Jan Kurzątkowski's PaperSculpture and Furniture Design
Jan Kurzątkowski, "Fish", paper toy, 1936, prototype for the Ład Artists’ Cooperative, ca. 1947, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Jan Kurzątkowski was a pioneer of Warsaw paper sculpting, a creator of groundbreaking furniture designs, an active promoter of the idea of modern artistic schooling, and a teacher. He combined various professions while maintaining a logical approach and discipline of material, regardless of whether he was dealing with paper, wood, plywood, glass, or synthetic materials.
He made his first paper figurines as a student in 1918, yet the real birth date of Warsaw paper sculpture is in 1924, when he won the competition to decorate the ballroom at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. His recognizable style was already mature and conscious in his early works, mainly in terms of respect for materials. His relief panneau, entitled A Funeral for Zachęta, was the first time that paper was used for a work of such large dimensions. Yet the relief is light and variegated through the use of this artist's trademark strategies. The whole is softened by the rolled surfaces, which in the future would come to dominate the artist's work. The gray paper is invigorated through a contrasting play of shadow and light, smooth parts and textured reliefs. The stiffness of the material is no obstacle to emulating the real shapes. Apart from the above-mentioned panneau, there are also figures of a highland robber, a drummer, and a water nymph, which clearly allude to folk crafts. The simplified and geometric figures are stocky and equipped with larger-than-life props, allowing for the identification of profession and function. The artist himself elaborated on the borrowing of folk motifs:
At that time the limits of realism were not yet an issue. The matter of those limits (...) led at that time to battles between the generations over 'form' (...) I ought to add that back then, quests for 'form' were reaching into the distant past, and the discovery of folk art contributed a great deal – and was very timely.(1)
Jan Kurzątkowski, "Ladies", paper toy, ca. 1947, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
In 1938, Jan Kurzątkowski was continuing in the tradition of carnival decor. He changed the main corridor of the Academy of Fine Arts into a peculiar painting gallery – his paper decorations parodied famous canvases. He made toys and decorative Christmas tree ornaments which the Institute for the Promotion of Art (IPS) later bought and then sold on their own. Every year the IPS bought around 2,000 decorations from Kurzątkowski. After the war, as Władysław Wincze recalled, Kurzątkowski produced "a very inventive Christmas tree and decorated it with splendid little paper ornaments." In this prosaic fashion, as a member devoted to the program, he helped to reactivate the Ład Cooperative in the trying post-war years. Meanwhile, Kurzątkowski's paper sculptures enjoyed several displays, including at the 1947 Folk and Artistic Industry Exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw. This same exhibit later traveled to the United States; and in 1948 it became a part of the Touring Representative Exhibit of Polish Folk Art and Artistic Handcrafts in Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad, and, in 1949, in Paris.
Kurzątkowski's paper sculpting style gradually became softer and more lyrical. The folds were replaced with ripples and rolls, thus softening the light and shade contrasts. Color, too, began to appear. Kurzątkowski's toys were a realization of the "beauty for all" concept; they proved that a cheap and popular material could, when used consciously, have artistic merit. They also testified to the artist's versification in the visual arts.
