The Emotional Memories Of Design: An Interview With Małgorzata Wesołowska
default, foto_m_wesolowska.jpg, Małgorzata Wesołowska, photo: Katarzyna Łuka, center
'The main theme of the exhibition is not historical narrative but feelings,' says Małgorzata Wesołowska, curator of the exhibition A Matter of Things, the Polish exhibition at the 2018 London Design Biennale. What will the exhibition be about? Why is there going to be an outhouse at the historic Somerset House? What will English audiences discover about Poland?
Anna Cymer: You studied industrial design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and at Oslo School of Architecture and Design – an experienced designer, but nevertheless you decided to go into curating. Where did this idea come from?
Małgorzata Wesołowska: Firstly, I guess I've always been better at theory than at practice, I also have a bent for opinion journalism. Industrial design has never absorbed me completely, some say my approach was too radical. But that's not the only reason. We're talking in the former Polskie Zakłady Optyczne (PZO, editor's translation: Polish Optical Company) in Warsaw. My grandfather worked in its factory's prototype department and later on my father got employed in its construction office. Even if I had wanted, I wouldn't have been able to continue this tradition, because optical instruments are neither designed nor produced here anymore. The factory doesn't exist.
This story of a non-existent factory was my first idea for the London exhibition. This is why I talk about it and this is why we're meeting here – not to boast about family connections, as the object of these connections have disappeared. What is left is only a shell. I call this place, which is quite fashionable right now, a Polish 'rust belt'. The liquidation of many industrial companies in Poland has radically changed the situation of designers, who have actually worked mainly for industry (the name 'industrial design' is no accident). This way, my experience in design is lesser than it could be, and it's not only because of my personal choices. Today I'd probably need to go abroad to work as an industrial designer.
Anyway, when I saw the main theme of the London Design Biennale – 'Emotional States' – I thought about the emotions caused by the factory's nonexistence and its more measurable socioeconomic consequences. However, I decided not to go into that side of things, which is too repeatable – Poland's not the only country in Europe where stories about deindustrialisation are spinned. Well, take the British Isles for example, where this issue is really prevalent.
AC: So you think designers should create everyday-use objects produced industrially, rather than ornamental or exclusive works verging on art?
MW: Yes, and I believe that design should be exposed chiefly in shop windows. What we wear, how we commute, what objects we use every day, what we use to eat, brush our teeth, write, turn the light on, in other words – almost every object in our surroundings, is a work of industrial design. But today these are rarely things designed or produced in Poland, because our native industry has undergone radical reduction. This is why there aren't many contemporary items that can be exhibited, and, consequently, expositions often present rather exclusive objects. As industrial design has been around for such a long time, it carries numerous stories, and these objects are able to somehow narrate the experience and state of society.
AC: These references to history are an important part of your idea for the Polish exhibition at London Design Biennale 2018. How did that concept emerge?
MW: I saw the announcement for the Polish exhibition for London Design Biennale on the Adam Mickiewicz Institute's Facebook page. I was living in Berlin back then and knew I had to change jobs. Designing the exhibition seemed like a good change, especially that it was a really damp and incredibly dark winter. The main theme of emotions in this year's biennale is very capacious and coherent with my understanding of design. It was also quite important that Christopher Turner was the director of the London Design Biennale. He's also the head of the design department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, so his approach to design is unobvious and far from banal – he also has a certain perception of Poland.
As this year's biennale takes place in the centenary of Poland's independence, I decided to display 10 objects that became symbols of the fluctuating 'emotional states' of Poles throughout the century. That’s generally what my brief for the competition looked like.
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AC: How did you select just 10 objects from the last hundred years of Poland's history?
MW: From the very beginning, I had two items in mind – General Wojciech Jaruzelski's glasses [head of the communist party from 1981-1989] and the red trousers of Koziołek Matołek [a popular cartoon character]. I was also thinking of pepegi [canvas tennis shoes whose name originates from the state-owned factory where they were mass produced], a felt beret, a musztardówka [a glass jar in which mustard was sold, later usually used as a drinking glass], a bread bin, ferns [one of Poland's favourite house plants], and the Polish mathematician Stefan Banach's equations…
In the end, for various reasons, none of these items made it into the exhibition, but these objects were shaping my imagination when I was working on the project. My aim was to choose objects that still spark emotions in Poles.
