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Stanisław Witkiewicz - Creator of the Zakopane Style

Stanisław Witkiewicz, photo: from the collections of the Tatry Mountains Museum in Zakopane

The origins of the Zakopane Style go back to the late 19th century, when the Arts and Crafts Movement was in full bloom. It was created by Stanisław Witkiewicz, who settled in Zakopane in 1890 for health reasons.

The Zakopane Style was the first Polish national style that went beyond the framework of theoretical postulates and could be carried out in practice, not only in Zakopane, but also in many other places in Poland, particularly in the Austrian and Russian partition zones (e.g., in Wisła, Konstancin, Przyborów, Łańcuchów,  Lwów, and in Syłgudyszki in Lithuania).(1)

Stanisław Witkiewicz came across this idea in 1898. The inspiration for the Zakopane Style was therefore more the Ruthenian Style, which the artist could have encountered in 1868–1872 during his studies in St. Petersburg. In 1886, after his first trip to Giewont, he wrote: "…the highlander hut is a higher sort of construction in which the practical features are decorated in an expression of certain aesthetic needs. This is less raw material than a fairly developed style from which one might evolve a new and independent type of building."(2)

The first home in the Zakopane Style was Zygmunt Gnatowski's Koliba Villa, which Witkiewicz built in 1892–1894 on Kościeliska Street. The construction work was supervised by Maciej Gąsienica Józkowy, who was the only licensed carpentry master in Zakopane at the time. Witkiewicz considered the highlander carpenters and woodcarvers to be co-creators of the architecture he designed. The Koliba Villa was meant to settle "all doubts as to the possibility of reconciling folk architecture with the requirements of the more complex and refined demands of comfort and beauty."(3)

According to Stanisław Witkiewicz's precepts, the Podhale hut was to be the model for the Zakopane Style villa, which the Polish artist sought to make the Polish national style. Furnishing the hut with stylish furniture and other everyday items of his own design was his point of departure. His main task was to use the characteristic attributes of folk furnishings, "artistically employing" the constructions themselves. Ornament was shifted to background, though in many cases it was an important element. Podhale folk ornament, much like that of other regions, was mainly limited to geometrical and plant motifs. In the Zakopane Style this repertoire was expanded with motifs of the flora of the Tatra Mountains.

The first attempts to use Podhale ornament in artistic crafts involved carving ornament on wooden furniture – chairs, beds, and a screen. Based on designs by Magdalena Butowt-Andrzejkowiczówna and adapted by Franciszek Neužil, this furniture was produced by the Professional School for the Wood Industry in Zakopane(4) for Countess Róża Krasińska in the 1885/1886 academic year. Beginning in 1887, this decorative movement was promoted by the school and was called the Zakopane Style. Stanisław Witkiewicz was critical of this furniture, mainly for its construction "without regard for the shapes of the original highlander pieces."(5) The failed attempts of the Wood Carving School inclined him to adopt the "highland style" himself. In the course of five years  the first villa furnishings in the Zakopane Style, some to his designs, emerged in the Koliba, Pepita, Korwinówka (later Oksza), Zofiówka, and Pod Jedlami villas. Attempts were made to harmonize the furnishings with the villa architecture, while "every detail" was to be "covered with highlander ornament or given highlander shape" to fill the interiors, while also creating designs "that had never been seen in highlander huts." (6)

Among the Podhale hut furnishings that served as stylistic models were tables, chairs, shelves, slats, and metal chests. Owing to its narrowness and slanted legs, the form of highland beds was not adopted for the Zakopane Style. Additionally, the highland hut had no wardrobes, basins, armchairs, sofas, or like furniture; these furnishings and others had to be designed "using style motifs." (7) For example, a sleigh served as the model for an armchair, a spoon rack for a curtain rod, and a ladle for a cup.

In 1894 Witkiewicz began designing interiors and furnishings for a new parish church in Zakopane. The eclectic method of compilation is even more visible in the altar design than in the furniture. The form of the altar is made up of fragments of furniture and other folk items, as well as architectural elements. We can make out peaks of roofs, beams, doorframes, chests, etc. The painterly wall decor and stainedglass windows, important parts of the sacral interiors, emerged in similar fashion. In the frescoes of the St. John the Baptist Chapel, one finds motifs characteristic of wood carving – stars, lilies, vegetation, parzenice [embroidered designs on trousers of the region – trans.], unexpected crosses, notches – as well as carpentry and blacksmith motifs, like gadzik. In spite of these eclectic forms, the interiors of the Holy Mother of the Rosary, St. John the Baptist, or Sacred Heart of the Lord Jesus churches are uniform and coherent compositions.

Witkiewicz's design for the great altar in the Zakopane Style could not, however, be finalized. This came in part from the doubts raised by some art critics and church circles as to the suitability of the Zakopane Style to sacral art. This growing opposition was finally articulated by Father Antoni Brykczyński in "Przegląd Katolicki" [The Catholic Review]. Apart from his personal attacks, which filled the publication, the author's main argument boiled down to: "The Church is the house of God, and thus the first principle of church art is that nothing should recall the house of man. Meanwhile, Mr. W. seeks to cram everything he sees in highlanders' huts – or even pigsties – into the house of God." (8)
In 1902 the parish committee in Zakopane called a competition for the design of a Zakopane church's grand altar, for which 28 designs were submitted. The first prize went to a design by Franciszek Mączyński. The verdict of the competition's commission clearly did not follow the priest's line of thought, which raised many doubts about the winning design. The jurors tried in vain to do away with it, a fact which was reflected in the minutes. The jury's arguments did not convince its opponents. The design for the altar was exhibited in the school on Nowotarska Street, prompting an anonymous commentator to suggest in the first issue of the "Giewont" weekly that "[…] the people adamantly protested against such an altar. There will be no question of such an altar standing in the church, for indeed, it could be the cause of a serious incident in the community." The production of the main altar was ultimately commissioned to a sculptor from Krakow, Kazimierz Wakulski.