Kurzątkowski's post-war work was, above all, in furniture making. He had carried out the first designs of this sort back in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929 Kurzątkowski's furniture entered the Ład Exhibit Collection at the General National Exhibit in Poznań. In the 1930s he designed a massive desk with a semi-oval top that achieved some renown, a deskette and two armchairs (1931), as well as the Feather chair (ca. 1936). At the 1937 world exhibition in Paris he received three medals, including the silver in the "Furniture and Furniture Sets" category. The design idea was similar to that used for the paper sculptures – the material and principles of use dictated the form, and the beauty emerged from the purity and clarity of the construction solutions. This accounts for the aesthetic similarities - the interweaving rhythms and the pairing of smooth and flowing surfaces. Aleksander Wojciechowski described the interweaving of his various creative experiments thusly: "Kurzątkowski is essentially an ‘insider,’ but he also achieved his high level of artistry and vast technical knowledge through designing toys, paper sculptures, and glass dishware, and by creating many painting compositions."(2)
Jan Kurzątkowski, "Clerk", paper toy, ca. 1947, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Kurzątkowski's furniture was rough and hard. It served as his personal interpretation of Ład's mandate of "perfection of form, materials, and execution." He took a critical stance against drawing from the art of the old Zakopane furniture, which was too excessively ornate and too large in its dimensions to be considered modern, everyday furniture. The result of his construction solutions was simple furniture made of Polish wood. Kurzątkowski identified himself with these contemporaneous notions:
Change has come, on the one hand, through intellect vs. intuition, function vs. ornament, and functionalism in architecture, and on the other hand, through the charm of the primitive – folk art, national art slogans, and the already-familiar concept of everyday beauty. In other words, all of this remains but in a slightly different way, because it has all returned under changed conditions – and with other elements added in – since 1945.(3)
There was no shortage of individuality in the co-operative, and questions of society and technique were common concerns. Figures from national style and art deco circles found themselves in Ład. Kurzątkowski, meanwhile, was among those who saw applied and construction issues as their main reference point. Despite the obvious influence of some people – such as Karol Tichy, his onetime lecturer at the School of Fine Arts – Kurzątkowski's pragmatic individuality puts him alongside the most vibrant personalities in Ład.
Jan Kurzątkowski, hand-shaped soluble glass carafe and glasses, made for the Bureau of Production Aesthetics Supervision, by the Household Glass Works in Szczytna Śląska, 1947-1949, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
In the opinion of some critics Kurzątkowski's furniture was too clunky. However, his eager application of openwork, oval forms, delicate curves, or legs that tapered towards the bottom did provide contrast. The designer dismissed all ornament that was not part of the construction, rarely applied upholstery, favored minimalism, and combined several functions into single elements. "All the passion and ingenuity in his brilliant paper toys reconfigured into the harmony of boards and planks, each of which seemed to explain its own functional necessity," wrote Stanisław Wożnicki in describing the Interior Art Exhibition of 1936. Kurzątkowski also clearly shared the Ład proclivity for experimentation. In designing the Feather chair, he developed the innovative technique of splitting ash boards and setting miniature blocks between the layers. Having been commissioned to carry out flexible furniture without using springs (hard to acquire at the time), Kurzątkowski significantly stated: "This calls for an invention, not a piece of furniture." His post-war designs for furniture made of bent plywood brilliantly fulfilled this need. In 1952, at the Polish Interior Architecture and Decorative Art Exhibit in Warsaw, a chair was shown that confirmed Kurzątkowski's talent and enthusiasm for experimenting with materials. Work by other designers - e.g., Teresa Kruszewska (the Scallop chair), Czesław Knothe, and Maria Chomentowska - using this technology appeared some years later. In 1956 Kurzątkowski showed another chair at the Ład Jubilee Exhibit - this time made entirely of plywood, with an unusual 'flowing' form, which recalled his paper sculpture experiments.
Jan Kurzątkowski, chair made of bent plywood, probably made in the shop of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, 1956, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
And yet, the postulate of affordable furniture accessible to all while being functional and of high quality was not fulfilled. Refined, one-of-a-kind products made in small, independent workshops were incapable of answering to all these demands. The co-operative's dilemma remained the compromise between price and quality.
The reception of Kurzątkowski's furniture designs was not always enthusiastic. The trade specialists saw his solutions as revolutionary. They were, however, often too innovative for the mass consumer. Kurzątkowski was part of a movement to design for minimal accommodations – many of his furniture ideas are portable, collapsible, and easy to store. Visitors to the Polish Interior Architecture Exhibition in 1957 wrote critical remarks in the guest book: "too gray, no colors, monotonous, too severe, strictly for ascetics, passionless." There were even some cutting jokes: "Is this a design for a prison cell?" or "Bonjour tristesse!"
Jan Kurzątkowski's work in applied interior design is also significant. Foremost among them are: the "Len Wileński" shop in Warsaw (1934), the shop at the Polish Museum in Rapperswil (1937), the Społem sitting room (a design awarded a gold medal in 1939), a bookstore on Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw (1947), the interior of the Czytelnik Publishers cooperative (1949), the Warsaw store for the Cepelia Folk and Arts Industry Center (1961). Kurzątkowski also designed glass for Lower Silesian glassworks, which were to shift from making one-of-a-kind to mass products in the late 1940s. These designs were admired but not accepted for production.
