Władysław Wołkowski gained most of his popularity and recognition as the creator of remarkably original wicker compositions, which he elevated to the rank of an artistic material.
Władysław Wołkowski, stool - metal framework (detail) with string weave, 1950s-1970s, collections of the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz, photo: Michał Korta
Wołkowski struggled with poverty from his earliest youth in Sulisławice, but he also had his fair share of lucky encounters with people who perceived his talent. The first of these was Jan Koszczyc-Witkiewicz, the director of the Construction Trade School in Kazimierz nad Wisłą, where the young Wołkowski landed in 1920. At school he gained a thorough, practical grounding in wicker, a material for which he developed a lifelong fascination. In 1923 Koszczyc-Witkiewicz guided the promising student toward a two-year course for instructors at the Folk Industry Association in Warsaw, where Wołkowski was to meet his second tutor, Wojciech Jastrzębowski.
Having been raised in a patriotic home, cultivated by a generations-old tradition of wooden village sacral architecture, and saturated with the ideas of developing and supporting folk art instilled in him by Jan Koszczyc-Witkiewicz, Wołkowski treated design like a mission. The Folk Industry Association gave him the opportunity to participate in the preparations for the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris 1925, and also the chance to meet the leading designers of the day. This bore fruit in his decision to take up studies at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where his professors included such luminaries as Józef Czajkowski, Wojciech Jastrzębowski, and Karol Tichy. The reformed "Warsaw academy intended to educate painters, sculptors, graphic artists and interior designers who also knew their way around furniture-making, ceramics, weaving, dyeing, metalwork, and bookbinding. This provided the opportunity to learn a few specialties. Special emphasis was placed on workshop knowledge and ability with materials."(1) Wołkowski did not squander his new opportunities, though financial difficulties forced him to interrupt his studies (which he began in 1926). He was only able to devote himself to them in earnest from 1930–1935, but he used this period of gathering study funds – filled with teaching in schools and wicker centers in Krzeszow, Biłgoraj and Rudnik nad Sanem – to hone his crafts technique. When he returned to school, he graduated from both Mieczysław Kotarbiński’s painting studio and Wojciech Jastrzębowski’s interior design studio. He also studied mathematics independently – "I did this because I saw it as an opportunity to combine technology with nature."(2)
Władysław Wołkowski, chair from the "Steeds" set, before 1967, collections of the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz, photo: Michał Korta
A fascination for nature lay at the core of Wołkowski’s somewhat late-developed aesthetic and philosophical concepts. He saw the purpose of making art in striving to grant every person the chance to commune with beauty on a daily basis. Shaping one’s surroundings after the harmonious structures of nature were, to his mind, an effective form of combating the all-pervading ugliness. "I can’t stand the monotony of technological civilization, of industrial production standards. In nature there is infinite diversity and great harmony."
A generation younger than the Polish applied art avant-garde, he carried out and developed the postulates set in the early 20th century for almost all his life. He nonetheless remained an original artist. Taking wicker as his basic material, with all its folk associations, Wołkowski began exhibiting furniture and objects that in every respect broke all the standards of previous woven wicker designs. These raised some interest and recognition, which began to pay off in commissions both domestic and foreign, and in numerous awards. Before war broke out, Wołkowski’s work was presented in Berlin (1938) and in New York (1939); and the furniture he put on sale enjoyed a great deal of success. His most important distinction was the gold medal, awarded to him in 1937 at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Paris, though he only gained news of this success many years later.
Władysław Wołkowski, stool, 1950s, collections of the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz, photo: Michał Korta
The line forms the most powerful accent in Wołkowski’s designs – it is bold and fluid. Contrasted with the precision of weaves and ties, it emphasizes a wealth of designs: stands, baskets, trays, and soft, rhythmic, woven ornaments on the seats of stools and chairs. His first furniture is of wooden construction, and the form of the weave harmonizes its generally subdued shapes with a density that makes the body of the furniture bulge. Yet other solutions appear as well: the pairing of geometrical forms with softly shaped backrests. Later, the designer began to form entire sections with parallel rods or bundles of wicker, then effectively closed with a thick weave, or gently tapered at the end. He was to use this solution more frequently after he replaced the wooden frames with metal bars. The originality of the shapes goes hand in hand with balanced proportions, simplicity of means, and last but not least, a respect for the intended function. This furniture is simply comfortable.
