Ljuba Gamulin – the founder of the famous Yugoslav gallery and design brand Sebastian – spent her life traveling and changing residences, but nearing her ninth decade, she returned to the Dubrovnik region, where it all began. Generously opening the doors of her home in Ston, she also opened her soul to me, confirming once again that beauty is indeed a matter of spirituality, and modesty the patina of all great minds.

Pročitaj intervju na srpsko-hrvatskom!

1 / Let’s start this conversation a bit unusually, from the end, and then you can tell us why you chose Ston for your retirement days, out of all the cities you’ve lived in?

It wasn’t something I planned. When I realized I needed to anchor somewhere and peacefully await the end of my life, I traveled around Dalmatia all the time, looking around Dubrovnik, but I didn’t find anything suitable, which turned out to be good because then someone said to me, “Why not Ston?” And so I came to the place where we spent a war year, 1942. My father, who was a planktologist, was engaged in researching the mortality of oysters in Ston at that time. It was a coincidence, but I can also say luck because I found everything I needed in these years. First of all, a small but genuine town, and a wonderful view no matter where you turned.

Ljuba Gamulin and Orson Welles on the set of the film “The Deep.”

2 / Your father was Tomo Gamulin, an oceanographer who led oceanographic institutes in Split, Rovinj, and Dubrovnik. How did growing up by the sea in different cities influence you and your further path?

I believe it influenced me a lot. I was the first child and raised in conditions to desire. There wasn’t a question I couldn’t get an answer to from my parents: whether it was about a star in the sky, a plant, or who Kraljević Marko was. The first books I read were adventure or exploration ones: Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Magellan, Livingstone, Amundsen, Scott… My parents insisted on general education and language learning. I think I was 7 or 8 years old when my father subscribed to the BBC newsletter, the “Grandfather and Ann” dialogue for learning English, which we would read together in the evening, and in the morning, at 6:00 AM, BBC would broadcast it with correct pronunciation. It was truly a privilege to have parents who knew such a thing existed. Another privilege was growing up by the sea. As they say in Dubrovnik: Dip your finger in the sea and you have contact with the whole world. The fact that we moved from Dubrovnik to Split, then to Rovinj and back, separated me from an anchor, from one place, and the need to be only there and nowhere else. We didn’t have a house to return to. It was always a new apartment, so I continued to live that way. I never saw myself in one house for the rest of my life. I was everywhere, both a guest and at home.

Ljuba Gamulin and Orson Welles on the set of the film “The Deep.”

3 / You studied art history, yet you worked in film. How did that come about?

I wanted to study directing, but the prerequisite for it was completing another faculty before enrollment, and it seemed to me that it would be good to first go through acting. However, the first year of acting was a trial at that time. I didn’t pass. Along with Boris Dvornik, who also failed the exam like me, we lost the right to further study. I was disappointed, it was a significant blow, and then I switched to art history, but at the same time, I started volunteering in film as a third assistant director, so to speak, a runner. Later I moved to script supervision, which was a bit better, more comfortable, and more involved. I learned a lot, especially about responsibility and organization, but it became clear to me that there was no future for me in that and that I wasn’t cut out for directing, so unfortunately, after about ten years, I gave up on film.

4 / While working in film, you closely collaborated with giants such as Orson Welles and Veljko Bulajić. What memories do you have of that?

I worked for Jadran, Avala, and Bosna film, as well as abroad, often in co-productions because of my fluent English and Italian. For this reason, just after returning from filming in Israel, Bulajić took me into his team for “The Battle of Neretva”. It was a grand project, with big domestic and foreign actors. The Yugoslav People’s Army provided the necessary soldiers for battle scenes; I think even 2000 of them were reassigned for military service on the Neretva River because of the film. Veljko was a strong personality with great social intelligence. Working on a film demands complete responsibility from every member of the crew; it truly is teamwork where anyone’s mistake can damage the entire project. For a grand film like Neretva, Veljko assembled a team of the best professionals. He was a brilliant organizer, full of working energy, stable; filming went on without incidents or stress, smoothly. I cherish that period with fond memories. I was the script supervisor for the second unit, but also acted as a translator whenever needed, so I found myself at a press conference with Orson Welles. As the discussion revolved around what he found to be a tedious partisan story, he flirted with me the whole time to distract me while I was translating. Whenever he needed to answer a question, he’d throw a flirtatious comment at me, which made translating challenging. After the conference, he suggested I join the team going to Hvar to shoot “The Deep”. Orson, in fact, used his fee from “The Battle of Neretva” as the budget for his film, as per his contract with Bosna film. Knowing this and considering the discomfort of the press conference, on the way back, I begged Veljko not to transfer me to Orson’s team. He promised he wouldn’t, but the next morning, I received orders to pack for Hvar. Nearly panicked, I set off, devising a strategy, as I understood how important this collaboration was for me. However, everything turned out well in the end, and the experience from that evening never repeated. Working on that film enriched me forever. We filmed on a boat, at sea. During filming, we had to turn off the engine to avoid vibrations. The boat would then have only its sails up, losing direction, and while the captain corrected it, Orson would lose patience. So, to save time on translation, and knowing I was a sailor, he often ordered me to take the helm, which I held with one hand while holding scripts fluttering in the wind with the other. It was stressful for me, Orson was very quick, and he expected the same pace from our small team; it was a demanding collaboration, but I’m grateful for it. He was a genius in the true sense of the word. I’ve never met anyone with such experience, intelligence, and stature. Being with him on that small boat for 45 days, as stressful as it was, was also fantastic.