Jan Kurzątkowski, "Feather", chair, made by the Ład Artists’ Cooperative, ca. 1936, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Kurzątkowski's didactic work yields to a similar division – into pre-war paper sculpture and post-war furniture. Paper sculpture had been used in teaching, but it was only in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts where a studio came about that recognized paper as the primary material for design and sculpture experiments. Jan Kurzątkowski was meant to assist Professor Wojciech Jastrzębowski from 1928 on, but in reality, he ran the classes himself according to the professor's program. He described the studio’s goal, significance, and innovative concept in the following manner: "This new subject, in some sense an ABC's of form - the first attempt at a methodical building of form – dealt with issues in the visual arts on an elementary level, and therefore an abstract level, and served as a foundation for just about all disciplines. This new orientation in some sense reversed the traditional method of studying nature […]."(4) Materials that were cheap, relatively easy to use in manufacture, and required no special equipment provided the basis for sculpting courses – for teaching form, space, surface, and also expression. Today the use of paper techniques in academies seems entirely natural – but in those days, it was pioneering work.
From 1948-1969 Kurzątkowski worked with students at the Warsaw Interior Design Department, where he emphasized construction and materials. This was the legacy of Ład ideas, which spoke of the importance of materials. Thus became the craftsman-like work method, which was meant to lead to the tangible knowledge of the structural properties of the material, and to keep the designer in constant contact with the object, its scale, mass, and details. This approach was favorable to experimentation, which became the trademark of the workshop and the innovative designs of the man who ran it. The link between the furniture and the interior was also vital. Kurzątkowski saw furniture in applied situations, not as exhibits or "laboratory subjects." Teresa Kruszewska recalled: "The professor's corrections served to remind us that the object of interior architecture and its subsequent interior decor is and remains the human being. No other designer of his generation was capable of quite so masterfully defining space by the measure of the person."(5)
Jan Kurzątkowski (1899–1975), a teacher and a designer of furniture, paper sculptures, glass products, and interiors studied at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1922–1928), and was also a co-founder of the Ład Artists’ Cooperative. In 1928 he began running shapes and surfaces composition courses at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw and at the City School of Decorative Arts and Painting. He was a pioneer and promoter of paper sculpture as a design (in toys and decor) and didactic technique. After the war he taught at the Visual Arts Academy (1946–1948) and at the Academy of Fine Arts (1950–1969), where, from 1961–1969 he ran the Interior Design Wing, and from 1957–1958, he served as dean of the Interior Design Department. His most important awards were the gold and silver medals at the Art and Technology in Modern Life Exhibition in Paris (1937), 1st prize (1952) and 2nd prize (1957) at the Polish Exhibitions of Interior Design and Decorative Art in Warsaw, and 1st prize at the Applied Arts Exhibition for the 15th anniversary of the People’s Republic in Warsaw (1963).
Author: Sylwia Giżka
Text originally published in Out of the Ordinary. Polish Designers of the 20th Century, edited by Czesława Frejlich and published by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Warsaw, 2011) in cooperation with the Karakter publishing house. Translation by Søren Gauger, edited for the purposes of Culture.pl by Agnieszka Le Nart.
For more information on the book, see: www.karakter.pl
(1) J. Kurzątkowski, Plastyk – pedagog – społecznik, [in:] collective work, Wspomnienia o Wojciechu Jastrzębowskim, "Przegląd Artystyczny" 1964, no. 5, p. 3.
(2) A. Wojciechowski, O współpracy plastyków z przemysłem, "Przegląd Artystyczny" 1954, no. 1, pp. 18–21.
(3) J. Kurzątkowski, op. cit., p. 3.
(4) J. Kurzątkowski, see above.
(5) Cf: E. Plutyńska, O Profesorze Wojciechu Jastrzębowskim, [in:] collective work, Wspomnienia o Wojciechu Jastrzębowskim, "Przegląd Artystyczny" 1964, no. 5, p. 5