Designer and artist Karol Stryjeński was an extraordinarily skilled organizer of cultural life, and a renowned bon vivant. He was also among the outstanding creators of Polish decorative art of the 1920s – and of the national trend in art déco.
The Stryjeńskis were a family who made remarkable contributions to Polish culture in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Karol, the son of Tadeusz Stryjeński, a famous Cracovian architect, followed his father's example and also studied architecture. Upon his return from Zurich to Kraków, he found work in a design studio. In 1912 he took part in a competition for residential homes with gardens, and in the Polish Exhibition of Architecture and Interiors in a Garden Environment in Kraków. The Stryjeńskis received the two top awards for their shared designs of houses with affordable apartments.
At the end of 1913, while in Paris studying sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, Stryjeński entered the Kraków Workshops Association (formed in his absence), and worked there as a designer of furniture and kilims. He worked in carpentry, founding a part of the Workshops for ex-legionnaires, established to create employment for war invalids in a professional capacity. He met his future wife, an artist named Zofia Lubańska, at the Workshops in 1916. Beginning in 1917 the Stryjeńskis became involved in the formist movement, then fermenting in Krakow, which was related to futurism, cubism, and expressionism. He joined other artists in decorating the interiors of the futurists' club (the Gałka Muszkatołowa, i.e., "Nutmeg") and Krakow's "Esplanada" cafe. A year later, Stryjeński won first prize in a competition organized by the Bureau of the Wood Industry for his design of "peasant" furniture. Jerzy Remer wrote: "He breathed visible imagination of material and technique into applied forms. While keeping within the framework of mechanical production, he emphasized the character of contemporary forms."(1) In this era which sought to create a specifically Polish interior, Stryjeński, striving for the synthesis of arts, put forward a unified concept in which the integrated whole of a piece was created by the notion of "localness." The furniture he designed was inspired by folk art, in particular highland art, and referenced Polish handcrafts traditions.
Stryjeński's life was linked with Zakopane from the early 1920s onward. In 1922 he won a competition for a locality's "regulation plan." He presented a bold vision of changing Zakopane into a modern health resort, with an infrastructure adapted for leisure and sport functions. He proposed restricting the zones of packed small-town construction in favor of freestanding buildings with Podhale-region attributes that harmonized with the landscape. The plan was never executed, but the ideas it contained were often resuscitated.
After taking on the position of director of the Zakopane Wood Industry School in 1923, he introduced a fundamental reform, discarding the academic emulation of classic patterns, and emphasizing the development of his pupils' individual skills. In wooden sculpture, his pupils – including Antoni Kenar and Marian Wnuk – betray the influence of cubism and formism, while taking inspiration from Podhale folk art. These compact sculptures with cubist/geometrical syntheses are characteristic examples of the Polish decorative art style of the 1920s which triumphed at the Paris Exhibition in 1925. There, the "wood school" run by Stryjeński received two main prizes – for education methods and for woodcuts – as well as the gold medal in the sculpture field. Among his students' sculptures, including those by Zofia Stryjeńska, were also folk-style fairground toys designed in the Krakow Workshops.
The summit of Karol Stryjeński's work occurred during his participation in the International Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris. Irena Huml describes the Polish Pavilion as a "synthesis of national decorative styles (…) practically a temple of decorative art, erected by its more fiery adherents;"(2) and Stryjeński's benches and table, designed for the honorary salon of the Pavilion, as some of the finest examples of furniture made in the Krakow Workshops style. These monumental, compact pieces of geometrically-shaped furniture roughly decorated with thick cuts, were clearly inspired by the Podhale folk crafts. In her book on the Krakow Workshops, Irena Huml has noted that this furniture so clearly emphasizing the form was designed according to architectural principles. Precision and structure were also essential in inspiring the designer of folk art. In addition, Stryjeński designed two small commercial objects for the exhibition: a kiosk bearing the Lajkonik [an emblematic Polish figure of a man on a horse – trans.], and a cafe with a stage for the Attractions Area of the Invalids' Promenade, utilizing the trademark crystal art déco forms. He and Wojciech Jastrzębowski also co-designed the Polish exhibition in the mezzanine of the Grand Palais.