Ljuba Gamulin during an interview, April 2024, Ston (photo: Bogdan Petrovic)

5 / How did you transition from leaving the film industry to starting Sebastian?

I knew the new managers at the Atlas travel agency, my high school colleagues, good friends. We all finished college around the same time, and they were full of enthusiasm, open to new ideas, so I proposed mine about a representative gallery in Dubrovnik, which would enrich the tourist offer. They liked the idea, and soon they found a space. The small church of St. Sebastian, not a monolith but divided into two large rooms perfect for a gallery, while the attic served as the office where I worked. In 1971, I officially submitted the gallery project to Atlas, which would be self-financed from the sale of artworks with a clear concept: Summer exhibitions of Yugoslav paintings for foreigners and winter exhibitions of designs by famous European designers for locals. And they accepted everything exactly as proposed.

Ljuba Gamulin in the Dubrovnik gallery Sebastian

6 / A few years later, you opened a gallery in Belgrade as well. How important was that move?

Belgrade, due to the potential number of buyers, offered us the opportunity to seriously start designing an industrial program, which was my initial idea, to introduce a new source of funding alongside selling artworks: design, organizing production, and marketing consumer goods – what Sebastian became known for. If we had stayed only in Dubrovnik, that story probably wouldn’t have taken off because the city was empty outside the tourist season. Unlike Belgrade, which I was sure would have the required 10,000 potential buyers. However, it turned out there were many, many more.

The Sebastian Gallery in Belgrade, Knez Mihailova Street

7 / Where did the idea for establishing a designer brand come from?

I traveled abroad very early and was fascinated by the appearance of things, their design, especially in Italy. First, there was Benetton, as well as numerous Italian shops selling household items, with shapes and colors, an entirely new world for me. “Our world in colors” – that was the initial idea for Sebastian. With minimalist and simple design, everything was also functional, and we narrowed the colors down to red, blue, yellow, and green, along with black, white, and transparent glass products. I think we shone with a new shine.

8 / And the product range, how did you envision that?

Following this design principle, we started with glass designed by Ema Marodić. I saw her ceramic vessels in the display window of the Association of Applied Artists, and they conceptually fit what I envisioned as Sebastian’s offer. I contacted her, and we immediately agreed to collaborate. Ema made sketches, we organized production in Paraćin, and soon we got the first batch of products. However, the gallery in Knez Mihailova Street was not ready yet, so as we had to take out the goods from the factory, and we had nowhere to put them, we took them to the large, empty attic of a building in the center of Belgrade where Ema lived. There, we unpacked the goods, did inventory, calculated prices, I bought a receipt book, informed a few friends, and suddenly there was a stream of people, and we sold everything in a few days. At that moment, none of us thought about whether what we were doing was illegal. For the second delivery, since the location in Knez was still not ready, we used our brains and rented a smaller space in the Sava Center where the gallery existed until the grand opening in Knez. After glass, we moved on to textiles. We made jackets, duvets, pillows, and sleeping bags somewhere in Velika Plana. All in our colors. Later, we expanded with a rich program of tin boxes, paper goods, textiles, small furniture, office supplies… There was both design and redesign. Designers themselves came and offered their products in small series, and we accepted anything that fit our concept. There were truly talented ones among them. The market for their advanced products was still too small and unprepared for large industrial quantities.

Sebastian tin boxes by Saturnus Ljubljana

9 / When you say there was less design and more redesign, what do you mean by that?

For example, we would go to a factory that produces something, like cutlery, for instance. They already had the metal part from Solingen, and our designer would change the shape of the plastic handle and adjust the color to fit Sebastian. It wouldn’t be fair to call that design but rather redesign. For redesign, we used existing suitable tools in the factory, changed the color or design, often added our logo, and had a simple, cheap industrial product dressed in a new suit. Redesign. Our design was what Ema did in glass, Vladimir Stojanović in textiles, Eduard Čehovin and Bojana Komadina in cardboard, and many others. We redesigned metalware in Milanovac, umbrellas in Lendava, bags in Vrgorac, office accessories in TOZ in Zagreb, and even metal boxes were made in Saturnus from Ljubljana using their tools, with our involvement being more than just creative.

Sebastian T-shirts and the renowned Sebastian bag

10 / The German newspaper Zidojče Cajtung wrote about the huge queue in front of the gallery during its opening, which looked like people were waiting to buy coffee, not modern design household items. Were you also surprised by such a response?

