Can Thessaloniki be considered a design hub? Its design community is certainly an exciting and active network. Whether veterans or novices, all of the city’s designers that I spoke with described their community as being a big family – everyone knows each other and most work together.
The city has been a haven for young designers since the mid-1990s; they were attracted because day-to-day life is much easier here than in Athens and because they can stand out in the city’s smaller market. (At the same time, of course, with modern communications technology, they are also able to seize opportunities from far beyond the limits of the city or even the country.)
From the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, the Thessaloniki design scene consisted of people rather than firms, starting with Ioannis Svoronos (1919-1987) the ‘father of Greek design’ who, from 1954 to 1964, created all of the visual material for the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF).
There was also the visual artist, translator, poet and prose writer Karolos Tsizek (1912-2013) who from 1958 to 1983 designed the influential literary review Diagonios, published by the renowned Thessaloniki poet Dinos Christianopoulos.
In the 1960s, the city’s design scene began to take off. Local designers liked to say that they weren’t imitating, they were adopting international trends and movements.
One characteristic example was that produced by Stergios Delialis, the guru of the new generation of designers, who in 1969 created the much-admired album cover for “To Perivoli tou Trelou” (The Madman’s Garden) from the singer-songwriter Dionysis Savvopoulos; the cover is strongly reminiscent of UK record cover art of the period. (In the 1990s, Delialis founded and ran the now-defunct Design Museum of Thessaloniki.)
By the ‘70s and ‘80s, however, Thessaloniki’s graphic design output had become almost exclusively limited to work done for the TIF, the National Theater of Northern Greece, the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
There was also a little bit – albeit more visible because of the broader audience base – of design being done in relation to literature, including work on the cultural supplement Panselinos that accompanied the Sunday edition of the newspaper Makedonia.
This art magazine, which in 2000 won a European Newspaper Design Award and in 2001 a Greek Graphic Design and Illustration Award, was created by graphic designer Thanasis Georgiou and writer Giorgos Skabardonis. (Georgiou still designs covers for the Thessaloniki publisher Ianos and has had work featured in both the 2005 and 2007 European Design Annual, published by Print Magazine).
Another important step in the ‘80s was the 1987 launch of the literary journal Entefktirio by writer Giorgos Kordomenidis.
From 2000 on, an increasing number of local museums and theaters, businessmen and shop owners began to entrust their brand identity and other visuals to the city’s designers.
The creation of Greece’s first free magazine, Parallaxi, by Giorgos Toulas in 1989 was a milestone for the Thessaloniki design scene: the magazine is still published today and is a leading showcase for local design, particularly through its urban activist program Thessaloniki Allios (Thessaloniki Differently). The same year also saw the launch of the city’s first major design firm, Simos Saltiel’s Red Creative.
Despite all this creativity, design did not really take Thessaloniki by storm until after 1997, when the city was named European Capital of Culture and the huge demand for new design material attracted large numbers of creative young people eager to find out more about this discipline.
From 2000 on, an increasing number of local museums and theaters, businessmen and shop owners began to entrust their brand identity and other visuals to the city’s designers – a walk around Ano Ladadika and Valaoritou Street provides ample evidence – and led to the creation of public technical colleges for the graphic arts as well as to private graphic design schools.
The early years of the new millennium also saw the emergence of new design firms such as Beetroot and Designers United. As time went by, the scene shifted from individual artists to firms with distinctive styles.
Today, the latest buzz is all about design concept shops, including two brand new cutting-edge stores, hellofrom and From Thessaloniki, which feature designer souvenirs depicting Thessaloniki’s urban heritage.
What was it that caused the scene to change so drastically in just a couple of decades? Most of the designers I met with spoke of the stream of creativity that can be found in Thessaloniki. They insist – young and old alike – that there is no particular sense of geographical identity, no local vernacular, in Thessaloniki’s design culture; they have, they maintain, always been part of the global dialogue.
If there is a Thessaloniki vibe for them, it’s on a more personal level. Most say they choose to stay in Thessaloniki at least in part because they like what the city offers them; relaxed personal lives coupled with challenging careers.
For Stergios Delialis, at work in his studio overlooking the Thermaic Gulf, it is as much about the when as it is about the where: “Design is the art of the possible. It may be a lot more impersonal today, but it is much more effective in conveying information. It is an amazing new world.”
Looking out his windows down at the busy seafront of this industrious city, I can only agree that the world I see is, indeed, astounding.