It wasn't an easy task. On the one hand, I wanted each item to represent a specific decade, but on the other, my wish was to present Poland's history in all its complexity and include the provinces and small towns in order to avoid a Warsaw-centred perspective. The most crucial thing was however to show items that could potentially give rise to emotional associations in as large a number of Poles as possible. The project was to be simple to understand and inclusive – not exclusive. I was looking for objects whose existence was linked to some important events in the life of the majority of our society and not merely with some small group.
Obviously, as the exhibition was to be seen by foreigners, the objects had to be complemented with descriptions presenting the historical or cultural context. The items are accompanied by both texts and visual materials such as archival photographs that’ll allow the London audiences to understand the historical background better.
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AC: In what form are you going to present the selected objects?
MW: All of them will be displayed in their actual sizes. These replicas will be located in two conjoined chambers of Somerset House. The largest of the items is almost 14-feet tall, the smallest is just 6.69x6.6-inches big.
I didn't want to merely narrate the story of these objects – I also wanted to furnish the exhibition space. It's the only way for the viewer to understand their scale, proportions, the relationship between them and the human body. The viewers will discover that a cardboard record is so small it fits in your palm, and a sławojka [a historical colloquialism for an ‘outhouse’] is quite an ergonomic object and, even when judging using today's criteria, quite functional.
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AC: Ah, yes, the sławojka. Aren't you afraid that presenting an outhouse at an important international exhibition is going to cause outrage? And that you'll be accused of showing Poland's history in an unworthy manner?
MW: I know controversies may arise, but my intention wasn't to provoke a scandal. Well, I do think that any potential outrage may actually work in favour of the exhibition. I think design exhibitions as a whole are undergoing a sort of crisis. They are predictable or even a bit monotonous, and their sanitised narrations spark equally sanitised and rather foreseeable commentaries.
In London, we're going to present a less typical approach to design. Hopefully, it's going to make people aware that design can be presented in many ways and is worthy of being a subject of discussion, even quarrels. To put it briefly – design sparks emotions. This is the main theme of the event and the most important interpretative key shaping the exhibition. In this context, a bit of provocation is actually a good thing.
It should, however, be stressed that the exhibition is going to include items that Poles can be really proud of – for example, the radiostation used in 1920 during the Battle of Warsaw. It has quite an inconspicuous form yet its content and the way it works is rather refined. The radiostation constituted part of a monitoring net. It was a really highly advanced achievement in modern technical thought and it greatly contributed to Poland's victory in the battle. The finest minds of inter-war Poland worked on devising this system and making it work.
The exhibition will also feature the door on which Janek Wiśniewski was carried – it's a truly emotionally iconic item from a very difficult moment in Polish history [Janek Wiśniewski is the protagonist of Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim, a song commemorating the death of Zbyszek Godlewski, a Polish blue collar worker who was shot by the communist army during the 1970 protests. His dead body was carried on a door by the demonstrators]. However, a cardboard record will also be presented at the exposition. It's important to balance the narrative – so some items will spark positive emotions and others – negative ones.
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AC: Not all the objects can be so clearly associated with specific historical facts.
MW: The key topic of the exhibition is feelings – not historical narrative. For instance, I hesitated between three objects when I was wondering how to present the 1980s. One of them was a brazier, an object which might seem quite exotic for the English. I was also thinking about an opornik [a small pin worn to present one's resistance to the communist government], which is a really tiny object. In the end, I decided to show toilet paper on a rope [in Poland under communism, toilet paper, for reasons unknown since other paper utensils were available, was constantly scarce. It was sold hanging on strings]. I didn't want my narrative to be too bleak. The 1980s was at times a really tragic period marked by economic crisis, but this situation also gave rise to uncountable jokes – that was how people handled emotional stress.
Our exhibition can be interpreted as a story about economics and the availability of products. This topic – in a slightly different way – is also important in the contemporary debate about design. The toilet paper, the camp bed representing the 1990s, and the yellow curtains standing for the 1950s are a direct reference to the phenomena of surplus and scarcity – the latter can cause very strong emotions. In Poland, economic reasons were often a flashpoint for outbursts of social frustration. There was a scarcity in that period in the intellectual sphere too – censorship generated, quite literally, gaps and omissions.
The outhouse and the toilet paper (actually made from recycled paper) can be perceived in yet another way: as objects fit for the contemporary debate about ecology, recycling and sustainable design from local materials. Every modern ecological movement should be interested in the design of an outhouse, as it meets all the criteria of sustainable development design. So even though our exhibition features just 10 objects, it offers a lot of content, aspects and motifs.
Interview conducted in Polish, translated by NS, August 2018