This engaging festival cum conference continues to hit above its weight, says Fatema Ahmed.

The backdrop to Belgrade Design Week, which was held this year in early June, just before the second Greek general election, was the eurozone crisis, with many of the speakers in the conference-format event providing a sharp reminderthat what happens in the EU greatlyaffects the central and south-east European countries outside. Against this background, the enthusiasm and efforts of BDW’s organisers wereall the more welcome and their response to the question of how they manage to get their impressive list of speakers – “charms, bribes and threatening emails”, I was told – all the more disarming.

With design festivals popping up in a growing number of cities, BDW has a stronger, more optimistic purpose than most and prides itself on its interdisciplinary nature. As well as familiar names from international architecture and design such as Patrik Schumacher, Martino Gamper and Mathieu Lehanneur there were also presentations from a Greek graphic design agency called Beetroot and Robert Klanten, the founder of Gestalten Verlag. The format of speaker presentations inevitably turns the conference itself into a bit of a public speaking competition; BDW’s “Grand Prix for Design” this year went to Lehanneur, who gave a very structured talk based on a series of questions his work has addressed, from “How to be born”to “How to die”.

BDW also serves as a showcase for design and architecture throughout the former Yugoslav republics, and this year there were exhibitions of Croatian and Slovenian design. Tatjana Bartakovic, the curator of a display of Croatian product design in the National Library, wasn’t the only person who spoke about the collapse of industry throughout the former Yugoslavia and how hard it is for designers to put their work into production. Speakers from all countries stressed the importance of pragmatism. Croatian architects Studio 3LHD, who designed the ocean-liner-like Hotel Lone in Istria, and have worked on public realm projects such as the waterfront at Split, raised a laugh when they were asked how they dealt with politicians: “It took us 18 years to learn. If you think this is an easy business, go into graphic design or art.”

But Greek agency Beetroot didn’t make graphic design seem like such an easy choice. Beginning with theTV clip of an MP from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party hitting another parliamentary candidate, they ended (after showing some beautiful examples of their work) more sombrely still by saying, “the present is dead”. The overall message from this engaging festival, however, is that it has rarely been more interesting.

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It was a true pleasure to participate in Belgrade Design Week. BDW has great speakers and lots of creative energy and I was amazed by the commitment from the organization and their ability to create an international event of such caliber. Even with a small team, BDW sets a standard that other cities in the world can learn from. Actually, many design events would probably feel embarrassed if they visited Belgrade Design Week and compared themselves.