Wall Unit – Bogusława & Czesław Kowalski
A wall unit, or ‘meblościanka’ in Polish, is a segment furniture for small apartments designed by Bogusława and Czesław Kowalski in 1961 for a competition. It went on to mass production after a series of successes at competitions and design exhibitions. Simple, ergonomic and innovative – it was a perfect solution for, funnily enough, every Kowalski – the Polish equivalent of ‘average Joe’.
The Khrushchev thaw and the appearance of many elements of consumption culture at the end of the 1950s resulted in the heyday of design. We associate this era first and foremost with the organic, soft and modern ‘new look’ style: ‘pikases’, figurines from Ćmielow, patterned cloths and ergonomic furniture. Developing at almost the same time was the less spectacular, but more widespread style of what the art historian Irena Huml calls ‘industrial furniture’.
This furniture, and not Roman Modzelewski’s or Teresa Kruszewska’s prototype chairs shown at the exhibitions, ended up in Polish houses and set the bar for housing equipment for over two decades. The most famous type of segment furniture, today called ‘a wall unit’ (or ‘meblościanka’ in Polish), was conceptualised by a designer couple: Bogusława and Czesław Kowalski. Meblościanka, being almost symbolic of the period of ‘little stabilisation’ (a period in late 1950s, marked by relative affluence and mild softening of the authoritarian policy during the times of Polish People's Republic), appeared as a response to the society’s growing consumerist aspirations, issues with furnishing small apartments and campaigns in favour of relinquishing the middle-class style of arranging.
An author publishing in the Opinia magazine wrote in 1969:
Modernity, which steps into Polish furniture making, has a specific role to play. Not only does it have to take the deficit of furniture on the market into account, but also has to adapt to the new housing construction which generates great momentum in Poland these years. […] Sets of furniture based on new norms are created – they take the modern interior organisation into consideration, and by extension also the system of segment, set and assembled furniture, the so-called variants which are still used in the furniture industry.
The post-war period’s furniture industry had one main challenge: creation of simple and inexpensive systems of furniture for small apartments. Since the end of the 1950s, standardised blocks with pre-determined shapes and sizes started to appear in housing construction. The 1959 norm stated 48 metres to be the maximum square metrage of a M4 (a four-people apartment). Spacious, pre-war apartments were often divided into smaller parts and occupied by several families. In consequence, the rooms (in this setting they were usually two rooms for a single family) had to fulfil many functions at the same time and there was basically no possibility of separating the living rooms from bedrooms and accommodating the individual family members in their own rooms. Although the housing boom at the beginning of the 1970s brought about a few-metre increase of the norm and a slight improvement in housing quality, in general during the Polish communist regime era, the citizens grappled with small, cumbersome living spaces. The problem was supposed to be solved, in part at least, by light, multifunctional and space-saving segment furniture.
The development of segment furniture began on the initiative of the Institute of Industrial Design and the Wood Technology Institute in Warsaw, which were later joined by modelling cells of the United Furniture Industry in Poznań and pattern shops located in the vicinity of the factories in Bydgoszcz, Swarzędź and Świebodzin. The production supply was huge – 120 wooden furniture factories operated in Poland at the time. Nevertheless, even during the best periods, the bigger part of the most marketable products was exported in order to acquire foreign currency needed by the state. Additionally, in spite of the production supply, there was a constant lack of materials and technology and in consequence, during most of the Polish communist regime era, furniture – especially the pieces that were nice-looking and quite solid – was pretty hard to come by.
Segment furniture was being designed in Poland since the 1950s, but the breakthrough occurred during the furniture for small apartments design competition organised in 1961 by the Association of Polish Artists and Designers and the Polish Furniture Industry Association. It ended with an exhibition during the 17th Poznań International Fair. Residents of Warsaw could view Kowalskis’ furniture awarded in this competition, and also other designs dedicated for small apartments, at a furniture pavilion on Przeskok street which opened in 1963. The exhibition held on the theme of ‘furniture for small apartments’ presented design sets by Halina Skibniewska among others – an architect of the well-known Sady Żoliborskie estate – and also by Kowalskis who proposed furniture designed under entirely new premises. They incorporated all the new equipment integrated in different segments, including convertible sofas and tables. Irena Huml writes:
At that time, the breakthrough occurred, basically revamping the style of produced furniture. They determined the model of a standard 1960s to early 1970s apartment. What emerged at that time was the clearly visible tendency of combining the (previously oriented at a specific purpose) furniture into multifunctional sets.
