A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Design
small, A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Design, "Clapp" armchair, project: Piotr Kuchciński, producer: NotiMust, Have 2014, photo: Łódź Design Festival 2014, img_5932_small.jpg
In the last couple of years Poland's fame has gone beyond its beautiful women and hearty meals served with a shot of vodka. Slowly but surely, Poland is starting to be recognised for its design: both contemporary and classical.
After years of negligence, design from the 20s and 30s is being refreshed and revived. In Polish design there's room for minimalism, folk inspiration and respect for the environment. Polish design is taking the international design market by storm.
To discover Polish designers from the last century simply select the room of your dreams, click, and enjoy!
1. Heavy textiles, elegant curves, Klimt's Kiss on the wall. I like to bundle up in a blanket and just disappear against the matching wallpaper.
2. Between the folk cut-out on the wall and the tablecloth with folk patterns, I placed a wicker basket. Every now and then when no one is looking I do a nice jump and heel click.
3. I'm such a minimalist that my room is practically empty, except for Mies the cat and Marcel the dog.
4. I have a cylindrical yellow armchair next to the kidney-shaped coffee table and a free-standing bookshelf with wooden legs. I sit down on my organically-shaped orange sofa and make up stories about the characters from Mad Men.
5. Before I buy a piece of furniture I think about the effect it will have on the environment and future generations. I own a couple of straw tables and a cardboard armchair.
6. In my living room there's a black Barcelona with a yellow Tulip. There are six white Eams around the round Saarinen table. There, I idly squeeze a lemon on my Starck citrus juicer.
7. My room is full of random pieces of furniture. But I would like to know enough about design to say something smart in a savvy crowd and perhaps impress that cute girl who's into design.
Morris in Kraków
While Europe was basking in the glory of the flowing Art Nouveau lines and the geometry of the Viennese Secession, in Poland, anyone who meant anything was in Kraków. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Stanisław Wyspiański was infecting everyone with his creativity. He is associated with the Young Poland (Młoda Polska) modernist period in Polish visual arts, literature and music. He wrote, painted, and created stained glass windows and furniture. In Kraków, Stanisław Przybyszewski developed his theatre and Tadeusz Boy Żeleński wrote humorous poems for the Zielony Balonik cabaret. In their search for means of expression, the young bohemian movement disturbed the city's conservatives. Boy wrote:
A decadent! In no other place did this popular term resound as loudly as in Kraków. The fate of my generation was terrible. How were we supposed to live? Where were we to find romanticism? The pitifulness of national suffering gnawed by the "Kraków School", bored to death [...] didn't inspire the young people [...]. Kraków! A small village back then, a dead end, where life was entangled enough to lead to despair but not enough to incite to rebelliousness... Decadence: lifting one's hopelessness to the heights of ideas and making them into a convent – that's all that is left. (Boy Żeleński, draft of Baudelaire)
There was a lot happening in Kraków at that time. Local craft was being revived, and works by William Morris surfaced and his Arts&Crafts theory influenced artistic milieus. The Society of Applied Polish Art, open to artists, architects and craftsmen, was founded in 1901 and supported production by craftsmen as part of its founding dogma. There was more than one trend co-existing at that time in Kraków: Art Nouveau, Secession, Arts&Crafts. Projects by Stanisław Wyspiański – stained glass windows, the polychromatic flower decoration in the Franciscan church, or the furniture projects for the head office of the Doctor's Union – allure the viewer with fine lines and colours. For banisters and chandeliers, Wyspiański used a chestnut leaf motif but replaced its organic shape with geometric reams.
Folk for the folks
Striped Łowicz folk costume fabric, peacock feathers, Polish highlanders' walking sticks – these have all inspired Polish design. In the 1890s, when Poland didn't have statehood, the search for a so-called national style intensified. Galicia, as part of the Austrian Partition, had more autonomy than the regions under the rule of Russia and Prussia. Thus Krakow became the centre of development for a style that would truly reveal the character of Poland.
Stanisław Witkiewicz played an important role in the process. He was a colourful character, a visionary of the bohemian milieu. Witkiewicz was a hallucinogenic author who signed his portraits with the chemical substances that he consumed. Folk art, the customs of the highlanders from the Tatry mountains and Zakopane in particular, fascinated him. His concepts of national style were based on the characteristic buildings of the region with their tall stone foundations, sloping rooftops, and wooden sculptures.
