Shaping the tastes of Poles and establishing a unique style of its own, the Cepelia brand was not only appreciated in Poland, but also recognised abroad. Culture.pl explores its post-war beginnings and how it brought folk art to a mass audience.
The slanted font imitates hand-written lettering, and the stylish rooster designed by Józef Mroszczak evokes folk traditions of Poland’s rural areas – small roosters made out of wood or steel were often mounted on rooftops, church towers, and even on crucifixes by the side of the road. Roosters also symbolised fertility – and Cepelia was indeed envied for its productiveness. But before the cock became an ambassador of Polish culture…
From idea to industry
Zofia Szydłowska, the first president of Cepelia claimed it all began with the Polish poet Cypriad Kamil Norwid, who wrote about 'elevating folk inspiration to the level of a power encompassing and penetrating all of mankind', in a poem called Promethidion. Stanisław Witkiewicz was another influence, an artist who promoted the idea of national Polish art rooted in the traditional art of the Podhale region. There was also Wyspiański, who often drew inspiration from the colourful Polish countryside. The expressionism typical of folk sculptures was also evoked by formist artists.
All these originators of folk-inspired art were aesthetic and ideological influences, but it was institutions that brought practical implementation. Warsztaty Krakowskie (the Kraków Workshops) was one of the pillars in developing decorative art and artistic handicraft inspired by folk tradition. Later on, the Ład Co-operative also played a significant role. The Cracovian former was founded in 1913, while the Warsaw-based latter was launched following the former's dissolution, in 1926. Both organisations brought together some of the most talented artists and craftsmen in Poland. Without these institutions, the Polish exhibition in Paris in 1925 would not have been the great success it turned out to be. Anthropologist Aleksander Jackowski wrote:
Shared ideals could be traced back to the pavilion (designed by the architect Józef Czajkowski), the great panneaux of Zofia Stryjeńska on display inside, Jan Szczepkowski’s light-coloured wooden altar, and the figurines created by youth from the Wooden Industry School, as well as batik-dyes of women factory workers, animated by Antoni Buszek.
Although some critics at home considered the display too folky, the Polish artists involved returned from the Paris exhibition with the most awards of any country.
A grain of salt can nonetheless be added to this sweet story of success. It's important to remember that World War I had left various institutions destroyed, and changes within the world of culture were irreversible: the chic of urban life became increasingly fascinating, and the countryside was abandoned. Numerous professions simply perished, so traditional folk creativity had to be actively cared for to stay alive. Special work co-operatives had to be set up, and the needs of society cared for while shaping the consumer market. It was up to the state to make this move.
On 21st June 1949, the state-run co-operative known as Cepelia was established by decree of the Economic Committee of the Council of Ministers. It quickly bloomed and proliferated. Special sections were organised in all of the larger cities across Poland, with new work-centres created where employees underwent special training. All other related co-operatives in the folk and artistic industry were gradually subsumed by Cepelia (including the re-activated Ład). Thousands of people found work in the production units of this new institution, while the number of its craftsmen was estimated to be around 200,000.
Doomed to succeed
To say that Cepelia was created by some passionate people is an understatement. The art historian Zofia Szydłowska, in particular, was fundamental. Exceptionally beautiful, she was a natural-born organiser and self-confident. One of the few women of the era to hold a director’s position, and the only woman with steady authority in the economic sector. Her main goal was to fight against poverty in rural areas, which she did through setting up organisations, and buying and selling folk handicrafts. 'My dream was to create a distinct style,' she used to say.
But Szydłowska's mission was put on unexpected hold when she was arrested in September 1952 at the height of the Stalinist era. Apparently, she had been doing the state some damage, but two years later was cleared of all charges. She returned to Cepelia, but as a deputy, not president. Upon her return, she said she wanted to concentrate on work that was based on merit.
As early as 1949, Szydłowska had already hired a folk art specialist to work for Cepelia: Janina Orynżyna. This proved to be an excellent choice.
'Once again, I have to act all alone, just like before the war,' Orynżyna thought to herself when Szydłowska gave her the task of putting together an organisation – the Folk Art Section. But she agreed. Orynżyna’s love for painting could be traced back to her family home in Vilnius. She also had literary talent, and was fascinated with handicrafts. Much like the ethnologist Eugeniusz Frankowski, Orynżyna created for herself a 'register of the living', a list of possible future collaborators. In her diary, she noted: 'In order to find oneself on this list, one had to have a passion for the arts, a sophisticated taste, an urge to achieve results, a sportive approach, and no fear of conquering new territories. And, first and foremost – some character'. Official university diplomas were of much lesser value.