Danuta Wróblewska, an art critic publishing in the Projekt magazine, did not hide her enthusiasm towards the new furniture. She hoped that the segment systems would allow to topple the ‘bastion of traditionalism’ and open Poland’s industry to ‘logic and the precepts of modernity’. The author deemed it necessary to adjust to the spatial limitations of small apartments. The furniture was to be simple and ‘objective’, multifunctional, convenient and non-imposing. This postulate signified the possibility of camouflaging the equipment so that it would blend into the environment. Wróblewska criticised the modern tendencies for excessive decoration: ‘All the – unfortunately popular – instances of superficial and alogical modernisation of shape coming from the flashiness of the used ‘pikasy’ are a far cry from this idea’. She also took notice of the aspect which we would today refer to as customisation. She propounded that the segment furniture should create an apartment’s neutral background which every user could individually adjust to his or her needs and decorate using details and finishings. Suggestions to decorate the furniture using coloured pictures and postcards often appeared in this context.
The furniture exhibited in the pavilion on Przeskok street was first and foremost a response to the problem of storing items on a small surface. The pieces of furniture were mostly simple constructions obtained from several base elements, the framework was flexible and allowed to gradually surround the apartment, assembly, de-assembly and increase the space in use on the floor by expanding a piece of furniture to the ceiling. The basic elements were standardised in such a way to make any configurations and later expansions possible as part of the system, and to adjust to the standardised measurements of Polish apartments. Association with Scandinavia is very much in place here – the standardisation and the possibility of expanding the systems brings to mind Ikea’s popular equipment. Inspiration from the Northern neighbours, not only in terms of standardisation, but also in terms of operating on wood and creating light constructions based on repeatable rhythms, were key in the development of this branch of design in Poland. The aforementioned Helena Skibniewska took it one step further by designing furniture which could be packed into light packages and assembled at home on one’s own. Jadwiga Putowska, the author of the guide Jak Urządzić Mieszkanie (editor’s translation: How to Set Up Your House) published by the Institute of Industrial Design, wrote as early as in 1958:
The apartment suitable for anyone could be realised on an entirely different principle. In mass construction based on prefabricated elements one could develop apartments with constructional walls and a kitchen and sanitary core. The user would receive an outline of the apartment suited to his or her needs and would finish the interiors, divide them according to his needs and with the use of pre-made elements such as wardrobes, wall fragments and so on (such a system was already attempted in Sweden).
Besides, inspiration from Scandinavian design is both implicitly and explicitly present in the guide as it introduces rational principles of modern and space-saving interior arrangement.
The idea of standardised, segment furniture has its roots in the radical functionalism of the 1920s and the 1930s. Such solutions were proposed by avant-garde designers such as Le Corbusier and Grete Schütte-Lihotzky – author of the Frankfurt kitchen, resemblant of a laboratory. These ideas were fuelled not only by the requirements of functionality, saving space and – as in the case of the kitchen – economising effort of the person working, but also by the need to ‘dematerialise’ the furniture. It meant that the equipment should be reduced to its purpose. It was also not to attract attention or function as an object of consumption attractive because of its material value and not usefulness. The idea of removing fetish-furniture went well with the political mission of fighting the bourgeoisie and with the rational, project-oriented thought in post-war Poland. The crusades against the middle-class ‘sets’ were especially visible in the 1940s and in the 1950s, especially since the society – particularly the workers and the peasants relocating to the cities – had a taste for middle class’ small living rooms and butleries. Piotr Korduba cites a journalist writing for the magazine Odrodzenie (editor’s translation: Revival) who proclaimed in the 1950s that the middle class’ aesthetic tastes is the ‘most enduring success of the dying bourgeoisie over the victorious proletariat’. Later on the commentators stopped criticising small living rooms, but enduringly appreciated the elimination of big freestanding furniture made possible by multifunctional appliances. The idea of the righteousness of modern furniture was accurately captured in Stanisław Bareja’s film The Marriage of Convenience. A petit bourgeois marriage of private operators, almost suffocating in the surfeit of equipment and knickknacks, and big-headed aristocracy surrounded by ancestral antiques are contrasted with an up-to-date couple played by Elżbieta Czyżewska and Daniel Olbrychski. They dance in a furniture shop while performing a song with ironical lyrics by Agnieszka Osiecka: ‘At times I might say stupid things / But heed this: don’t let the objects eat you / Back in the days there were blunders so big / One couldn’t see the world from behind the wardrobe / We don’t lose hope because of just anything / It is common knowledge that objects will break.’ The furniture that comprises the background and is an element of this dance display belongs to Kowalskis. The shop is the aforementioned pavilion on Przeskok street. The scene’s punchline, in which it turns out that an ideal furniture set is impossible to buy and in exchange the seller offers a traditional middle-class package, is also characteristic.
