In order to address and examine the lockdown and its personal consequences, Nadja Zerunian and Anna Zimmermann have collaborated on ‘Souvenirs of Loneliness’ which is currently presented at the Vienna Design Week. The collection of ten individual objects can be seen as a manifestation of the situations and collective experiences they – and probably most of us – shared during self-isolation. “We both were interested in the synchronized emotions and experiences we collectively had and wanted to express these sensations”, Anna and Nadja tell Collide24, “We identified 10 conditions we associated with these last months of isolation and assumed their universal relevance. When starting the project in June we expected this situation to have ended and wanted to create objects that would carry the memory of that recent condition – not imagining that there would still be such critical relevance.” By externalizing these very personal moments of anxiety, fear and unease, and approaching the topic with humor and absurdity, the two artists aimed at creating a platform of public discourse and countering the seclusion and separation they had recently experienced.
Before they started collaborating together on this project, Anna and Nadja have “stalked” each other on Instagram for quite some time. When they finally met in person, they connected immediately, sharing “fascinating trans-generational conversations and a similar understanding of the world”. After years as a creative director for big international corporations, like Georg Jensen or the Swatch group, and a decade as a senior designer at CK in New York, Nadja now runs her own studio in Vienna, specializing in the collaboration with global artisans and developing small limited edition series highlighting the immense potential, relevance and knowledge of craft. Apart from advising the Erste Foundation Roma Partnership program, she was a creative consultant for UNIDO and co-founded the platform co/rizom. After her exchange semester in Vienna, Anna decided to move back there after graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven. She works in the fields of object and visual design, having a strong focus on conceptualization and holistic approaches. In the past years, she has worked on a bundle of new collaborations and projects, spanning across multiple media.
In the following interview, the two artists tell us more about their recent collaboration, the story behind the ten objects and how climbing a mountain together cements a friendship. Let’s start!
You have recently collaborated on ‘Souvenirs of Loneliness’, stating that it has been a “Collaboration in Isolation”. In what ways did the lockdown influence this project?
The lockdown and its personal consequences were the urgent overpowering topics that we wanted to examine and address. In the beginning, our cooperation felt ‘staged’ as we mostly had to communicate virtually. The natural flow of exchange, exploring a challenging topic, the rapprochement of our quite different universes and the process of creation required intense personal exchange. Once we managed to meet regularly, we succeeded to find a common language in dissecting this latest phase of extended loneliness and to illustrate this complex condition through relatable objects.
How did you come up with the idea for the ten objects? Would you like to give us some insight into their meanings?
As mentioned before we tried to identify situations that defined our last months and what we imagined were collective experiences. The confined legally enforced continuous togetherness that made not only the fragility of our relationships apparent, but also the cautiousness required to keep these intact. The loss of self, the feeling to disappear, to vanish when dialogue and exchange came to halt. The new routines that were needed to structure our days. Strong memories triggering longing for future intimacy. We gave Voids and loneliness the substantial weight they deserved. We visualized the grinding obsessiveness of our darker than dark moments. We started going round in circles, turned into voyeurs of other people’s perfect lives – while reducing our communication to a few emojis. We also took the opportunity to reassess our values, embracing rare moments of clarity – while pausing from the repetitiveness of every day life.
Can you guide us through your working process and each individual steps?
It all started with an idea of an idea that we examined, assessed and reassessed. We were afraid to overwhelm the future audience or to be too personal – we changed course and then returned to the original obsession. We started to identify the moments we had, the fears and anxieties – we shared individual experiences with brutal honesty and collected, named them – and then reduced them to ten. We took a break for a few weeks, had vacation from each other and the topic. We decided to spend a week together to revisit the 10 and define how these moments would turn into objects that could transport the idea. We wanted products and true souvenirs. Within a week we had designed the collection and located the artisans that would help us realize them. On our last day we climbed a mountain – got into a hail storm and felt virtuous to have survived the week, the project and the walk. We became friends – we knew so much about each other now. Anna returned to Vienna, met the artisans and started the process. She met glass blowers, stone cutters, silversmiths, engravers, laser cutters and miniature painters. We borrowed vacuum sealers, bought a second hand electric meat knife and learned that not all things online feel like they look. We met an amazing virtual reality creator and got lost in his world. We explained and shared our darkest moments with anyone who wanted to listen and listened to all who wanted to talk. We gave away some of the souvenirs to people who seemed to need them more than we did – because all in all we are not lonely anymore.
How would you describe loneliness in your own words?
N: utter desperation
A: a heavy feeling in the stomach area; nagging self-doubt
Does the concept of isolation and distance play a part in your work or daily working process?
N: I prefer to work in large teams and love discourse, dialogue and interaction. I cherish collective efforts, intense exchanges and cooperative achievements. I have always believed that more brings more and only retreat voluntarily if I feel the need to focus and realign my personal positions.
A: I feel solitude, chosen isolation, can be very beneficial for my creative process. Sometimes in the concept phase of a project I feel uncomfortable sharing my thoughts – they feel very vulnerable. But in general I can’t work in isolation at all – that’s why I’m sharing my workspace with other people.
What kind of atmosphere/experience would you like to achieve through these objects?
N: We so often only project the ‘edited’ versions of our lives and leave little space for public discourse of darker moments. Understanding that isolation and loneliness can be traumatic, especially when experienced collectively should deserve attention and require platforms of conversation and exchange.
What did you learn through this collaboration?
N: That random strangers can become friends by sharing challenging experiences. That I am less special than I thought. That not talking is not brave but talking is. That peaches and aubergines have meaning. That I am not alone.
A: To dare things even if they feel uncomfortable at first. That life is a constant seeking and balancing of our own needs. That age difference is irrelevant for a friendship. If DHL doesn’t find you – you go and find you parcel at DHL (or not) .
How important is it for you to collaborate with others?
N: Absolutely essential. I function better in dialogue and exchange – I love to be confronted by new, fresh perspectives that give me a chance to revisit my POV’s.
A: I totally agree! It’s so enriching to collaborate with others – sometimes also challenging because you have to step out of your comfort zone. But that makes the result more interesting in my opinion.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative development and career so far?
N: I am coming from corporate creative industry where production happens far removed. I first encountered the transformation of thoughts into objects in Transylvania a few years ago and that got me hooked. I wanted to witness this moments of materialization, support the artisans who made this possible and have never looked back.
A: I guess the biggest turning point so far was leaving university and breaking away from methods and thinking patterns that were pressed on us. I feel I’m still quite at the beginning of my career and there will be many turning points as time goes. I’m still in a process of finding out what my position as a designer is. This requires constant self-reflection but this process feels very enriching, too.
What is your favorite souvenir to date?
N: a elongated sharp pebble from a beach in Southern Maine.
A: a very beautiful bowl I bought from in a vintage shop in Malmö last summer.