The two aspects of design that stand out in Aleksander Kuczma's designs are an attention to standards in mass production, paired with a pursuit for individuality and an emotional dimension to objects.
Aleksander Kuczma counts himself fortunate among the designers of the socialist era in Poland as he has always been free to pursue his creative ideas in his professional life. It would appear, however, that his was a creative vision supported by technological know-how that brought him success, and gave him the power to convince clients and co-workers of his ideas.
The son of a sculptor, and a sculptor himself by education, he always saw the furniture/object in its three-dimensional form, whether it was ‘hand-sculpted’or made with complicated tools through factory production. His abilities were put to the test at his first job at the Poznań Furniture Factory. In 1964 he began experimenting with synthetic materials and their application in furniture. The United Furniture Industry, which was obliged to introduce technological innovations to Polish factories, had bought many licenses at the time, and these were adopted by Polish industry with varying degrees of success. A new production line brought in from Austria used both polyester resin spray and glass fibres to create a material for stiff constructions – a glass/polyester laminate. Thanks to designs by a team led by Aleksander Kuczma, the Poznań Furniture Factory succeeded in an ambitious plan to acquire new laminate tools.
Employed at the Design/Construction Enterprise of the Furniture Industry, later known as OBROM,1 Kuczma came across designers focused on carpentry technologies. His training in sculpture and readiness to accept new methods of production changed the traditional way of thinking. Of prime importance, according to the designer, was "the need for spherical forms in designing furniture with synthetic materials." From 1965–1969 a few furniture series were made with this material. The United Furniture Industry attached great significance to the development of research centres, where designers enjoyed a freedom of activity and had the chance to bring new solutions to life, even if they weren't mass produced. The majority remained prototypes on show at various design exhibitions.2 Only a few were made in limited series, such as the ferry furnishings made of glass/polyester laminate with wool fabric upholstery produced by the FAMOS Ship Furniture Factory. Apart from a single chair in the designer's collection, we know of these mainly from archival photographs.
The Kal armchair (1969), produced in 1972 by OBROM in limited series, was their last hard-shelled furniture design of this period. Here, too, new technological solutions were adopted. The subject of these experiments with new materials was stiff polyurethane foam that could serve construction purposes. Kuczma used it in the Kuba armchair, for example, which was produced at the Lubuskie Furniture Factory in Świebodzina (a production line purchased in Great Britain). At the time, the factory in Świebodzina was a research institute specializing in upholstered furniture. The purchase of instrumentation for producing forms made of soft polyurethane foam facilitated affixing the upholstery to the hard shell furniture. One more project by Aleksander Kuczma, made in 1979, bears mentioning – the Jumbo furniture set. In these armchairs can be observed an interesting solution – the whole is made of three components of complementary construction parts: The sides made of synthetic materials are visually dominant and stabilised by metal joiners and upholstery. Jumbo was geared for production at the Rzeszów Furniture Factory, which did not have the necessary instrumentation. It thus remained a prototype – a display object.
It is hard to deny the clear resemblances between the forms of Kuczma's laminate furniture and the work of the big names in this material, such as Charles Eames and Arne Jacobsen. But these are references in the positive sense of the word, rather, creative interpretations of the masters' styles. In spite of the investments of the United Furniture Industry in developing research centres, Kuczma's many years of devotion, and the fine results of the new furniture prototypes in the factories, none of these achievements went beyond the laboratory stage, and none achieved large-scale production.
Apart from his experiments with new materials, Aleksander Kuczma designed furniture with wooden frames, especially in the latter half of the 1970s, when he decisively abandoned his previous field of research. Essex was made in 1974 in OBROM. The technologists at the bentwood factory were exceedingly reluctant to introduce new designs, for these were quite costly to implement. Essex remained a prototype in spite of its shapely form – it was original and in no way derivative, and yet clearly inspired by Bauhaus/Scandinavian solutions. Along with the armchair, the set included a table with a glass rectangular top, and with an analogous construction.
Experimenting in OBROM, Kuczma designed a range of furniture sets that were produced by many Polish factories. Furniture series were created which enjoyed success and which, even after all these years, though they may bear the stamp of their epoch, retain the virtues of solid design and inventive construction solutions. The Gama set, designed in collaboration with Juliusz Kowalski and co-produced in 1976 by the Wyszkowskie Furniture Factory, is one that stands out. Most of the parts are made of white-lacquered bent plywood. The legs are joined with horizontal parts to form a light construction, creating an impression more plastic than wooden. The whole has an exceptionally minimalist look. The most marked decorative accent is the contrast between the sharp, saturated colored upholstered parts and the matte white of the construction. In the latter half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Polish furniture production was generally smitten with wood, which often led to an overload of turned details and other ornaments – baseboards, panels, setoffs, etc. Producers were convinced (with some justification) that there was a market demand.
