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Beyond the Iron Curtain: Sofia's Cultural Appeal

After emerging from decades of isolation behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria is now stepping out as one of the hippest young members of the EU. With its sprawling green landscapes, Black Sea coasts, and preserved historical towns, the country features stunning geographic diversity, while its capital, Sofia, continues to grow into a thriving destination for design, fashion, art, and cuisine. Now in its second installment, Sofia Design Week illustrates the Eastern European city’s contemporary maturation, shedding a deserving spotlight on Bulgaria’s burgeoning cultural presence in the global arena.

The brainchild of Vasil Iliev, artistic director of One Magazine, SDW features international artists at the vanguard of digital, product, communication, and interactive design. The event encompasses a range of exhibitions, screenings, lectures, and activities that, according to its mission statement, will help “to bring Bulgaria into the ongoing global discussion on the future and point of design.” This year’s topic, More or Less, captures the spirit of the new Sofia, both as the title for SDW’s major exhibition centerpiece and as a symbolic commentary on the city’s growing artistic breadth.

Hosted at the Sofia City Art Gallery, the More or Less exhibition brings together artists from France, England, and Holland as well as Dutch communications agency KesselsKramer. The featured installations run the gamut of commercial commentary, but, according to the exhibition’s press release, they all “approach modern design with a sense of humor, thus questioning its value.” From Daniel Eatock‘s send-up of Bulgaria’s smoking ban through alternative versions of the classic “No Smoking” sign to Flamma: A Basic Need, in which artist Helmut Smits films himself making fire by using only IKEA products (who knew a coat hanger could be used for pyrotechnics?), the show approaches global consumerism with discerning scrutiny and self-awareness.

Beyond these edgy design horizons, Sofia is a culturally dynamic city. The downtown is a playground of historical monuments and stunning churches (the Alexander Nevski cathedral is a must), all within walking distance of one another, while nearby streetcars and pedestrian walkways graze outdoor market stalls and stores. The National Gallery of Foreign Art, meanwhile, features works by Rodin, Goya, and Renoir, but you can also glimpse homegrown artists at the nearby National Museum of History.

Restaurants like Beyond The Alley, Behind The Cupboard, and Olives show a flair for regional and international cooking, while a surplus of sushi restaurants on the Vassil Levski thoroughfare indicate a shift toward more far-flung flavors. For drinks, there’s no better place to while away an evening than at Taba&Co, a Parisian-style bar that serves elegant cocktails and wine in its outdoor garden and crimson-lit, Mucha-decorated sitting room.

With this June marking both the twenty-year anniversary of Bulgaria’s first free democratic elections as well as the second anniversary of Sofia Design Week, it’s clear that this former Eastern Bloc capital is fast becoming a cultural destination to watch.

Sofia Design Week runs from June 4th to the 11th, but the More or Less exhibition will be open at the Sofia City Art Gallery through June 18th.

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