Beyond the Triumph Over 'Ugliness' – Polish Design After 1989
small, Beyond the Triumph Over
'Ugliness' – Polish Design
After 1989, 'RM56' chair, designed by Roman Modzelewski, produced by Vzór – 'Must Have' 2013, photo: Łódź Design Festival 2013, must have 2013 prace 5_7036720.jpg
Until relatively recently, Poland’s primary goal, in terms of design, seemed simple: to overcome a ubiquitous ‘ugliness’. Today, however, it appears that Polish design must set more ambitious goals in order to catch up with global trends in the field.
In Poland, the era of the modern started in 1989, with the collapse of the communist regime. Freedom and democracy laid the groundwork for establishing a free economy and creating new social contexts. Economically and socially, Poles leapt forward with audacity – and as the country broke free from the grips of the doctrine of socialist realism, it fell into the tight embrace of capitalism.
The dire economic consequences of socialist realism were deeply felt, however, throughout the 1990s. Many companies fuelled by foreign capital established themselves in Poland. This engendered a true shock among Poles, as local products were confronted with imported goods. Soon, it became obvious that Polish production couldn’t withstand the competition. The modernisation of production systems, as well as new management familiar with the rules of the free-market game, were in high demand. Foreign companies were involved in virtually any new investment in the country, bringing their own capital, machinery, know-how – and yes, design.
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Thus, the actual breakthrough wouldn’t come until the next decade. After the year 2000, Polish companies (either newly created or surviving from the 1990s) began to emphasise the aesthetics of their products. The 1990s also saw a boom in residential construction. Many Poles faced the challenge of furnishing their new places. This translated into a considerable demand for interior design products, furniture and household devices. The late 1990s were a time of great prosperity for the furniture sector. Poland was uniquely well-located, since the manufacturers had convenient access to high-quality wood. Unsurprisingly, it became a world leader in the sector.
'RM56' chair, designed by Roman Modzelewski, produced by Vzór – 'Must Have' 2013, photo: Łódź Design Festival 2013
Some good examples of these first achievements in Poland’s contemporary design of everyday products were featured in Common Wealth, an exhibition curated by professor Czesława Frejlich. Its 1990s section showcased the Cello armchair designed by Jerzy Langier (commissioned by Fabryka Mebli Eljot), halogen lighting systems by Żaneta Govenlock and interesting glassware and ceramics designs.
Poland’s industrial design only picked up after Poland joined the EU in 2000. Design soon became an important factor of a product’s competitive value. Its importance is increasingly universally recognised and taken on with greater intention. Much like in other countries, three career paths are readily discernible in Polish design scene: There are designers collaborating with big manufacturers, independent brands producing in short series, as well as non-commercial designers devoted to unique creations.
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Large-scale production is supplied by the biggest design studios in Poland. They provide mass manufacturers with single designs, as well as entire strategies for progress through design itself. Such services are on offer from such studios as Towarzystwo Projektowe, Inno Design, Marad Design, Studio Rygalik or Kompott Studio.
In their designs, ergonomics and functionality are of key importance. Much attention is paid to cost, while aesthetically, their products are tailored to the preferences of the masses. This doesn’t mean, however, that the market has abandoned low-quality products (including in quality of design). It’s still a vital sector – but more and more brands see product design as a powerful weapon in the marketing wars.
Take Balma, a manufacturer of office furniture, which has successfully teamed up with designer Piotr Kuchciński. For years now, the Xeon series has been the flagship product of the company. In 2005, Noti, a new brand, was introduced. It offers luxurious kitchen and dining room furniture. Along with Piotr Kuchciński, Noti is designed by big names like Renata Kalarus, Jerzy Langier, Jerzy Porębski or Mikołaj Wierszyłłowski. The company aptly exposes their names to capitalize on their status. It has had much success since – take the Comma chair by Kalarus, awarded at Red Dot Design, the most prestigious European design competition.
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Balma was soon joined in its strategy by other brands making their bold appearance in the world of design. The list includes such names as COM40, Vox Meble and Paged Meble, to name a few.
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Few know that Poles design and manufacture fine yachts like the Noon 55 by Leszek Gonciarz, planes (see the stunning EM11 Orka desgined by Edward Maragański’s team). Modern train cars manufactured by PESA in Bydgoszcz are designed at Gdańsk’s Marad studio, which is headed by Marek Adamczewski. The well-established H. Cegielski Works design and manufacture low-floor tramways.
