For many years, the Elbląg Furniture Factory produced large quantities of a chair that Chomentowska designed in the early 1960s. It appeared in many Polish homes, and is well recognized even today. The chair is comfortable, light, attractive, and represents a subdued version of modernity, replacing the extravagance of many designs of the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of her chairs are now enjoying a second childhood through young designers, and are covered with bright varnish and multicolored patterns.
Maria Chomentowska, school tables and chairs for younger children, made by the Furniture Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, 1963, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Furniture design was Maria Chomentowska’s main professional passion, and paradoxically, this was just the reason why she never defended her graduation work at the academy. While at work for the Industrial Design Institute (IWP), even before she finished her studies, she came to realize that this institution marked out other plans for artists who had completed their Master’s degrees. In addition to designing, they were meant to conduct research and analyses, and to produce theoretical papers. With this kind of writing in front of her, she sacrificed the title of M.A. and chose professional practice instead. She made her best furniture designs over the course of her lengthy employment at the IWP. Some of these pieces were industrially produced.
In 1954 Chomentowska designed two seats – an armchair and a chair that clearly allude to Biedermeier furniture. This tendency toward historicism might be seen as a more or less conscious conformity to the social-realist style. The designer did, however, attach importance to the modernity of this furniture, and to other attributes characteristic of the aforementioned epoch. And yet the slender, tapering, turned-wood legs, the soft upholstered seats, and, in particular, the shape of the back, all draw from a bourgeois-imperial style. The surface of the oval-topped bent backrest is finished with walnut varnish of rich graining. This decorative element, in conjunction with the S-shaped lines of the backrest’s sides, lends the furniture a somber, historical aspect. The chair was constructed from wooden parts shaped much like that of the armchair, but with somewhat more slender proportions, and varnished black with a contrasting light upholstery, thus granting the seat a significantly more modern appearance. Both pieces of furniture testify to the designer’s maturity, which meant her allusions to furniture tradition led less to mechanical duplication of design and application of ornament than to creative interpretation.
Maria Chomentowska, armchair, produced by the Furniture Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, 1957, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Three years on, Chomentowska designed an armchair that is among her most interesting works. Formally speaking, it constitutes an entirely different epoch. A soft recliner seat stiffened with a layer of foam is hung from a skeleton construction made of ash-wood parts with rectangular cross-sections. The trademark feature of this furniture is in how the front part of the seat hangs from the wooden armrests (which are shifted toward the front) on wide fabric straps. The slanted legs and recliner-shaped seat give the armchair a light dynamism.
Chomentowska’s chairs using bent plywood parts from the late 1950s were equally innovative and even lighter in form: Lungs, Spider, and school laboratory chairs. Their original and intriguing shapes ensured that they were repeatedly put on display: from the 1950s and 1960s to the IWP’s 50th anniversary exhibition, called "Toward Modernity," organized in 2005 at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw. None of these three models went on to see mass production. The Lungs chair was made in 1956, in the framework of the IWP’s cooperation with furniture factories, which supplied the institute with bent plywood molders – semi-products intended for reuse. The IWP Furniture Factory produced alimited number of these chairs. In search of a comfortable seat, the designer tried to take full advantage of plywood’s flexibility. She limited the stiff joints of the backrest parts, maintaining a limited mobility. Spider was produced in limited numbers by the Bent Furniture Factory in Radomsko. Both the shapes of these chairs and their names testify to the designer’s admiration for organic forms, so vital in the applied arts of the time.
Maria Chomentowska, chair, produced by the Great Proletariat Factory in Elbląg, ca. 1960 Collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Among the many types of furniture developed by the Industrial Design Institute, the complex issue of school furniture (and interiors) was of prime importance. This work began in 1963, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The designs prepared by the IWP took into account classroom dimensions, the number of students, anthropometric measurements, and the technological and production capabilities of Polish industry. Maria Chomentowska designed a range of schoolroom desks, chairs, and tables for teachers and students of various ages, and for various types of classrooms, schools and preschools. The results of these research programs were presented at a show organized in 1964 at the Ministry, and were confronted with public expectations. Thus emerged a modern consciousness of design that used scientific research.
