From Konjic, with love

September 2021

The last 18 months have been a time of reflection for Bosnian furniture brand Zanat. Prior to the Covid crisis the company was growing very fast says CEO and co-founder Orhan Nikšić,

and it felt like they were always playing catch up. Finally, the team could catch its breath and focus on the bigger picture. “We used this time of slower growth to organise things better,” he explains. “We digitalised our production and management processes, which allowed us to be more efficient and make fewer mistakes. We introduced a system to manage the complexity of our operations and prepare us for whatever is coming down the line.”

This ‘quiet’ time also allowed the company to do something else: diversify. “We launched a collection of smaller carved wooden objects for the home such as stools, mirrors, trays and candle holders called ‘Lockdown Dialogues’ in September last year,” says Nikšić. “The thing is, you tend not to buy a chair unless you can sit on it and our products are so tactile that being able to touch them before buying is important. These small pieces are easier to sell online and have helped our business cope. In the process we realised that carving lends itself very well to smaller objects.”

What is coming down the line is of course far from clear, but Nikšić and the designers the company works with are optimistic that their assortment of contemporary hand-carved pieces made using sustainably sourced local timbers and production processes are the sort of timeless pieces that people will always want and need. The fact that the techniques used are so steeped in the history of a place and the people who pioneered, grew and perfected them, is yet another reason their appeal seems likely to endure.

It was over a century ago that Nikšić’s great grandfather Gano Nikšić came across a special but rather raw and primitive hand carving technique in a village not far from his hometown of Konjic, located some 60 kms southwest of Sarajevo on the Neretva River. Gano learnt the technique and improved on it thanks to an arts and crafts education afforded to him and others in Konjic under the Austro-Hungarians. Eventually he went on to work with established furniture producers in Sarajevo who exhibited as part of the Bosnian pavilions at major international expos in Vienna, Paris, Brussels and Budapest. He passed on his craft to his kids, one of whom, Adem, started a successful export business in the late 20s, which led to other workshops following suit and opening up in Konjic.

“At one point between the two world wars, there were 36 of these workshops and they were making full salons and interiors,” says Nikšić. The hand-carved furniture from Konjic featured a blend of recognisable floral and geometric patterns and became the style of the elite in Bosnia & Herzegovina he explains, with many of these pieces now on display in the region’s major museums. Hand-carved furniture could also be found in churches and mosques dating back to the Ottoman period. “And the companies also made these hexagonal stools and coffee tables, which are originally Persian. Nowadays you see them being made in places like Morocco and Syria. The ones here were made with a different wood and featured patterns typical of Konjic, but they were essentially the same idea.” The company still makes reproductions of these traditional pieces and sells them in their shop in Konjic, mainly to international tourists, expats and Bosnians who now live abroad.

World War II and the advent of socialism in Yugoslavia meant the closure and nationalisation of most businesses, yet Adem’s sons managed to reopen the family workshop in the mid-50s. “They had to start from scratch, get new tools and a new space and for a while they were mainly making souvenirs because it was very difficult to get access to capital and bigger space,” explains Nikšić. “They survived by making small boxes and selling them though this nationalised company in Yugoslavia that sold handicrafts all over the country.” A positive legacy of this period was an attempt to promote gender equality. “In particular in the workplace and in education,” says Nikšić. One example was the state setting up a furniture-making company in Konjic and hired and trained the country’s first women woodcarvers. “A few who were trained in this company are working for Zanat now,” he says.

Eventually Yugoslavia liberalised restrictions and the brothers invested in bigger machines and space and started making furniture again. Only to be disrupted by another war in the early 90s. “When the war started, I was in the US completing my last year of high school in an exchange programme,” recalls Nikšić. “When I left the situation was tense, but it was still peaceful. I went off with beautiful childhood memories of Yugoslavia because, as a child, we didn’t care about these nationalist issues. We grew up together under one country and believed in that. When I came back in 1992, everything had changed. Yugoslavia no longer existed, there was war and Bosnia was being ravaged by it. It suffered the most of all the republics in the former Yugoslavia. A genocide was taking place and people were dying every day. I have friends who died, friends who were injured.”

Though Nikšić and his immediate family survived without any significant injuries, the legacy of the war has been toxic. “Our country was broken apart and we still have a highly divided and divisive political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is corruption, the economy has suffered, the standard of living was reduced.” There is also high unemployment, around 18-19 per cent, especially among women and young people, says Nikšić.

The Nikšić family adapted and managed to survive, in part because “the interest in these traditional carved pieces grew after the war,” says Nikšić. His brother Adem, who had studied architecture, eventually took over the management of the family business. Eventually Orhan, who worked as a senior economist with the World Bank for many years, decided to come home. “Both my brother and I have an appreciation for design and felt a very strong connection to the heritage of our family and our town so we thought we could do something interesting by connecting the two.” In 2015, Zanat (which means craft in Bosnian) was born. The idea was to combine modern design with ancient crafts and protect and promote the famed Konjic woodcarving technique, as well as other fast-disappearing craft traditions.

In just a few short years, Zanat’s achievements have been impressive. The company has trained 30 carpenters with the help of staff that has been with the family for decades. It has several women employees (three woodcarvers and 10 working in the manufacturing facility on tasks such as finishing). It collaborates with 450-year old family-run glass-blowing company Poshinger from Germany and works with a cooperative of women knitters in Bosnia and Herzegovina who work from home. In 2017, the special hand-carving technique associated with Konjic was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List and in 2019 the company opened a museum dedicated to 200 years of woodcarving in the region.

The company works with designers such as Jean-Marie Massaud, Ludovica e Roberto Palomba and Ilse Crawford, and Stockholm-based Monica Förster has been its creative director since the outset, also designing many of its pieces. At the time of writing an exhibition curated by Förster for the Villa San Michele in Capri had just opened featuring new mirrors and side tables and some special edition pieces inspired by the jaw-dropping venue in southern Italy. Next up for Zanat is a collection by a young and as yet undiscovered Bosnian designer Berin Spahic that will launch next year.

Though everything has changed production-wise since the family first started making wooden pieces, the carving tools and techniques have remained the same and that work takes the same amount of time it always did. “A plain table can be made in less than a day with the machinery we have, but it will take three and a half days to make the table by Ilse Crawford for instance, as two and a half of those days are spent carving,” says Nikšić. “Doing it by hand means you create a connection between the buyer and the maker and add that additional touch - and imperfection.” The Nikšić siblings know there is no digital or machine substitute for what the hand can do. It just needs to be given the time to do it. For them, Zanat is about celebrating that fact.

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Orhan Niksic, CEO and co-founder of Zanat.
Woodcarver Ibrahim Bubalo at work. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar
Close-up details of the wood carving process. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar
Wood shavings used for Zanat fragrance dispersion. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar
Inside the Zanat factory in Konjic. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar
Zanat's Tatoo stool is designed by Swedish architects Wingårdhs. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar.
Maker carpenter Muamer Koric at work. Photo: Bessaam El-Asmar
Adem Niksic, the grandfather of Zanat’s founders, at Belgrade furniture fair in 1936.
Adem Niksic in the 1930s.
This article appeared in DAM79. Order your personal copy.