The Björn furniture set emerged around 1975. Designed for export with the Scandinavian consumer in mind, it was produced by the Olszyń Furniture Factory in Olszyń Lubańska. Ultimately, many of these products were sent to Austria. Then the Gryf set was designed for the domestic market, and produced by a factory in Gryfów Śląski. In this furniture, Kuczma showed how quality could be extracted from wood without overdoing it. The simple, interlocking, turned parts create a fairly complex play of forms, while the disciplined ornament is linked with the construction.
The Björn design replaced some construction parts with a thick rope. Pulled through some holes in the wooden construction, the rope builds armrests and anchors the seat from the front. Thus emerged the Bosman furniture set. The maritime touch plays an important role in the construction, while adding unquestionable decorative virtues.
In designing furniture for mass production, the designer strove for the best solutions while remaining conscious of local production realities. It may be for this reason that his designs were industrially produced and enjoyed popularity for sometimes over a decade. In the 1990s Kuczma designed less for factories, a move no doubt inspired by the crisis in the Polish industry after the shift from a centrally managed economy to the free market system. The main cause was the designer's work at the academy. His turn toward one-of-a-kind furniture was not a flight from industry, but rather born from a search to understand other aspects of furniture. He had a deeper interest in the formal side of things, in extracting beauty from the material itself, in creating new sensations and responses, and perhaps, new functions for furniture objects. This extraordinary work was essentially an expression of his full commitment to experiment with materials and construction, and to a search for a balance between the physical attributes of a piece of furniture and the ideological/emotional message. Kuczma linked these activities with his teaching in a natural way. Reviewing Etudes, a joint exhibition by the professor and his students in 1997,3 Józef A. Mrozek considered the designers' methods of avoiding the monotony of standardization. This striving to individualize the object was a perfect match for the tendencies that had been fashionable in Poland since the mid 1980s.
"Postmodernism changed perspectives, freeing designers from the necessity of fulfilling social needs or, on the contrary, of being social engineers. Objects designed for a particular user […] make us reconsider the aim of design in the late 20th century. In 1979, this road was marked when Alessandro Mendini entered into a dialogue with Breuer through designing the Kandissi sofa and the Proust armchair. We pick up this trail at the 'Etudes' exhibition. […] The designers have discarded the assumption that there is an average man, that he can be grasped through norms and standards."4
The two aspects of design that interweave and complement one another in Aleksander Kuczma's work are design for mass production, mindful of norms and standards, and a search for individuality, to give an object an emotional dimension. This way of seeing design (also visible in the work of his students) would seem to be the most important message.5
Aleksander Kuczma (born 1935) is a furniture designer and a teacher. From 1958–1964 he studied at the Sculpture Department of the State Academy of Visual Arts in Poznań (graduating from the studio of Bazyly Wojtowicz). From 1964 till the 1980s he worked in research centers and United Furniture Industry agencies, where he presented proposals for new technological solutions. At the same time, he designed furniture for many Polish factories, including the Olszyń Furniture Factory in Olszyń Lubańska, the Lubuskie Furniture Factory in Świebodzina, and the Wyszkowskie Furniture Factory. In 1981 he began lecturing at the State Academy of Visual Arts in Poznań, where he initially ran the Polymer Construction Studio, and from 1987 to 2007, he ran the 3rd Furniture Design Studio. Since 2007 he has taught design at the Design Institute at the Koszaliń Technical Academy.
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. The Design/Construction Enterprise of the Furniture Industry was renamed the Central Bureau for Furniture Development in 1965, which then, in turn, became the Furniture Research and Development Center (OBROM), which remained operative till the 1980s. Aleksander Kuczma played an important role in the work of these design teams.
2. "The Design of Society," Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw 1966; "Polish Applied Art on the 25th Anniversary of the People's Republic," Zachęta Gallery, Warsaw 1969.
3. "Etudes. Furniture from the Studio of Professor Aleksander Kuczma," Museum of Applied Art in Poznań (1997); Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (1998); BWA in Częstochowa (1999), Stary Spichlerz in Weimar (1999); an exhibit organized by Katarzyna Laskowska.
4. J.A. Mrozek, Dla kogo te meble, "Meble plus" 1997, no. 4, p. 11.
5. Katarzyna Laskowska, one-time assistant of Aleksander Kuczma, initiated a Design Education Program at the Interior Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań in 2001. This program upholds the value of experimental research while facilitating industrial production of students' designs, something which had been impossible for many years.