School is the children’s workplace, where they spend a substantial part of their lives in their most intense period of physical, mental and intellectual development. Thus, in developing designs for school furniture – in accordance with the health and physiological needs of the child, and the demands of programs and teaching methods – the Industrial Design Institute cooperated with numerous scientific institutions and specialists from fields such as: anthropology, physiology, pedagogy, psychology etc. The lecture room equipment designed by the IWP […] was accepted as physiologically sound and entered into industrial production."(1)
In the 1960s, the IWP treated research work with extreme seriousness and was capable of establishing the propriety and effectiveness of their activities. The Poznań Furniture Factory in Mosina and Kościan handled the production of some of Chomentowska’s school furniture. Of the total 133 designs she made, 53 entered mass production. Her most interesting solutions did not make it past the limited series stage, tested only in selected schools. The above-mentioned laboratory chair deserves special notice. The piece with the folding desktop did not enter mass production, not because of the incapability of Polish industry’s technology, but rather because the Polish schools of the time were unprepared to use this sort of multifunctional equipment.
Maria Chomentowska, chair with desktop, produced by the Furniture Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, 1965, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Maria Chomentowska designed a few models of school desks. One of her first, of a plywood construction, remained a prototype. The ones made of bent metal pipes went into mass production, with various models of seats and folding desktops. The triangular tables with rounded corners also bear mentioning, along with their matching chairs that can be reconfigured to match the activity – in smaller or larger groups, or for independent work.
In the 1970s the institute’s contacts with industry markedly decreased. The factories became less interested in carrying out institute projects. Chomentowska found it less than satisfying to do research work if there was no chance of executing her designs. After she broke with the IWP, the designer went to Lublin in 1976, where she began a twenty-year cooperation with the Catholic University of Lublin. The university’s first commission was to design the interiors and furnishings of the manor in Kazimierz nad Wisłą, in which the academy set up its house for creative work. Some time later she designed a confessional for the church in the university complex, which is remarkable for its simplicity. It was designed in the form of a simplified and miniaturized exterior of a Romanesque church. Rustic pews from the first half of the 1980s round out the temple’s interior. (Among the many interiors and furnishings designed for the university in the 1980s and the 1990s, including halls and the rector’s office and waiting room, the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Hall and the throne for Pope John Paul II should be noted) For this furniture, Chomentowska managed to reconcile her affinity for constructivist simplicity with requirement for elegance. Once again, 30 years after her Biedermeier/social-realist episode of the 1950s, she drew from historical forms and found a solution that combined modernity with classicist monumentalism.
Maria Chomentowska, "Spider", chair (Type 288), produced by the Furniture Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw; Bent Furniture Factory in Radomsko, 1956, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
The time Maria Chomentowska spent in cooperation with the Industrial Design Institute, i.e. from the 1950s and 1960s, is considered to be her most notable period. Her works from this period were outstanding – many of them fully carry out the premises of the designer’s program stemming from her theoretical work. They are visually interesting and yet disciplined. They might also be seen from a different perspective, as a testimonial of a very good and creative period in the history of the IWP and the post-war history of design in Poland. Her chairs were displayed repeatedly when they were first created, and again recently; in an epoch of fascination with the style at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, they have become calling cards of the IWP.
Maria Chomentowska (born 1924) studied with Jan Kurzątkowski at the Interior Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1951 she began working at the Industrial Design Institute, and remained an affiliate until 1976, designing furniture, mainly chairs. She took part in design research, the most important of which is her years of work on designing school furniture. She designed interiors for the Polish Writers’ Union in Warsaw and in Obory (ca. 1949) and for the Catholic University in Lublin. Her more important exhibits include the Second Polish Exhibition of Interior Design and Decorative Art in Warsaw (1957), the Applied Art Triennial in Milan (1961), and the School Furniture Exhibit at the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (1965, 1966). She received the Ministry of Culture and Art award for lifetime achievement twice (1957, 1969), and the first prize at a competition for children’s furniture (1961).
Author: Anna Maga
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) "Biuletyn Rady Wzornictwa," 1967, nos. 4/5, p. 46