The residents of Warsaw have internalised the City Information System, duly introduced since 1996 and prepared by Jerzy Porębski, Grzegorz Niwiński and Michał Stefanowski (working under the collective name Towarzystwo Projektowe [Design Society]). The system was carefully prepared based on a comprehensive research. It took into consideration such aspects as the city’s particularities, both historical and habitual names of parts of Warsaw and local customs. One of the system’s characteristics consists in employing pictographs that inform whether a given street is perpendicular or parallel to the River Wisła.
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Good and bad design applies even to traffic-light systems. ZIRslim, designed by Michał Latko and Leszek Czerwiński (and commissioned by Zakład Inżynierii Ruchu in Bytom), is certainly an example of the former. It’s comprised of modules – accessible, repeatable, easy to connect elements – thanks to which a faulty element is easily replaced in the event of a breakdown. The system was awarded at the Śląska Rzecz (Silesian Thing) Competition in 2009.
Small is beautiful
Recent years have been marked by an interesting trend: a growing number of smaller design and manufacturing enterprises. They can be described as single creative brands, run by designers who challenge themselves to offer a new kind of quality: fresh, functional, aesthetically pleasing and in line with their individual aspirations.
Moho Group (or Magda Lubińska and Michał Biernacki, today working at CODE studio), for example, which debuted a few years ago, quickly charmed their customers. Their folk-pattern rug called Mohohej! Dia was awarded the special prize by the prestigious British magazine Wallpaper in 2006. In 2008, it was awarded at the equally prestigious German Red Dot design competition mentioned above. Rugs designed by Moho are an apt combination of traditional fabrics (woollen felt typical of the Podhale region) and patterns inspired by folk paper cut-outs.
Joanna Rusin and Agnieszka Czop also make use of woollen felt, although they opt for more natural colours and their fabrics are subject to more individual, rather intriguing processing and decorating. The duo uses cutters to prepare the shape and what follows is embroidering, die cutting, printing, openwork, interlacing and making reliefs. Thanks to these procedures the simple, if not poor, fabrics morph into richly-adorned wall fabrics or rugs.
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Anna Siedlecka and Radosław Achramowicz of PuffBuff Design are consistent in creating their portfolio. Initially, they designed light objects and mobile systems that would easily change shape. This led them to experiment with inflatable structures. PuffBuff masters not only the design process, but also the production and distribution of their work. They are regulars at world’s biggest design fairs, which allows them to sell globally.
When it comes to design groups focused on original collections, introduced as time-limited series, the Gdańsk-based Malafor group is worth mentioning as well. It was established by two designers, Agata Kulik and Paweł Pomorski, who explore various materials and topics.. In ceramics, designs by Bogdan Kossak are interesting, while Agnieszka Bar, Karina Marusińska and Agnieszka Kajper propose original concepts in ceramics and glasswork.
Daria Burlińska is the creator of attention-grabbing lighting systems, and M.A.M.AirBag excels in making original bags by up-cycling airbags from scrapyard cars. The list runs as long as it is inexhaustible, as this particular domain of design is expanding vitally – with more and more of interesting products on offer.
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Another category is singular designs, or manifesto-designs. Here, design is merely a medium harnessed to express the artist’s own creative and social stance. Bartosz Mucha is arguably the most significant designer dealing with conceptual (or critical) design. He openly claims not to be a designer and, as he underscores, doesn’t want to trespass upon the competence of professional designers. He is a pragmatic artist, claiming inspiration from Malewicz and the Constructivists.
Equally remarkable are the designs of the now-disbanded Gogo collective (Maria Makowska and Piotr Stolarski). They created what they called Radio by the Length – a raw pine-tree log with integrated radio sets, one mounted next to another. Customers are to cut their own piece, preferably with a handsaw. This is but one part of an entire series of projects aimed at stimulating unconventional consumption behaviour, in sellers and customers alike. Through their critical stance, they take on the ease with which we buy and consume.
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Marek Cecuła is another artist working at the intersection of art and design. His portfolio includes both commercial designs and ceramic sculptures. In his projects, art informs industrial design, while in turn, industrial design informs art. His works feature in 14 museum collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.
Conceptual designs, singular objects and experimental design all call for deep reflection and the carrying of a message. Without such intellectual capital, they are reduced to gadgets of little interest. While Poland might not have caught up with the Western world in economic terms, it has certainly caught up intellectually. This is demonstrated by the sheer professionalism of Polish designers working for manufacturers in Poland (or abroad as is more and more common) and their creative non-commercial projects.
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Originally written in Polish by Magda Kochanowska, Jun 2014; translated by MS, Feb 2019