Design Ecosystem in Tbilisi

{ 🇬🇪 } – Tbilisi: design against all odds

Tbilisi’s skyline. Photo by Mostafa Meraji.

Located in the Caucasus region, Tbilisi is a city which has remained almost totally unknown to Western audiences up until recently. It is currently one of the fastest-developing cities not only in the region, but in Europe.

Tbilisi, which in former times was the seat of a Russian Empire governorate and, more recently, one of the major urban centers of the Soviet Union, is currently the capital of Georgia, a small, mountainous republic located at the edge of Europe which borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea.

The city has gone through an incredible transformation in the last few years, to the point that it has become a fashionable travel destination. But what is really making this city so attractive? Unsurprisingly, design plays a part in Tbilisi’s success.

Design as a Tool to Break Free

Georgia’s recent history has been turbulent, to say the least. In 2008, the country was involved in a bitter conflict with its bigger neighbour, Russia, over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in what is regarded as the first war of the 21st century. More than a decade after, this conflict has left profound scars in the population, and the compromised relations with Russia also had serious consequences on the economy.

Almost in parallel, a new generation was emerging in the country, and especially in Tbilisi, its capital and biggest urban center. The new youth of Tbilisi was eager to break free of old ways, so they looked for alternatives and, in doing so, laid out a new course for the country. The results of this collective effort made by Tbilisians – mostly young people, but not exclusively – eventually started to show, and this is how today, in 2020, the Georgian capital is a success story in a region which has been historically been characterised by tensions, conflict and hostility.

The State of Design in Tbilisi

The establishment of a design scene in Tbilisi is very much an ongoing process. Laying down the foundations for this totally new sector for the city (and the country as a whole) obviously required some time, effort as well as an initial investment.

Without a doubt, one of the places which are at the forefront of the local design scene is Fabrika Tbilisi, a design hostel/creative hub where design shops, a café, a bar, educational institutions and co-working space have taken up residency since its creation in 2017. MUA, the architecture studio which was tasked with the project of converting an old Soviet sewing factory in the historical area of Tbilisi into Fabrika, said they wanted to “transform the empty building into an urban space that becomes a platform for the young and free-minded artists to create and share, implement and execute new ideas”.

Inside Fabrika Tbilisi. Photo by Nakani Mamasakhlisi.

As well as Fabrika, there are plenty of other initiatives aimed at widening Tbilisi’s creative scene. A fairly recent addition to the growing number of projects is bookstore-cum-cafe They Said Books, set up by designer Lado Lomitashvili. The aim of They Said Books is, in Lomitashvili’s own words, “to neutralise the post-Soviet trauma of the country, in particular the city of Tbilisi, by trying to act like a cultural activist”.

Given its peculiar location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Tbilisian design is a pastiche of the many influences the city has had in the course of its history. It is therefore not surprising that many people are attracted and curious about what is being created here. Among the many local quirks, the fact that Georgian has its writing system is probably the most noticeable and interesting. The very fact that this nation has managed to preserve its very own language, culture and alphabet to this day is a testament to the resilience and tenacity of the Georgians – especially when you think that they have always been between two bigger powers, such as Russia and Turkey. And it is this very same strong will that is making this country emerge in the creative fields against all odds.

Georgian script on hand-made signs in Tbilisi. Photo by Gianmarco Caprio.

A testament to the city’s healthy state of design is the yearly Tbilisi Design Week, established in 2018. This week-long event, which will not take place this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has been set up with the goal of showcasing Georgian design, architecture, art and music, and has been well-received until now.

What will be interesting to see in the coming years is whether Tbilisi – and Georgia – will be able to establish itself as a full-blown international design hub. The ingredients are definitely there for Georgia to make it on the global stage.

Design Education in Tbilisi

Currently, education in the creative fields in the Georgian capital is at a level which does not really compare with what is offered in Europe, especially Western Europe. Nonetheless, there are options for those wishing to pursue university-level studies in Tbilisi. One such place is the Georgian Technical University (GTU), one of the largest institutions in the Caucasus region offering education in fields such as technology, architecture as well as design. Within GTU is the International Design School (IDS), where all courses are taught in English. The primary goal of IDS is that of integrating the engineering and design fields into a unique study curriculum. There aren’t many other places – especially in the Caucasus – where such a unique course is offered, so it is definitely worthy of note.

For a more art-focused approach, the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts (TSAA), established almost a century ago, offers its very own study curricula in design. At TSAA’s Faculty of Design one can choose among courses in more traditional crafts such as ceramic, glass, fashion, industrial, furniture, decorative as well as textile design. Graphic design is to be found instead among the curricula offered by the Faculty of Media Arts, alongside photography and digital media, while interior design is offered by the Faculty of Architecture.

Where to Work From

There is a considerably wide choice of places where one can get some hours – or even a full day – of work done. Georgians are, generally speaking, an easy-going and relaxed bunch, so you are unlikely to ever feel like you should leave. This, of course, very much depends on the place you are, so here are some of the best cafes and co-working spaces you’ll find in the city.

At the top of the list there’s Impact Hub, located within the grounds of Fabrika Tbilisi. Impact Hub is a state-of-the-art co-working space which offers all you can possibly desire. Another top spot within Fabrika is the hostel’s stylish and spacious café/lounge area, where you will never feel like you have to pack your things and go – there is plenty of room for everyone here, not that anyone seems to care anyway how long you’re staying.

Away from Fabrika, you’ll find some ideal spots mostly within the historical center of the city, as it is often the case. One such spot is the absolutely lovely Book Corner café located along the Mtkvari river in Dedaena Park. You’ll have trouble finding a cosier and more relaxing spot to work from in the city.

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Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.