I wasn’t. When I opened the Belgrade gallery, I started from the assumption that there must be 10,000 people in the city who would buy the same things as me. And I was right; it just turned out that there were many more of those people, and many came from the countryside with shopping lists.

11 / What is your personal relationship with Belgrade like?

Belgrade is very dear to me, and I’ve always enjoyed being there. It’s a city that embraces you, making you feel at home. What fascinated me about Belgrade’s events was the large audience turnout. Everyone came, those who approved and those who disagreed but wanted to be informed. Sebastian Gallery was certainly an important contribution, but I think Beorama, run by Slavko Timotijević, was equally important. Beorama was a small magazine, a kind of guide that provided monthly information about gallery, theater, and cinema programs in the city. It was a snapshot of cultural events but also a guide through restaurants, museums, and landmarks. From issue to issue, it established its indispensability and was well-received, as if it had always been there. I am very proud of that project, especially since it continued to exist for about ten years after Sebastian disappeared. I don’t know how Slavko managed that, but I am grateful to him.

Left: The Sebastian Gallery on Knez Mihailova Street in the mid-1980s; Right: The ruins of the Sebastian Gallery (photo: Maja Razović)

12 / How did you feel when you heard that the building in Knez Mihailova Street where Sebastian was located had been demolished?

To be honest, I didn’t have any particular feelings about it. The building wasn’t demolished before my eyes; it was demolished after the war, and with good reason. We were already used to seeing Yugoslav heritage end up in ruins. Eduard Čehovin organized the last exhibition in the already demolished gallery. The building was in ruins, but you could still enter. I think the police eventually kicked them out, and he documented the event and made an exhibition in Ljubljana, where I met him, and that story was very charming. My friend Maja Razović, a journalist, was in Belgrade at the time of the gallery’s demolition; she brought me a photo of the ruins, and in it, there was accidentally a fantastic detail: a woman pushing a baby stroller in front of Sebastian’s ruins, wearing a green Sebastian T-shirt.

13 / You spent the war in Dubrovnik under siege. What was that like?

Terrible but a significant life experience. I couldn’t believe that people could start shooting at each other like that. I was there; I saw and heard everything. It was already cold, and we swam in the sea instead of in the bathtub. Usually, there was no shooting at night, but during the day, it was selective. I was one of those in the war who foolishly wasn’t afraid. A few of us wandered around the city; we didn’t sit in shelters. We all took photos. Even the Belgrade weekly Vreme published some of my photos showing the large hotel Imperial on Pilama in flames.

Hotel Imperial Dubrovnik after the bombing (photo: Ljuba Gamulin)

14 / What happened to Sebastian after the breakup of Yugoslavia?

By the start of the war, Sebastian had grown so much that it exhausted me, and I decided to step back. I already had people to whom I had delegated tasks, so it was possible. Half a year after I left, the war broke out, and Sebastian inevitably shut down. Everyone received severance pay except for me, who had resigned earlier. The war left me high and dry, without salary and health insurance, so I went to Zagreb with the idea of ​​starting a story similar to Sebastian’s but in the new country, which only partially succeeded, so I spent the next few years doing a similar job at Rukotvorine and Barkomanija. When that story ended too, it was time for retirement; I realized I was tired of the city. I sold my studio apartment in Dubrovnik and moved to the countryside in Istria. I bought a meadow and planted 170 olive trees. It was supposed to close the circle because I hadn’t counted on my pension being enough for the standard of living I wanted to continue. I spent about twenty years in Istria.

15 / How do you spend your time today, are you still creative?

Not in the way you probably mean. Today, creativity for me is working with hands that like to be busy. Something very private. I like to cook, make jams, but I spend most of my time on the internet. After the war, I started to follow politics intensively because I hadn’t before. Like most young Yugoslavs, I was apolitical – we were building our lives and didn’t bother with politics. Only now do I see how much I missed and how little I knew. Today, I am very informed about contemporary geopolitical situations; if you have time, everything is simple and accessible. I’m not on social media, but I listen to podcasts by globally active, intelligent, and progressive people. The internet allows us to follow eminent people in all areas, and I use it to the maximum, as if I were going to college again. I’m interested in geopolitics, but also AI, climate change, and many other surprising phenomena of this new world, especially sociological ones. The good side of the internet is that it provides important information if you know how to choose, and when it records you, it suggests new, similar things of the same worldview. New windows are constantly opening.

Ljuba Gamulin, April 2024. (photo: Bogdan Petrovic)

16 / You radiate immense energy and a desire for new knowledge; is that actually the recipe for longevity?

I wouldn’t know about that, but I do continue to explore. Oscar Wilde wrote in a poem, “For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.” So, I’m ticking off one life after another: sailing – died, diving – died, mushroom hunting, which I also did for a long time – died, I’m left with swimming and some short walks around Ston and its surroundings. However, what Wilde couldn’t say, and I can say with confidence because I live in an unimaginable world for him, is that some entirely new chapters are opening, offering new opportunities. It is said that old age is freedom from others, and I agree; independence is essential, and only now do I have it fully.

published / NIN magazine / 18. april 2024.

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