In Zakopane, Stryjeński worked extensively in architecture, both wooden and stone, running a design/construction office with his partners, architects Jan S. Meyer and Franciszek Kotkowicz. After designing Dr. Nowotny's villa in Gubałówka, Stryjeński was named the "first revisionist of the Zakopane style."(3) His revision of the neo-vernacular style of Stanisław Witkiewicz involved the combination of highland constructions with modern architecture. In 1923 he published an article called On Building Hostels in the Tatra Mountains, wherein he declared that the form of the hostel should be integrally linked with the upper mountain landscape. As might be assumed, he admired ideas of organic architecture in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.(4) Stryjeński's theories were realized in the hostel in the Valley of the Five Polish Ponds (1924–1931, no longer in existence) built by students of the Wood Industry School. He also designed the hostel at the Ornak Hall (never built) and the interiors of the Murowaniec Hostel at Gąsienicowa Hall, in the spirit of the Polish art déco folk movement. He designed the Great Krokiew – a ski jump opened in 1925. A year later he designed the granite Jan Kasprowicz Mausoleum in Harenda. Stryjeński's extraordinarily wide-ranging activities in Zakopane thus included city planning, architecture, interior design, art, and arts instruction.
In 1926 the Krakow Workshops disbanded, and the Ład Artists' Cooperative was born in Warsaw, which went on to shape Polish interior design and decorative art in the 1930s. One of the founders was Karol Stryjeński, who in 1927 became professor at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In the geometrical furniture of Ład, with its legible construction and clearly visible joiners, the grain of the wood (the veneer) formed the decoration. In 1929, on commission from the Ministry of External Affairs for Diplomatic Centers, Stryjeński designed a "cubic" bedroom, while still maintaining the "1925 style," with its characteristic geometrical decor with crystal forms. That same year, Stryjeński initiated the birth of the Forma Sculpture Cooperative (modeled on Ład), which gathered together professors and students from the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw.
The following year saw the creation of an important institution for the Polish artistic life of the 1930s – the Institute for the Promotion of Art in Warsaw, which was meant to oppose the conservative Zachęta Fine Arts Association. Karol Stryjeński became a member; then in 1931, he became vice-chairman of the Institute Board, and in January 1932 he became its director. He died the same year. For all his short life he was known as a splendid organizer, filling key positions, and also as a member of the artistic bohemia in inter-war Krakow, Zakopane, and Warsaw.
Karol Stryjeński (1887– 1932) was an architect, a designer of interiors, furniture, and kilims, an artist, a teacher, and an organizer. He studied architecture at the technical academy in Zurich (1907–1911), and sculpture at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris (1913). From 1913 onward he was affiliated with the Krakow Workshops, with which he designed furniture, kilims, and toys. In 1923 he took up residence in Zakopane, where he held the position of director and led a reform of the Wood Industry School. His designs included the hostel in the Valley of Five Polish Ponds (1924), the Wielka Krokiew ski jump (1925), and the Jan Kasprowicz Mausoleum in Harenda (1926). In 1927 he moved to Warsaw where he became professor of sculpture and metal techniques at the School of Fine Arts. He co-founded the Ład Artists' Cooperative (1926) and the Forma Sculptors' Cooperative (1929), and was co-organizer (1930) and director (1932) of the Institute for the Promotion of Art in Warsaw.
Author: Janusz Antos
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) J. Remer, Nowe kierunki w sprzętarstwie, "Rzeczy Piękne" 1918, no. 1, p. 21.
(2) I. Huml, Polska sztuka stosowana XX wieku, Warsaw 1978, p. 72.
(3) H. Kenarowa, Karol Stryjeński – pierwszy rewizjonista stylu zakopiańskiego, "Wierchy" 1975, pp. 65–68.
(4) M. Kulig, Architektura tatrzańskich schronisk górskich Polskiego Towarzystwa Tatrzańskiego w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym, Warsaw 2003, p. 36.