18 Most Important Polish Graphic Designers of the 20th Century
Following the release of VeryGraphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century – a compilation of information on contemporary graphic design which is unprecedented in its scope – we would like you to meet 18 remarkable designers who have redirected the course of Polish graphic design.
Henryk Berlewi (1894-1967) represents the most radical stream of the Polish avant-garde of the 1920s (he co-created the Blok group) and he was recognised not only in Warsaw, but also in Paris and Berlin. Initially, his graphics were dominated by Jewish cultural motifs, for the artist wanted to create a modern national iconography. In 1923 he developed his theory of abstract art – a manifesto that he called Mechano-Faktura / Mechano-Texture. He radically reduced his colours to white, red and black, while the compositions were built of circles, dots, straight and wavy lines and square surfaces of varying strength and intensity. Berlewi is considered a pioneer of the Op-art movement.
Tadeusz Gronowski (1894-1990) is Poland’s most famous graphic designer and illustrator of the interwar period, which he spent in Paris (where he worked for many exclusive department stores, including Galeries Lafayette). His works are great examples of art déco. In Poland he designed ads for numerous companies, including Wedel and Orbis, and his most famous poster is Radion washes for you (1926). He authored the well-known logo of LOT Polish Airlines (the characteristic outline of a crane in flight embedded in the letter “O”) which has faithfully accompanied Poland’s national airline since 1929. In 1925 Gronowski won the Grand Prix at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.
You wake up in the morning, you look at your calendar (drawn by Tadeusz Gronowski), you light up a cigarette (its packaging drawn by Tadeusz Gronowski). On the street – posters (drawn by Tadeusz Gronowski) hanging on every pole invite you to buy numerous goods. When you pick up a book (cover by Tadeusz Gronowski) or go through Pani (with Tadeusz Gronowski’s images), whenever you read any journal (headpiece by Tadeusz Gronowski). Finally, when you got to the cinema (Tadeusz Gronowski’s film and advertisement posters) or to the theatre (decorations designed by Tadeusz Gronowski) – you see that name all over the place. When I receive my remuneration for this article in Wiadomości (headpiece – Tadeusz Gronowski) – I will buy stocks (designed by Tadeusz Gronowski) and leave on the first Red Star Line ship (poster drawn by Tadeusz Gronowski).
– this is how Antoni Słonimski ironically summarised Gronowski in his column in Wiadomości Literackie.
Adam Półtawski (1881-1952) was one of the most important graphic designers of the interwar period. His work, falling within the category of traditional and classic Polish typography, constituted a form of opposition to the avant-garde activities of Władysław Strzemiński, Henryk Berlewi and Mieczysław Szczuka. Półtawski was a master typographer. In 1928 he completed his drawings for the Roman-style Antykwa Półtawskiego typeface, regarded as a milestone in the history of Polish print design and often called “Poland’s national type”.
One of the top representatives of the Polish avant-garde of the 1920s, for whom functional art was key. Mieczysław Szczuka (1989-1927) is also counted among the pioneers of photomontage in Poland. He designed posters and campaign materials for the Polish Communist party. Along with his life partner and co-worker, Teresa Żarnower, they produced Blok magazine (initially with the assistance of Władysław Strzemiński and Henryk Stażewski), which initiated the era of functional printing (the idea came from Strzemiński – he proclaimed that the concept of a graphic layout should be equivalent to a literary construction, a visualisation of an idea). Their most acclaimed work, executed in the spirit of their new typography, was the graphic design for Anatol Stern’s poem Europa (1929).
Teresa Żarnower (1895-1950) was Mieczysław Szczuka’s partner in both life and art. She belonged to the interwar period with its constructivist avant-garde environment and is considered a pioneer of this trend in Poland. She was a co-creator of the magazine Blok. In her posters and photomontages she combined her political engagement and picks of the avant-garde. Żarnower also designed covers for left-wing publications, including Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Poems (1927), which remains a classical example of modern cover design. She combined the author’s photograph with vertical and horizontal divisions. Żarnower’s most recognised poster is probably the parliamentary election campaign poster designed for Worker-Peasant Unity (1928), which shows the punishing fist of the workers’ society hitting the wall of a prison.