Debate on the possibility of applying the Zakopane Style to sacral art did not impede demand for furniture. Apart from Witkiewicz, it was being designed by Wojciech Brzega, Wiktor Gosieniecki, and Stanisław Barabasz. The creator of the Zakopane Style himself noted the differences among their strategies. He wrote: "The ideas of Messrs. Brzega and Gosieniecki have plenty of analogies with my own and with certain basic affinities in terms of construction and ornament. In my ideas, as one of the first stages of development, there is a certain abstemiousness and rawness of form, which is replaced in the works of Messrs. Brzega and Gosieniecki by a richness and complexity. I feel like an 'old master' of the Zakopane Style, whereas they have already entered a phase of further development, and on the basis of their individual preferences, they accentuate what, in my conceptions, is a direct transition from the original simplicity to more developed and decorative shapes." He noticed the most differences, however, in Stanisław Barabasz's work: "The ideas of Mr. Barabasz, the director of the Zakopane school of sculpture, vary quite significantly in some considerations from the ideas of Messrs. Brzega and Gosieniecki, and my own. I am struck here by the almost utter lack of molding, which is strongly developed in our furniture." (9)

Witkiewicz's closest co-workers, a group of highlanders that included Kazimierz Sieczka, Józef Kaspruś Stoch, and Jędrzej Krzeptowski, undertook the task of the furniture production. Over time this was shifted to carpentry workshops outside of Zakopane, such as that of Ludwik Szafrański in Lwów, Teodor Filipowicz in Poznań, Kazimierz Łysakowski in Lublin, and K. Ptaszyński in Radom. Witkiewicz was approached for his models, designs, or opinions. Józef Gardecki designed stylish lamps, Antoni Porczyński clocks, silver spoons, and terracotta tiles, and Kernopf & Son began producing upright pianos in the Zakopane Style based on the designs of Stanisław Witkiewicz and Edgar Kováts. Ceramics artists also grew interested in the style, and the Józef Niedźwiedzki Faience Factory in Dębniki (near Krakow) produced Zakopane tiles and breakfast and coffee sets.

The Zakopane Style did not spread across Poland as Witkiewicz had dreamed it would. It did, however, initiate the development of regional architecture and applied art inspired by folk tradition. The work of Karol Stryjeński, for one, indicates how indebted the Polish inter-war decorative artists were to Witkiewicz. In Zakopane the regional architecture movement and its cousin, regional applied art, remains vital to this day.

Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851–1915), painter, art critic, writer, and creator of the Zakopane Style, studied painting in St. Petersburg (1868–1872) and in Munich (1872–1875), becoming known for his realist canvases. He earned his name as a precursor of modern Polish art criticism and monographs on artists, such asJuliusz Kossak, Aleksander Gierymski, and Jan Matejko. He created and popularized the Zakopane Style, the first Polish national style, designing the Koliba Villa (1892–1893) the Pod Jedlami House (1896–1897)  the chapel in Jaszczurówka (1904–1908). He published the Styl zakopiański. Zeszyt I. Pokój jadalny / The Zakopane Style. Book I. The Dining Room (1904) and Styl zakopiański. Zeszyt II. Ciesielstwo / The Zakopane Style. Book II. Carpentry (1911). As a writer he promoted Podhale folk art and the nature of the Tatra Mountains in Tatry w śniegu / The Tatra Mountains in the Snow (1886) and Na przełęczy / On the Mountain Pass (1891). He was the father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy).

Author: Zbigniew Moździerz

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 by Agnieszka Le Nart. 

For more information on the book, see:


(1) For more on the genesis and development of the Zakopane Style as compared to other European architecture of the time, see: Z. Moździerz, The Zakopane Style and the Vernacular Movement in European Architecture in the Second Half of the 19th Century [in:] Vernacular Art in Central Europe. Editor J. Purchla, Krakow 2001 [pub. 2002], pp. 307–322.
(2) S. Witkiewicz, Tatry w śniegu, "Wędrowiec" 1886, no. 46.
(3) S. Witkiewicz, Styl zakopiański. Book II: Ciesielstwo, Lwów 1911.
(4) This was the official name, a literal translation from the German: k.k. Fachschule für Holtzbearbeitung in Zakopane. In the Polish publication another name was more frequently used: the Wood Carving School or School of the Wood Industry (terms used later in the text).
(5) S. Witkiewicz, Styl zakopański [!], "Kurier Warszawski" 1891, no. 241.
(6) S. Witkiewicz, Styl zakopiański. Book I: Pokój jadalny, Lwów 1904.
(7) [J. G. Pawlikowski], O sztuce podhalańskiej [in:] Katalog Wystawy Podhalańskiej, Lwów 1911.
(8) Ks. A. Brykczyński, Czy styl zakopiański jest właściwy dla kościołów? "Przegląd Katolicki" 1901, no. 49, p. 779; also reprinted [in:] "Giewont" Year 1: 1902, p. 6.
(9) S. Witkiewicz, Styl zakopiański, Book 1, see above.'s picture
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