The last two verses from Osiecka’s quoted song fragment refer to the – now legendary – Polish segment furniture’s bad quality. Wróblewska warned against the pinchbeck as early as in 1963:
Spurred by this general agreement and approval, one should recall the basic condition of a segment furniture piece’s functionality – impeccable execution. Perfect stability, adjacency to the surface and foolproof joints have to define its construction. Thus, not being influenced by the saying that the simplest thing is the easiest to make we await the materialisation of a reasonable idea for furniture for everyone.
Huml called this furniture to account in 1978 because of its bad quality and wrote that it is hard to consider it to be a project which is mature in every way. Still, it preserved the advantages of functionality, adaptability to small apartments, low price and industrial design aesthetics. The last two qualities were the result of using ordinary wood-like materials (chipboard replacing wood and the costly veneer and melamine). The elements were most often prefabricated and foam rubber was used instead of a spring-operated upholstered mechanism. Assembling the unit was simplified with the help of metal joints.
Kowalskis’ coffer furniture premiered one year prior to the Warsaw exhibition, at the 17th Poznań International Fair where the results of a competition for worker apartment’s furniture were presented, and in which the designers received the first prize. Bogusława Kowalska recalls the work on the furniture as follows:
A competition call for ‘furniture of first need’ for small apartments was held. The designers were to come up with ideas for inexpensive equipment for people owning small apartments, specifically weavers from Łódź – its price couldn’t exceed a certain sum. […] Czesław decided that we would take part. […] We did not have a concept. Czesław sat, poked, thought and thought. And then he began to explain what he thought of: a coffer system. […] When Czesław thought of the construction, it took off and then he only had to think of how to configure the sets. […] The furniture was comprised of several elements which one could assemble freely just as building blocks for children. Furniture for the bedroom, living room, children’s room, kitchen and antechamber could be made in this manner – furniture for every room in the house. [...]
The idea for coffer furniture comprised of simple segments, inexpensive to produce and possible to assemble freely, turned out to be revolutionary. A rectangular casing hid under the term ‘coffer’ – one you could mount on different heights and complement with side walls and small doors. On the exterior, the coffers were surrounded with batten which masked the sockets and stabilised the construction, customisable with shelves, cabinets, countertops and sofas.
The furniture went on to production only after the success of the exhibition in the pavilion on Przeskok street in 1963. A commission responsible for ‘eliminating discrepancies between the authors’ intentions and the workshops’ technical capabilities’ was constituted. Even though catalogues displaying various variants of the segments and giving advice on interior arrangement were released, the sales only rarely occurred thanks to them. Usually a factory produced a given element itself and put it on sale in a store when it was already finished. However, according to Kowalska, people still tampered with it, took furniture to pieces and put it back again according to their needs. The quality of the materials was the biggest problem and it also took a toll on the equipment’s aesthetics. The designer said:
The situation with the materials was so bad that all our segments in all of the country were covered with the same veneer. At first it was a nice type of mahogany – these pieces of furniture were the most well-done and natural. Then someone started to import plastic facing in various colours and it turned into a cacophony of colours. In general, the artificial, shining mixture was used as facing instead of true veneer and it began to look ugly. The furniture was covered with shining lacquer whereas by design they were supposed to be matt.
Kowalskis’ furniture, even though in mass production it departed from the designers’ ideas, became the most popular set in post-war Poland. Hard to come by (just like any good furniture), it was a subject of dreams and aspiration. In time, ‘Kowalskis’ wall unit’ became a symbol of a post-war apartment. Not everyone knew that the name ‘Kowalski’ was the actual name of the furniture’s designers and not a reference to the most popular Polish surname used to describe the ordinary citizen (just like ‘John Smith’). The famous furniture from the beginning of the 1960s was not the Poznań-based duo’s only popular design. Another competition was announced in 1973 after Edward Gierek’s rise to power at the beginnings of the 1970s. The society’s needs changed a bit during the twenty years since the opening of the exhibition in the pavilion on Przeskok street. The wall units needed a place for TVs which started to appear on a mass scale and Poles also started to wish for additional conveniences such as a backlighted liquor cabinet. In response to new needs and changing tastes Kowalskis created two new, very popular sets: Łask and Łódź. The industry, fuelled by loans from the West and imported materials, was able to provide apartment furniture for a few years. This craze ended in 1975 though, as the import was cut due to the state’s debt. Kowalskis’ wall unit became a premium once again. In Stanisław Bereja’s 1977 film What Will You Do When You Catch Me? the protagonist earns money as a professional ‘stander’ in a queue for Kowalskis’ furniture at the Emilia store in Warsaw. This several-days-long standing in a queue, presented in a comedy setting, shows the permanent deficit of furniture and the unquestionable popularity of Kowalskis’ design.
Originally written in Polish by Agata Szydłowska, Dec 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Dec 2017