One of Poland’s finest poster artists, whose works entered the global art canon. Henryk Tomaszewski (1914-2005) was a pioneer of the Polish poster school, and used to say: “my chief goal is to fit nothing and no one”. He made his debut in the second half of the 1930s and introduced a new form into the Polish poster school, a form similar to painting. His works, first noticed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, used spots of colour and synthetic drawings. After World War II, he started using sophisticated poetic devices and a minimalist form to play with viewers' imaginations. His superbly designed graphic signs, letters, symbols and metaphors made expressive and apt comments on theatre and opera performances, exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events. The Royal Society of Arts in London conferred upon him the award 'Honorary Royal Designer for Industry' in 1976.
Roman Cieślewicz (1930-1996) was one of the founders of the Polish poster school, which strived for aesthetics of simplicity and clarity, while urging the use of poetic metaphor and an abundance of modes of expression. In 1963 he emigrated to Paris, where he worked with several publishers and designed the layout of magazines such as Elle (Art Director 1966-1969), Vogue and Opus International. He was widely acclaimed for his designs of lavish catalogues for prestigious exhibitions at the Paris Centre Pompidou. The artist was inspired – especially in his later period – by the Russian constructivist avant-garde of the 1920s and by the Polish group Blok. Combining romanticism and poetry with cold rationalism, and setting emotions in play with strict logic, his work penetrates our sub-consciousness and tests and teases its associations.
Roman Duszek (born 1935) is undoubtedly a pioneer in the design of modern identification and communication systems in Poland. His most famous designs include the logos of the Daily Television News (1976), and Polish Television Channel (1976), Victoria Intercontinental Hotel (1976) , and the visual identity of LOT Polish Airlines (in 1978, in co-operation with Andrzej Zbrożek) and the Warsaw metro (in 1982 in co-operation with Ryszard Bojar and Marek Stańczyk).
Wiktor Górka (1922-2004) was one of the founders of the Polish poster school, whose most famous work is the poster design for the cult film Cabaret (1973) directed by Bob Fosse with a memorable performance by Liza Minelli. The poster depicts cabaret dancers’ legs in black stockings as well as Joel Grey’s face in daring makeup, which together form the shape of a swastika. In 1970, Górka went to Havana with a group of Polish artists to conduct design workshops in Cuba. From there he ended up in Mexico, where he worked as an artist and a teacher. He taught drawing and poster design at prestigious Mexican art schools until the mid-90s. At the 6th International Poster Bienniale in Mexico in 2000, he received the top award for his contribution to the development of graphic arts in Mexico – Medalla a la Excelencia José Guadalupe.
Jan Lenica (1928-2001) was one of the most important and influential Polish artists of the twentieth century – he won fame as a creator of posters and animated films (he is considered as a pioneer in contemporary animation). He was a truly versatile artist, working at the meeting points of genres, blurring the borders, juggling conventions and challenging aesthetic standards. His works had a unique poetry. He was – alongside Henryk Tomaszewski – one of the forerunners of the modern Polish press cartoon, contributing to the journals Szpilki and Wiadomości Kulturalne and to the daily Rzeczpospolita, and replacing the typical cartoon joke with an artistic feature bordering on a philosophical treatise. It is to Lenica we owe the term “Polish school of poster” – it appeared in the title of his article for the Swiss periodical Graphis.
Jan Młodożeniec (1929-2000) was one of the most remarkable representatives of the Polish poster school. He studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in Henryk Tomaszewski’s poster studio. His work was characterised by his tracing around patches of colour with a thick black outline and the introduction of freehand lettering to supplement the composition. His posters for Klute and The Conformist and drawings in the columns of the literary monthly Miesięcznik Literacki became a part of cinema history
Piotr Młodożeniec (born in 1956), a son of Jan Młodożeniec, was one of the first artists in Poland to use technology and the language of computer images in graphics. The characteristic features of his early prints were angular, stencilled letters, and the silhouettes of comic characters in grey, black and white. Młodożeniec's posters are reminiscent of street graffiti. The artist himself points out that he does urban art, although he never created classical graffiti on walls, as he prefers to paint on paper. His works often exhibit a political character (the artist was associated with the underground Solidarity movement). In 1991, together with Marek Sobczyk, Młodożeniec founded the Zafryki artistic partnership (suspended in 2004), a company designing posters, illustrations and applied graphics. Together they also designed dozens of typefaces.