Although other artists would later return to the Zakopane style, it never grew to become the national style. In the 1920s, after Poland regained its freedom, folk motifs found their way back to design. Once again, it was an expression of national identity. In the field of design, the current was spurred by artists from the Warsztaty Krakowskie group. Instead of borrowing patterns and motifs, the artists wanted to immerse folk design in the 20th century. The Polish pavilion at the Paris World Expo is an excellent example of this. The joint work of Józef Czajkowski, Karol and Zofia Stryjeński, a strange hybrid of art deco, the Zakopane style and folk elements, is another.
Many contemporary Polish designers continue to integrate folk design into their work. The MOHO Design carpet was one of the first Polish products to win the prestigious Red Dot Award. The carpet is a large-scale folk cut out which blows traditional folk ornaments out of proportion. The decorative borders were made using a laser. MOHOHEJ!DIA has yet another approach. Without copying folk patterns, the product is modern and rooted in regionalism at the same time.
Another artist whose works refer to folk motifs in an uncommon way is Katarzyna Herman-Janiec (Protein Studio). To create her multi-functional baskets/ seats/ containers called Pleciaki, she uses a technique for weaving wicker baskets with "tutki" newspaper rolls. The colours are well-assembled and the optimistic piece of furniture with an upholstered seat has lively folk patterns.
Then there's the Zako New! chair, a modern piece of furniture referring to the Zakopane tradition. Characteristic regional ornaments are visible on the transparent back of the chair and the seat. The She! lamp by Herman-Janiec takes ethnographic inspirations to a new level. These are no longer just subtle references but humorous quotes from folk tradition. The shape and colour is based on the seam of the traditional skirts of the Łowicz region, and the base of the lamp is a fibreglass boot.
Minimalism and function
If you agree with Adolf Loos that "ornaments are a crime" and your life philosophy is Mies' "Less is More" then you would certainly feel at home in a room furnished by contemporary designers Tomasz Augustyniak, Paweł Grobelny, and Bashko Trybek.
The minimalistic aesthetic of Bauhaus and the texts of Le Corbusier came to Poland in the 1920s and 1930s when the groups Blok and Praesens were looking for their avant-garde modes of expression. In the 30s Helena and Szymon Syrkus made furniture that directly drew from the Bauhaus concepts. Their pieces were constructed of steel pipes. Barbara Brukalska on the other hand made furniture that was cheap and meant for specialist workshops.
What remains characteristic of the works of contemporary Polish designers is simplicity, harmony and timelessness.
In his projects, Tomasz Augustyniak pays attention to functionality. This is visible in his sofas (Nel, Ozon) and armchairs. The mobile elements of the armchair makes the seat user friendly. Augustyniak's furniture has echoes of Bauhaus and art deco. The Fado and Stone armchairs have geometric shapes and are elegant and simple.
In his works, Paweł Grobelny also underlines the importance of function. He created a multifunctional shelf which is simultaneously a coffee table and a bookmark. The Sur le Fil table has a mobile worktop on adjustable aluminium legs.
Bashko Trybek shows a similar lightness in his furniture creations. His designs are minimalistic but not coldly ascetic like those of Mies, and his approach is warmer and less authoritative. By using colours from the limited CMYK Trybek palette, he makes furniture that invites the user to co-create the final version of the object. That's the case with his armchair made of balls. Without a person sitting on it, the chair is basically a white structure. But then it's filled with anti-stress balls and becomes a seat. Trybek plays with minimalism and creates objects that are constantly re-invented and created. He hopes to involve the user emotionally.
The young generation of designers also choose functionality as the driving force behind their projects. The dustpan and brush set by Jan Kochański is a perfect example. The choice of material and shape allow for easy disposal of collected dust.
Polish design can be functional and minimalistic in different ways: ascetic, harmonious in form like in the designs of Augustyniak, or happy as shown by Trybek. Nevertheless, they all follow the motto "form follows function".
The 50s and 60s were the golden years of Polish design. The spirit of the era was colour, modernity, and flexible and organic shapes. In the mid-50s, Poland was moving away from social realism, which in the post-war years dictated a return to the classical and aimed at creating art that would be "socialist in content and national in form." There was no room for experimentation. The political changes brought about in 1956 also led to great freedom in design. Because of the striving for modernity new at that time, projects resembled those of Saarinen, Eames and Alvar Aalto.
