since it combined various fields and professional skills, the Bureau's structure was always conceptually geared toward a collective teamwork approach, given the integrated nature of advertising and packaging projects. In reality, however, artists worked on their own, often drafting projects at home or in their own studios. Gvalda remembers:
They gave you an order, you completed it and brought it in. We had considerable freedom, but when necessary, if an order came in, you worked day and night – you had to do it. Interview with Kęstutis Gvalda, recorded by Karolina Jakaitė, December 16, 2009.
Artists look back fondly on their time at the Bureau and their warm interpersonal relationships and their more successful personal projects. Working on an "open schedule", they only rarely visited the Bureau, stopping in to pick up an order or to drop off completed projects.
Some team project achievements are worth mentioning here, in particular the introduction of corporate style consisting of an integrated set of designs created in one style from trademarks and letterhead all the way to the packaging and marking of individual products and the design of custom clothing and labeling. At the time, such a service was promoted as an innovative achievement of the Vilnius Bureau, but keeping in mind the circumstances prevailing in a planned economy, it was also one of the greatest paradoxes.
Svaškevičius (Raslanas), the creator of corporate brands for "Mąstis", a product of the Telšiai knitwear factory in 1966, and Anykščių vynas (Anykščiai Wines) in 1968, might be considered the innovator behind the concept of an integrated style. With the contribution of other Bureau artists in the 1960s, corporate brand designs were also created for the Association of Vilnius Baking Companies, the Gubernija brewery in Šiauliai, the Kalnapilis brewery in Panevėžys, and for companies such as Tulpė, Minija, and Metalistas, among others.
Arts Councils, food tins, and "Little Tara on the Moon"
Working within the Soviet system, artists focused primarily on the artistic results and aesthetic impression of a given design, sometimes entirely ignoring a client's requirements or technical feasibility considerations.
The Bureau's Arts Council played a particularly important role in the design creation chain. Before any project could be published or released into production and circulation, it had to be reviewed by the Bureau's Arts Council (it was the case in most of the Bureaus and factories). In 1967, Jonas Urbonas, then the head of the Technical Information Division, analyzed the practices in use in other socialist countries, particularly Poland, and recommended that the Bureau introduce a scoring system to allow each graphic design project to be assessed as an integrated whole. The goal was to have the Arts Council evaluate packaging, labeling, prospectus, poster, catalogue and other projects according to six central criteria: construction and material suitability, functionality of form, graphic composition, advertising impact, font suitability, and the appropriateness of the chosen form or graphic solution to a given product. Jonas Urbonas, „Nauja meno tarybų darbo metodika“, in: Tara. Reklama, Vilnius: Eksperimentinis taros ir įpakavimo konstravimo biuras, 1967, p. 39. Like many others, however, this proposal was applied only in theory.
The members of the Bureau Arts Council, which included retail sellers, industrialists, as well as representatives from the art world and various government ministries, usually assessed artistic projects based on their own level of competence, artistic leanings, or tastes. Various renowned Lithuanian artists "worked" for the Bureau's Arts Council over the period of its existence, including: the painters Antanas Gudaitis and Jonas Švažas, sculptor Bronius Vyšniauskas, Vilnius Academy of Arts Design Department head Feliksas Daukantas, graphic and poster artists Juozas Galkus, Vytautas Kaušinis and Jonas Gudmonas, and the artist Vlada Černiauskaitė. Bureau designers who placed considerable importance on artistic competence felt that having such artists on the Council was a privilege, and they took pride in the fact that their designs were being reviewed by a professional Arts Council.
Even within the arts world, however, graphic design was long considered a marginal field that many resisted recognizing as a truly artistic endeavor. Working in this field was even considered tantamount to "creative decline" or "unusual activity." In some cases, designers themselves viewed industrial graphic design commissions as "hackwork" and rarely ever included examples of their graphic designs (with the possible exception of posters and trademarks) in their lists of solo exhibitions and catalogues.
There was good reason, then, for Arūnas Gedžius, a senior designer at the Bureau, to give one of his articles the provocative title: "Is a food tin a work of art?" Such questions were also provoked by the fact that examples of graphic design were usually showcased in exhibitions of food or light industry products or achievements, where such things as authorship, titles, dates of creation, or artistic styles were ignored.
Few specialized graphic design exhibitions were ever held in the Soviet period, and those that were organized rarely took place in main exhibition halls. For the most part, graphic design remained part of a cultural façade, one of many promises ("Products will be wonderful", "Our products must be the best in the world") that the system was never able to fulfill. The more interesting graphic design projects rarely ever made it into production, and were instead reserved for representational purposes and only showcased abroad. A comment by Gvalda about the Lithuanian pavilion in Paris in 1977, is illustrative:
We don't need your products, but we'd gladly take your packaging. Interview with Kęstutis Gvalda, recorded by Karolina Jakaitė, December 16, 2009.
Speaking of the significance of the Bureau and graphic design's place in daily life, we might again turn to another comment by Kęstutis Gvalda – a continuation of his thoughts cited at the beginning of this article:
Without 'Tara', we would have been gray and dismal. Interview with Kęstutis Gvalda, recorded by Karolina Jakaitė, December 16, 2009.
We should recall that most newspapers and magazines at the time were published only in black and white, while streets and public spaces were mostly devoid of any visual noise, shimmering shop windows, or ever-changing advertising billboards. The first color Lithuanian television programming was broadcast only in 1975 (on February 26th). In such an environment, then, it was easier to surprise and entertain viewers or otherwise attract the attention of passersby and consumers with graphic designs that were colorful, bright, and persuasive.
By way of conclusion – a small detail from eyewitness recollections of the time. Designers remember that an idea had circulated to shoot a film about the Bureau and its operations called Tariukas Mėnulyje (Little Tara on the Moon). The movie's title was probably chosen because of the ubiquitous use of space age aesthetics at that time. Today, however, it might have more symbolic significance if we consider the scope of the Bureau's activities and the role it played introducing innovations and embarking on often-unrealistic endeavors, not to mention the overall situation facing graphic design, distanced as it was from the realities of the Soviet system.


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Sources and links

Eksperimentinis taros ir įpakavimo konstravimo biuras
Reklaminis leidinys, Vilnius: ETĮKB, 1970
„Respublikos įmonių prekiniai ženklai“
Tara. Reklama, Vilnius: EMKB, 1966
„Ar konservų dėžutė – meno kūrinys?“
Literatūra ir menas, 1972 03 11
„Reikia mums reklamos?“
Mokslas ir technika, 1971, Nr. 1
Lietuvos grafinis dizainas XX a. 6–8 deš.: tarp nacionalumo ir internacionalumo
Daktaro disertacija, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademija, 2012
„Kai grožis ateina į namus“
Literatūra ir menas, 1974 11 16
„Į kiekvienus namus ateinantis grožis“
Literatūra ir menas, 1968 02 17
„Nauja meno tarybų darbo metodika“
Tara. Reklama, Vilnius: ETĮKB, 1967
„Ne vyturiukai tręšė reklamos arimus“
Šiaurės Atėnai, 2013 05 17
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