Recognised on the international art scene, Jan Sawka (1946-2012) is one of the so-called "illustrator generation". Upon arriving in the United States in the seventies, he worked for The New York Times. Young poster creators who debuted in the seventies changed the track of Polish posters’ development. Sawka’s posters, graphics and paintings were often described as psychedelic, i.e., characterised by fluorescent and contrasting colours, intricate, handwritten lettering, collage elements and the disturbing fading out of certain compositional elements. But, as Sylwia Giżka wrote:
Besides the mild, narcotic aesthetics, Sawka’s posters were virulent. The seemingly trivial subjects hid the – often scary – interpretations of the situation of a citizen of a totalitarian country.
The recently deceased Janusz Stanny (1932-2014) is one of Poland’s most famous books and press illustrators – his satirical drawings were published in the cult magazine Szpilki. He earned his degree in Professor Henryk Tomaszewski’s studio. Stanny merged a painterly eye with a sense of humour and sharp lines. He created a characteristic style which is recognisable at first glance. He illustrated fairy tales and literature for adults with equal ease.
One of the finest representatives of the Polish poster school. Endowed with a baroque imagination, Franciszek Starowieyski (1930-2009) was highly adept at combining sensuous forms with intellectual messages, producing unexpected effects and shocking surrealist visions. He was the first Pole to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (in 1985).
Śliwka (born in 1932) belongs to that group of designers whose work from the early sixties to the late eighties had a decisive impact on the everyday landscape of Poland. Many of his designs are easily recognised symbols of the past – an important part of the material history of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). Some of them are still visible in public spaces. Karol Śliwka is the author of popular logos, including the logo of Bank PKO (1968), the Mother and Child Institute (1980), the National Library (1990) and the Wars cologne (1975).
Co-founder of the Polish School of Posters, and author of an impressive, probably record-breaking number of them – he produced more than 1,500, many of which became tremendously popular. His early works put a premium on graphics rather than painting, with the human figure serving as a starting point to building the works' character. He’s the author of the famous Mazowsze poster (1954) which has had a million copies printed. Some of his 1950s film posters are now considered world classics, notably Czerwona oberża / The Red Inn (1955), in which Fernandel's comic face is grotesquely elongated, Bulwar zachodzącego słońca / Sunset Boulevard (1957) and Ulica Hańby / Street of Shame (1959). Waldemar Świerzy (1931-2013) is also the author of posters promoting the Polish Year in Spain (2001-2002): 3 x Chopin concerts and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, which he produced on commission for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Wojciech Zamecznik (1923-1967) was most famous as a poster artist, but he was also a remarkable photographer and creator of opening credits for TV and film (including the intro for the Polish Television cultural series Pegaz / Pegasus). Zamecznik was a master and made skilful use of photography’s possibilities: in his posters he transformed photographed objects and experimented with negatives to create abstract forms. Jan Lenica wrote about Zamecznik’s posters:
His ascetic abstinence was isolated in a time when Polish posters eagerly leaned towards baroque's abundance. To Wojciech Zamecznik, a poster was a mathematical equation, he strived to transform complicated formulas into the simplest equations, to a sum of two, three elements. He readily “collided” photography and logos, he often organised the whole surface of the poster (as in Titanic) with a single element, sometimes settled by reducing an equation to a single sign, but he experimented with photography with the great delight of an alchemist: he eroded it with acids, flipped it, abused it in the processing trays, soaked it in baths, framed it, cut it, squeezed it, to abstract its essence, its exponential expression, a strong and pure sound.