In 1957 Oskar and Zofia Hansen organised an exhibition in Zachęta Gallery of Art in Warsaw. It outlined new directions in Polish design. Among the exhibiting artists were Jerzy Sołtan and Zbigniew Ihnatowicz. New Polish design was joyous, uncompromising and multicoloured. Printed textiles, used for decorating interiors, were particularly popular. Alicja Wyszogrodzka's textiles are decorated with geometric animals and women in ample dresses.
Porcelain goods were just as expressive. The cult tea sets Ina and Dorota by Lubomir Tomaszewski are decorated with bright colours and have soft shapes. Roman Modzelewski and Teresa Kruszewska experimented with new fabrics. Kruszewska drew inspiration from the best design projects worldwide.
Polish design is no stranger to the issue of sustainability. Almost every Polish designer appreciates the importance of local resources and ecological materials. In the search for the least invasive production techniques, they experiment with recycled materials.
Malafor's Blow sofa, winner of a 2012 Red Dot Award, is one of the best examples of sustainable design. The sofa can be folded for transportation. When it is blown up, the recycled inflatable bags become a comfortable seat.
Another example of ecological design is the RE_ED stool by the AP Design duo (Agata Zambrzycka and Piotr Górski). The base is made of reed and the seat of cement and sawdust. The designers chose to use reed because it's a material local to the Jagodno sawmill in the Vistula lagoon.
The only chair worthy of this room is Roman Modzelewski's RM58. His works are experimental and reminiscent of the artistic approach of the American couple Charles and Ray Eames, famous in the 40s and 50s.
Their seats were durable, modern and organic in shape. Modzelewski's projects are similarly innovative. He used new materials and transformed them. Modzelewski spent a couple of years developing the RM58 chair. He used uncommon fibreglass laminate technology to make the seat in one piece.
The chair was well-received even by Le Corbusier's co-workers, nevertheless, the RM58 wasn't produced until the early 20th century. Then, Vzor design studio created the iconic chair anew. Nowadays, RM58 is available in Modzelewski's colour palette: red, black, white, green and yellow. Its organic, rounded, sculptural shape makes the object functional and comfortable.
In the same category as the RM58 is Teresa Kruszewska's Scallop chair made of a single piece of plywood. The dynamics and lightness of the material are used to the full. The chair was designed by Kruszewska before her trip to Finland where she learned directly under Alvar Aalto.
On the shelves in the room there should be porcelain figurines from the Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. They used to be made in the 50s and 60s by artists from the Industrial Design Institute and are called "picasses" in reference to Pablo Picasso. They more or less accurately represent animals reduced to abstract organic shapes, such as Lubomir Tomaszewski's Kiwi bird.
Among the contemporary "icons" in the room should also be Oskar Zięta's Plopp stool and one of Ewa Solarz's comic books about the history of design on the Łosiu table by Tabanda.
If your favourite designer is IKEA and when you hear the word Barcelona you only think of the sunny Catalan city, then you will be satisfied just by knowing some designer names, places and objects that you can skilfully work into conversation.
One of the hottest names in design right now is Tomek Rygalik. His design studio is called Studio Rygalik. He manages it together with his wife Gosia, as well as teaching at the Faculty of Industrial Design of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (PG13). The Royal College of Art and Pratt Institute graduate works in cooperation with Poland's leading furniture outlets and was the artistic director of the renowned Polish brand Comforty. He takes part in exhibitions of Polish design around the world as a participant and a curator.
Go to Łódź in October. The city has held an annual design festival since 2007. It is now one of the most important industry events. The MakeMe! competition at the festival is for up-and-coming young designers. The Must Have competition on the other hand selects the most interesting products from Polish designers and manufacturers.
If you want to express your passion for design explicitly and ostentatiously, have a look at the things made by Pan Tu Nie Stał, a brand of the Łódź-based design studio Fajne Chłopaki. Łukasz Zbieranowski and Maciej Lebiedowicz rehash and revive forgotten words, graphics and colours and turn them into catchy slogans with humorous drawings. Apart from their own designs, they have many guest designers creating t-shirts and other items of clothing.
a foreigner's guide to Poland
guide to polish culture