Tadeusz Więckowski was another person working for Cepelia who had the secret police taking an interest in them. He was given the task of creating more structure out in the field. He selected the Ład co-operative and brought new order into the organisation. After 17 years, he left the co-operative in great condition, giving it all up for Cepelia proper. As its third president (after Szydłowska, and Stanisław Stroiński, a man both open to initiative and careful in his decisions), Więckowski relied on the industry in his attempts at salvaging folk art's 'vanishing beauty', as he called it.
A whole society of visual artists, ethnographers, producers, economists and organisers was created. It was a blend of experience and fantasy. With three generations involved in the movement, 'family' was also a term frequently used to describe the Cepelia institution. One of the members of this family was Czesia Konopkówna, famed for making the most elaborate web-like paper cut-outs using huge wool-trimming scissors. There was also the legendary accountant Stanisław Reich, who swore he wouldn’t marry until Cepelia had proper headquarters of its own. His desktop lamp remained lit late into the hours of the night. Many other visionaries also formed part of the movement.
Not mere objects, but symbols
The visionary concept was that Cepelia would cement the nation’s cultural identity, take an active part in creating socialist society, and organise and develop folk and artistic handicraft. Apart from the above phrases, quoted directly from the organisation’s official statute, we can also learn a lot from various magazines of the period, such as Rękodzieło Artystyczne (Artistic Crafts) and Stolica (The Capital). They are filled with theoretical and historical deliberations on rural art, and include professional advice on decorating home interiors. A pamphlet entitled Z Cepelią w Domu (With Cepelia in the House) states:
We are a country where winter lasts long enough for the greyness of our surroundings and lack of sunlight to really get to us. Let the colourful objects found in Cepelia help us create happy and functional home interiors.
The call resounded through the land. No more bourgeoisie aesthetics. And merging the old with the new? Why not. A rainbow-coloured fabric will liven up the room, while hand-made objects can provide it with distinct character. The more originally-crafted items, the better. Our own Polish items. Furniture should be collected piece by piece, sets being simply out of the question. Symmetry, harmony, and proportion. And above all, comfort!
Cepelia couldn’t care less for prevailing trends. It was a trendsetter itself.
But what did these ideals look like in practice? Were they applied to the entirety of the average citizen's apartment? Not exactly, since how could they ever afford it if even items made of straw were subject to a special luxury tax. But if they possessed at the very least a tablecloth or a rug with the Cepelia label, then, according to the brand’s policy, as well as the state authorities, they would surely be a person of good taste.
In their M2 (the name given to one-bedroom apartments in the communist period), the exemplary citizen of the People’s Republic of Poland would have had wooden furniture made by Józef Kulony from Zakopane. Or at least a set of wicker furniture. Maybe chairs and armchairs from the Kurpie region, stuffed with hay – or at least covered with the traditional pasiak striped pattern. A table – either in the Podhale or Silesia regional style – decorated with a Kaszuby-stitch embroidered cloth. Under the table: a rug made using the double-warp technique, mastered by the renowned Eleonora Plutyńska. As for the walls: decorated with tapestries designed by the Gałkowskis.
Cepelia fabrics were known across the globe, and before becoming an internationally renowned artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz was also one of their weavers, no doubt influencing some of her later works.
Other trendy Cepelia objects included ceramic works by Krzysztof Henisz and Bronisław Wolanin (because they were made with incredible skill), rugs by Maria Bujakowa (because they were richly patterned), wooden toys (because they were unique), and straw matts (...because they were cheap).
Representational interiors of state institutions were decorated with more grandeur. Among the memorable significant interiors in Warsaw were those of the Palace of Culture and Science, the State Council, the Sejm parliament building, and the National Philharmonic. Other locations which called for some extravagant solutions were the window displays of Cepelia stores, and the House of Folk Art in the Old Town Square – a must-see destination for any visitor of the capital. As Orynżyna commented:
No respected foreigner would leave Poland without a wycinanka paper cutout, or some folk embroidery.
Americans take off their hats
In Poland, Cepelia was a monopolist brand. Abroad, it obviously faced considerable competition, but it fared respectably. Wicker items were Poland's top-selling export product. In 1951, they comprised of almost 90% of all exported goods. Tapestries and rugs followed, with wooden accessories and furniture falling ever so slightly behind. Other winning items included leather goods, amber accessories, ceramics, embroidery and lace. The list of buyers was long, with considerable interest from England, France and the Netherlands, the United States and Latin American countries, as well as Australia. The endless demand for Polish handicrafts and legal trade regulations forced Cepelia to work with intermediaries, which didn’t always fall in line with the institution’s policies. Ultimately, a separate foreign trade company was established, which finally led to the opening of the first shop abroad Brussels in 1958. In her diary, Janina Orynżyna wrote:
The Belgian finance minister congratulated the Polish ambassador for decorating the capital with such a beautiful shop, and Queen Elizabeth, fond of Chopin's homeland, visited the shop with her retinue.
