Dunja Karabaic: Sustainable spill over and the Joy Of Missing Out

Introducing Mrs. Karabaic

As a young student, Dunja Karabaic felt that tight definitions and strict separations were not appropriate. Towards the end of her studies at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg the traditional arts market she was to enter appeared to Dunja as flat, hollow and exclusive: you either are in it, stick to its laws and rules, cooperate with an art gallery and so on… or you don’t. Back then she felt a void in that space in between those ‘choices’, as if there were no alternatives. It was ‘yes’ to the arts market or the absence of ‘yes’. 

It was that same moment in 2003 where Dunja Karabaic decided to create her own alternative to that absence. So she founded her Upcycling Jewellery LabelRCYCLIA! She has been a pioneer ever since.

Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Topics and questions that accompanied her during her beginnings were: What is at the root of value? What is valuable and what is the total absence of value, namely trash? What is creativity? And what price tag can be attributed to it?

I have always been the ‘freak’ that deals with such topics.

Dunja Karabaic

As a young artist she was fascinated by the game of turning something worth-less into something worth-more. How to re-value trash by applying her creativity to it. It was these unusual things through which she increasingly came into contact with people at exhibitions and fairs. And so she playfully explored the ambivalence between elitist denominated objects and those that are thrown into the bin.

Many hearts beating in one chest

Today, in a world that still lives by clear definitions (i.e. artist OR designer?) Dunja Karabaic assumes various professional roles. She is a designer, entrepreneur (‘bureau gruen’ and ‘labor gruen’), editor of the magazine Veedelfunker’, member of the Executive Board of the association ‘dasselbe in grün, and last but not least initiator and organizer of ökoRAUSCH Festival for Design & Sustainability

ökoRAUSCH was born out of the desire to find other like-minded people with similar enquiries in their work and life. ökoRAUSCH is the synergy of design, diversity, art, sustainability and transformation. It is a think tank, an enabler and pool of innovative ideas, a platform for exchange and networking with peers and experts of various fields. And it has a strong message: 

We want a world with a future. A world full of beauty and fun, but also one with rhyme and reason. And we are doing something about it: Sustainability is our goal and creativity will get us there!

Since 2008, ökoRAUSCH runs every year. The festival offers an exhibition area complemented with a live programme of lectures, panel discussions and artistic interventions. The audience is invited to experiment and question the status quo as well as to learn about the world of sustainable alternatives. But be aware, it also has the ability to make you become conscious of all the things that you did not know – until now! The festival sets you up with plenty of eco hacks which can be easily integrated into your daily life.

Sustainable spill over

At the core of her professional roles, Dunja Karabaic is a visionary who is driven by a strong sense of justice and the unwavering joy which she derives from the beauty of our natural world. This keeps her motivated and practice persistence to focus on a positive worldview and communicate in opportunities rather than limitations. She describes herself as a facilitator who stimulates to think outside of the box and find creative solutions for sustainable ideas. 

One of her biggest strength – and that of her team – is networking. They perceive it as fundamental to bring people together that strive for the same goal. A ‘critical mass’ which forms a community of thinkers and doers that ignites the change process in another critical mass. Create stimuli for the domino effect to unfold – into taking action. 

Dunja networking with peers – Photo by Bozica Babic

At the moment of ignition it is important to kindly encourage people to adopt green alternatives in their daily lives. Approach the matter undogmatically rather than try to missionize someone with the famous raised index finger. Transmitting contempt or guilt of the latter would only meet rejection and resistance and simply leads to nowhere. Besides, nobody wants to join the club of narrow-minded and uptight eco hardliners. We need something more exciting than that!

Rock’n’Roll is not dead yet and also works in green.

Persistence is key

The passion for sustainability permeates several dimensions in Dunja’s life: vegetarian diet while buying seasonal and regional food, cycling instead of having a car, and only accepting clients that do match her principles and values. One crucial factor that got her through the past 17 years in the intersective field of design, art and sustainability is persistence. Persistence because the topic is hard to digest. Persistence because you would like to achieve more and to have a greater impact. Persistence and patience to confront people along the (long) way who feel attacked by what you do and go into actively searching for mistakes and imperfections; lovers of ‘whataboutism’, Dunja calls them.

Persistence which is also significant to deal with the frustration when looking at the institutional level. The finitude of our natural resources and the ongoing destructive consequences of the Anthropocene are not new facts. The knowledge has been available for years but nothing major has changed on a political level so far. No decision-maker has ever implemented concrete measures to profoundly counteract the trend. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Roadmap to a better future
Photo by Bozica Babic

What is worse: five years after the Paris agreement the world is far from being on track to achieve its climate related targets. And political parties in Germany still do not include tangible action steps to circumvent the total temperature to rise above 1,5°C in their programmes for the next parliamentary term. This was recently revealed in a study commissioned by German Fridays For Future activists. However, its main message is the following:

Staying below the 1.5°C limit is only possible if Germany becomes CO2 neutral by the year 2035 which is extremely demanding, but possible.

FFF Germany

Design: Problem or solution?

And in the design sector? Back in time when Dunja just started in 2003, no one cared about sustainability. Within the world of product design, and particularly in the field of education, it used to be a total niche topic. This, fortunately, has changed. What used to be niche must not be missing now. But does it solve the problem or does it just wrap it differently? 