In fact, Wołkowski combined all the attributes one expects from a designer: consciousness of his aims, passion and insight, knowledge of his material, and a perfect handle on his craft. Yet paradoxically, it was just this "perfect execution" of the applied arts program that kept his products from achieving mass distribution. This sophisticated and elegant furniture was commissioned for governmental residences, such as the embassy in Berlin. He made a few sets of furniture in 1957 for the Belgian Queen. However, the designer’s original intention had been to give it a different role – to individualise ordinary interiors, to break through the tedious monotony of standardisation. Wołkowski was condemned to failure in his contacts with the centralised structures administrating folk products in the People’s Poland. "In the years right after the war I tried to organize a wicker work team. I worked out a few models and then tried to interest some institutions I thought could use them. Nothing came of it. I traveled half of Poland, trying my luck in Rudnik, in Stolart, in Chróścice, and I founded my own basket cooperatives in Piotrków and in Biłgorajski. Yet I didn’t know how to fight the resistance I met from the cooperatives every step of the way."(3)
Władysław Wołkowski, chair, ca. 1952, collections of the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz, photo: Michał Korta
In the inter-war period and the years immediately following the war, Wołkowski lectured at schools and institutions involved with artistic crafts – The Institute of Handcraft and Drawing and the Museum of Crafts and Applied Arts in Warsaw, and the Institute for the Blind in Laski. Later, after schools of this type ceased to exist, he was able to collaborate with the Folk and Art Industry Center ("Cepelia") and the Fair and Exhibition Establishment in the capital city. He began trying his hand at new materials, growing interested in synthetics. In 1956 he wrote in the first issue of "Projekt" magazine: "My work with architects is moving forward. I’m on the way to developing a new building material that combines the oldest technology (weaving) with the most contemporary – modeling clay." Presumably, the work done together with architects never made it past the test phase.
Wołkowski constantly and very consistently carried out his concept for the holistic shaping of interiors and their surrounding space. In rendering furniture, for example, with the greatest fastidiousness down to the tiniest weave or tie, he also bore in mind that it would ultimately fulfill its function only if it was harmonized correctly with its surroundings. Wołkowski’s work on the design for the furnishing of Warsaw’s Na Rozdrożu cafe is an interesting example. The shapes of the openwork armchairs assembled in groups give the impression of frozen movement, an effect reinforced by penetration of the outdoor summer patio into the space of the glassed-in room. During his formal experiments and undying attempts to realize the concept of the "poetic living space," he developed decorative tapestries woven of wicker and string, rich in ornament and the above-mentioned wicker pictures, chiefly portraits, but also historical scenes. Among these works created to set up "the reverse of today’s apartment created by technological civilization," there is a stand-out series of tapestries woven with colored string, wicker branches, feathers, macramé and yarn, which the artist called "Polish adornments." Produced for ten years according to designs made much earlier, they were displayed for the first time at Warsaw’s Zachęta in 1980. The exhibition was a real event, and the adornments were declared to be highly original pieces of decorative art. Later, they were put on display in the 19th-century Machnicki manor in Olkusz, where in 1970 a permanent exhibition of the artist’s work was set up. The Olkusz Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski also holds the largest collection of his furniture.
Władysław Wołkowski (1902-1986) graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw in painting and interior design (1935). After the Second World War he worked freelance for the Production Aesthetic Supervision Bureau, the Industrial Design Institute, and the Ład Artists’ Cooperative. His most important awards included a gold medal at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Contemporary Life in Paris (1937); honorary mentions at the World Exhibition of Art and Technology in New York (1939); and first prize at the Polish Exhibition of Interior Design and Decorative Art in Warsaw’s Zachęta Gallery (1957). A collection of his work is found at the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz.
Author: Jadwiga Wielgut-Walczak
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) I. Huml, Polska sztuka stosowana XX wieku, Warsaw 1978, p. 69
(2) W. Wołkowski, Moja koncepcja sztuki [in:] Władysław Wołkowski. Strojeńce polskie, Warsaw 1980. The subsequent unmarked quotations hail from the same text.
(3) W. Wołkowski, O swojej pracy, "Projekt" no. 1/1956