The zapaski woolen aprons disappeared from the shelves of 10 Charles Rogier Place in a flash (readily adapted as ladies’ smart evening attire), together with the Zakopane łyżniki spoon-holders, straw and wicker bowls, and Podhale pottery that had been displayed on rugs from Sokółka. The first financial report was received with undisputed satisfaction. But unfortunately, it was short-lived.
Two years later, another shop from the flagship brand opened on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The stock was similar to the Belgian store, and the press described the service as 'courtly'. The sculptor Antoni Kamiński wrote about the official opening:
There was a crowd. The New York Times published a very good account of the opening. The shop is considered one of the best ones in New York, its items regarded as excellent. Not many Poles visit, but high-society American citizens are abundant. They are warmhearted, and express their unsolicited thanks, clearly grateful that finally, there is a shop which is so different and yet so good. The atmosphere is grand, making even the Americans speak softly, which rarely ever happens. Men take their hats off.
Similarly positive opinions were expressed by customers of the five other Cepelia shops in Europe, and across the United States. Unfortunately, these compliments didn’t go hand in hand with profit. Soon, the shops closed down. The work with local ex-pats and the numerous exhibitions they put on in various cultural venues across the world resulted in the positive reception of Polish culture, but not in financial gain. Anyhow, money was never Cepelia’s goal.
Handicraft in the hands of propaganda
Cepelia’s presence on foreign markets was always openly linked to the role it played in political propaganda. Its local presence in Poland was no different. Various media were used to that effect – radio and television shows, a dedicated magazine, film productions, and various conferences with the participation of prominent ethnographers and art historians. Colour pamphlets, posters and calendars were in print. The year 1971 should also be noted, as it was when the first Cepelia festival took place in Parade Square in the very heart of Warsaw – it was called Cepeliada. Displays of embroidery, woodcarving, and cake making were accompanied by handicrafts sales and performances by regional folk song and dance groups. Other cities across Poland soon followed in the example of the capital, and launched their own editions of the festival.
Despite its role in state propaganda, one has to give Cepelia praise for some significant merits: it organised competitions for folk artists and granted scholarships; it created the Office for Toy Industry Studies and Design, which became one of the first institutions in the world to study the role of toys in child development; and it played an active part in the World Crafts Council affiliated with UNESCO.
Initially, the Cepelia train ran according to a set course and quickly picked up speed. It slowed down a little around 1954, at the time of Poland’s economic restructuring. This economic weakening was compensated for by a more swift and compact organisation within the institution. The train picked up speed again in the 1970s (when the word 'Industry' in the name was replaced by 'Handicrafts'), and early 1980s. Soon afterwards, the conflict between art and mass production could no longer be avoided. The quality of production deteriorated, Cepelia products became more common, and several significant organs ceased to exist within the institution. On top of all this, Poland finally chose to set its course West.
Cepelia was a little over forty when its dismantling began in 1990. But it didn’t vanish entirely and other organisations were created in its place. Cepelia still exists today, as both a foundation and a corporate production company. But clearly its grand historic form is now but a dream.
While some call it kitsch, and others praise it as a wonder, it tends to be remembered with a hint of nostalgia. The style associated with Cepelia is clearly anything but trivial, and continues to be an inspiration for designers to this day. This is especially true for wycinanki cutouts.
Take for example, the artist Katarzyna Kmita's combining of cutouts with pop culture imagery, or Moho Design's multi-award-winning rug inspired by Highlander trousers. Even the Polish Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, designed by WWAA Studio, is clearly indebted to wycinanki despite also retaining a deeply futuristic look.
So even in the 21st century, traditional folk art can be Poland’s trademark item. And perhaps today it can be even more beautiful than in the past.
Originally written in Polish, August 2017; translated by PS, Mar 2018; updated by AZ, May 2019
Sources: 'Cepelia. Tradycja i Nowoczesność' by Aleksander Jackowski, Warsaw 1999; 'Ludowość na Sprzedaż' by Piotr Korduba, Warsaw 2013; 'O Sztukę Ludową. Pamiętnik Pracy' by Janina Orynżyna, Warsaw 1965; 'Ginące Piękno' by Tadeusz Więckowski, Warsaw 1987; as well as the magazines Tygodnik Powszechny & Rzeczpospolita