According to Dunja, designers play a major part in something that is per se unsustainable, namely consumption. Only think about Victor Papanek, architect and designer born in Austria, whose book ‘Design for the Real World’ got internationally known for its harsh critique about his own disciplines. His book, published in 1971, had become the world’s most widely read book on design and turned into a must-read of every design and architecture student. In it, Papanek famously stated:

Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.

Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek strongly criticised design to raise humanity’s desire for consumption. As long as we keep producing more, we keep consuming more – and vice versa. It is a vicious circle spiralling down – from a sustainable point of view. And so does Dunja who claims for a shift of focus to service and the question of how to satisfy consumers in a different way. Does it always have to be a new product? 

Consumption, she says, is like a narcotic. 

Could it be that once we realize consumption’s spell and let it go we are to find the joy and freedom that comes without it?, I wonder. Could we turn less into more, just like Dunja did with her upcycled jewellery?

The similar opinion is being expressed by sociologist Prof. Dr. Harald Welzer who demands better storytelling in order to stimulate the longing for a better quality of life when consuming less. According to him, artist with their power to stir imagination can help to visualize such a future and make us feel it with all our senses now. At the end, it is feelings that drive us human beings, isn’t it?!

Design could use a little art?!

Dunja feels that the design sector could loosen up a little. To day, those tight definitions and strict separations are still common and lead to neglecting the possibility of growth. It could use some of the playfulness that is innate to art. It could use playful methods to come up with alternatives or bypass the production-focussed thinking. A playfulness which allows contradictions and sometimes even absurdity to take place. 

[Artists have] the potential to show unusual ways of thinking, to turn things upside down, build a trampoline or dig a tunnel in order to overcome an obstacle.

Dunja Karabaic

The synergies would be manifold if it wasn’t for a major difficulty. ‘Traditional’ artists still perceive the act of putting themselves in the service of something as a flaw, as if they were asked to sell their soul (to the evil). No matter if serving a political statement or some ‘higher’ purpose such as the preservation of our planet Earth, instrumentalisation is taboo, a ‘no-go’…or a current trend? 

This is a complex subject and discussion that has been around for a while. It is taken up in more detail in the article about artist and filmmaker Edgar Honetschläger who happens to be of Austrian origin just as Papanek does. As an artist, Edgar perceives himself a ‘servant of society’ who devotes his work to the conservation of our natural world – not as a trend-setter but as a true activist. A stark contradiction to the just mentioned. So what is ‘traditional’ or ‘normal’ anyway? 

Dunja Karabaic cannot understand the rejection of such artists. She considers it absurd to actively refrain from topics that surround and influence you. Why deny a creative confrontation by means of an artistic expression?

Synergy of two supposed opposites

It is important for Dunja and her team to present artistic positions and interventions at ökoRAUSCH. They do not want to be purely product and design centred. They believe in the synergy and provide their audience with knowledge that goes beyond the mere product specific benefit of the exhibit. 

Artists and designers, says Dunja, have the ability to reduce the complexity of an issue.

They have the ability to develop images, patterns or strategies for the audience to (better) understand the issue – in general but also in particular when looking at sustainability. This, in return, makes it easier to understand what each and every one can do. The goal is to convey the big picture while providing the right stimuli to translate the knowledge into action. Remember the critical mass? It is needed to bring about a long-term change. A change that starts through action.  

Art and sustainability include one another, like a natural get-together.

Dunja Karabaic

Closing the circle: About the Joy Of Missing Out

Dunja challenges us to let go of tight definitions, reflect on our behaviours and decisions, open up our minds and just give sustainable alternatives a try… you might be surprised of how pleasant they are! And if you have already managed to do this, then try something really crazy: try to see the decision not to consume as something positive!

In our conversation, Dunja introduced me to the concept of JOMO – the Joy Of Missing Out; a counter movement to FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out). Replacing fear with joy? Yes, I say, totally up for it! How does it feel to not be running after the newest trend? What can surface from it?

Sense follows joy. Embrace the Joy Of Missing Out on that shiny object which you desire. Experience how this makes space for something worth-more to enter your life, something that lies within you. 

We must stop to see the pursuit of sustainability as a moral obligation and start to understand its potential of enrichment.

Dunja Karabaic

Last but not least, if given a super power, Dunja would love to be able to dissolve fear, even if just for a tiny moment. It is fear which keeps us from embracing change and try out new things. It is the fear of the unknown, and of the potential rejection of our surroundings (What would others think about me?) that holds us back. Being able to dissolve that fear would make people experience the joy of the ‘unknown’ and to lock that experience in their minds – just like planting a seed. This could be a thrust towards the completion of the contribution to a sustainable future of Dunja Karabaic.


Upcycling Jewellery Label RCYCLIAwebsite

bureau gruen. – agency for Sustainable Design: official website

Veedelfunker magazine in Cologne, Germany: official website
a project by labor gruen. co-initiated by Dunja

dasselbe in grün (the same in green): official website
an association of sustainable companies

ökoRAUSCH festival – Photo by Bozica Babic


Festival for Design & Sustainability: official website

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