When Zagreb held its annual Artupunktura arts festival in September 2022, one of the key exhibition locations was the Grič Tunnel, where the Pupoljci (‘Buds’) installation by Jelena Petrić created a unique environment of fluttering coloured surfaces of paper, textile and plastic – all of which turned out to be items of everyday domestic rubbish.
By demonstrating how our daily trash (including everything from shopping bags to broken umbrellas) could be transformed into an object of such beauty, the work served to showcase the potential of Upcycling, the increasingly popular practice of recycling our old consumer goods by refashioning them into something new and relevant that we will continue to use – and may even be more practical and stylish than the original thing they served as.
In Croatia, upcycling is very much the buzzword among prophets of an environmental future. The throwaway consumer objects we fill our homes with are increasingly recycled already. Croatian cities have already introduced sophisticated systems for carting off your no-longer-needed plastics, glassware and paper. Upcycling takes the new green sensibility a step further, emphasising the fact that the things we think we no longer need can actually be the basis for future creativity, raw materials in the creation of new lifestyles – and a break in the cycle of constant, irrational consumption.
Clothes & fashion
It’s in the fashion industry that upcycling has made its biggest impact, with a new generation of maverick designers challenging the commercial fashion industry’s emphasis on constant seasonal change – and the global overproduction of textiles that are frequently thrown away when their modish moment has passed.
Local fashion writer and theorist Ivana Biočina has argued passionately for the re-use of old fabrics in the creation of new lines. “If an item of clothing comes to the end of its natural life cycle”, she recently told the Croatian edition of Elle, “we should always offer the possibility of adapting it to a new lease of life”. Biočina is particularly passionate about the traditional linen and flax clothing for which large areas of inland Croatia are famous – these hardy materials provided the perfect textile base from which to fashion wholly contemporary clothes and bags.
Such ideas have been eagerly taken up by a new breed of ecologically conscious Croatian designers, and upcycled collections are an increasingly regular sight in the country's catwalk shows.
One aspect of upcycling which has met with mass participation involves, appropriately enough, cycling. Zagreb in particular is an increasingly two-wheel city, with the local council increasingly active in improving the bike-line network. It seems as if the whole capital is taking to their bikes, but not everyone can afford the latest model. And the rediscovery of that old forgotten bicycle is increasingly becoming a popular obsession.
All over the city old pushbikes are being dragged from sheds and storage lockers, tyres replaced and brakes repaired – and a genuine aesthetic appreciation for old models is emerging alongside the simple desire to saddle up and get from A to B. At least one local company will recondition your old bike and add an electric drive, a perfect example of old and new technology combined.
If old bikes are increasingly admired for their style then the same can be said for furniture. The retro look became a popular element of Croatia's more bohemian cafés over a decade ago, and the taste for design nostalgia has now gone mainstream in bars and restaurants across the country. Reconditioned furniture is big news, not just because it may well work out cheaper than buying new, but also because it brings out the character of a country that can boast an awful lot of design history. Many of those old chairs and tables cropping up in today's interiors sum up the style and values of Croatia's creative Sixties and Seventies, when it was a genuine leader in cool and snazzy design.
Some find items at the long-established bric-à-brac markets at Hrelić and on Britanski trg in Zagreb. And an increasing number of Croats are using upcycling as a way of decorating their own homes, building lighting features from old bottles and kitchen containers, constructing storage units from artfully transformed old boxes, or fashioning looks-good-on-the-mantlepiece objets d’art from old TVs and long-forgotten plastic toys.
Upcycling workshops are an increasingly regular feature of Croatian cultural organisations, colleges and schools, where the desire to get hands busy re-cutting and re-sewing old fabrics has proved massively popular among students young and old. Recent exhibitions featuring work by applied-art students from Zagreb, Split, Varaždin, Osijek and Rijeka have shown an amazing depth of creativity and point towards a future of limitless possibilities – upcycling culture in Croatia is clearly here to stay.
As if to prove its longevity, it’s worth lodging in the guest rooms made from wine barrels at the Duvančić Agrotourism in the village of Razvođe, within easy reach of the natural wonders of Krka National Park.
This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourist Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.