Slovenian designer Nika Zupanc, a guest of honour at this month's Interior Design Show, has only recently embraced the F-word. "I was afraid to use the term until about two months ago," she says. Then she let it slip out at a lecture in Russia, and "it felt really good." No, she didn't embrace her inner Eminem and start cursing out of control. She simply described her work as being feminist.
Over the past decade, Zupanc has drawn inspiration from many places – including sports (she's a keen windsurfer and gym addict) and nature (she takes walks in the woods to find solace in the world) – but has consistently referenced traditionally feminine motifs. Her 2013 Miss Dior Chair, designed for the French fashion house, has a back shaped like a bow. Her 2007 Maid Chair has a lace-like edge.
But rather than being twee, Zupanc has subverted these elements from simple and sweet to solid and strong. Her materials – shiny plastic, hard steel, laser-cut aluminum – are durable and tough. Part of the reason is pragmatic: She wants to build things that last. However, she also wants to shift perceptions. "Some of these very feminine forms are considered extremely naive," she notes. "Bows. Lace. I deliberately use these elements, but try to do so in a way that pulls them out of a narrow, confining place."
However, Zupanc was hesitant to categorize her work as feminist out of uncertainty. Design, like all too many professions, can feel like a boys' clubs. And there is still simply, sadly a "fear of being a woman in a world that is run by men." Yet the ability to imbue her work with important messages is one of the reasons she became a designer in the first place. "Design has the ability to open doors to new ideas," she says. "It's a very powerful tool to spread messages, ask questions and make people wonder."
That's why Zupanc doesn't just concern herself with the physical ergonomics of her pieces, but the "emotional ergonomics" as well. She tries to create objects that evoke intense, visceral reactions – items that people form deep connections to, and that make them think about things from different perspectives. "I've always liked books that are best read between the lines," she says. Likewise, she likes "objects that create open questions, that don't have just one meaning, and that can be understood from four or five different points of view."
Crucially, though, Zupanc aims for subtext that empowers and uplifts. To do so, she's careful to only design when she's in the right frame of mind. "If I'm sad or in a bad mood," she says, "I don't do any objects … It's important to have good, strong feelings. I believe that the feeling is communicated in the finished work. The energy translates."
Accordingly, Zupanc believes that designers should not only be good students of their craft, ever-refining their technical skills and use of materials, but also work hard to maintain an optimal, emotional state. Her commitment to sport has been instrumental for Zupanc. "I'm quite a big fitness goer," she says. "It really affects your state of mind, on a biological level. A hard workout shifts your mind."
Beyond being a mood booster, sports have also helped Zupanc endure life's challenges and become a heartier, more independent spirit. With her windsurfing, for example, you "need to go out of your comfort zone to achieve anything," she says. "You are just out there in nature. You have to count on yourself. You have the sea and the wind, and you can't change these conditions, just work with them. And enjoy it all, if possible."