In the inter-war period, Tichy was an unquestioned authority in the Polish designers' community, animating explorations for the particular qualities of Polish design, a field in which he had profound success. He was able to combine his knowledge of the latest tendencies in world design with the local tradition, giving his designs remarkable form.
Painter, architect, designer of interiors, furniture, stained glass, ceramics, and kilims.
In 1923, during the ceremonial opening of the School of Fine Arts building on Powiśle Street in Warsaw, Karol Tichy, then the director of the institution, said:
'If ten years from now […] they still don't know us in the life of the capital, in the industry, in the crafts, in trade, if we do not reach places that now greet the word "art" with a shrug of the shoulders, it will not have been worth devoting this building to art, and to knowledge of the arts.'
Thus did one of the most remarkable figures in Polish applied art of the 20th century put forth his artistic credo.
Like many other arts and crafts reformers in the period around 1900, Karol Tichy was a painter by education. His graphics and painting were in line with the symbolist movement, mainly following French examples. Although they were appreciated at the time by such refined aesthetes as Zenon "Miriam" Przesmycki,(1) Tichy did not make the visual arts the main vehicle for his energies. His artistic interests led him toward applied arts, conceived as a manifestation of a quasi-avant-garde quest to democratize the arts. His extraordinary sensitivity and subtlety in creating forms was expressed in his original designs for furniture, interiors, fabrics, ceramics, stained glass, and theater decor.
In the late 1890s, Karol Tichy was affiliated with the Krakow arts scene, promoting new tendencies in visual arts, and in 1897, he became a member of the Sztuka Polish Artists' Association. He soon joined forces with those promoting the idea of a "national style" and of the rebirth of arts and crafts; and in 1901 he found himself in the inner circle of the initiators of the Polish Applied Arts Association (TPSS) in Krakow, a key organization for the reception of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Poland. It was while working with the TPSS that he created his most outstanding artistic crafts.
The evolution of Tichy's individual style is best illustrated by his furniture designs of 1906–1912. The oak shelves whose design was published in 1906 in the TPSS magazine "Materiały" are an example of the inspiration of folk art, which the Association acknowledged as the source of the rebirth of a Polish national style. The furniture constructions, proportions, and ornament might bring to mind some of Stanisław Wyspiański's designs, such as the Bolesław Day Room of 1904, or his furniture of 1904–1905.
At the same time, these pieces reveal Tichy's predilection for large surfaces free of decor and his striving for geometrical forms. These attributes are much more visible in his later designs. In 1908 the artist designed a vestibule for a TPSS exhibition at Warsaw's Zachęta Fine Arts Association. Here, the central position is occupied by a stainedglass windowflanked on both sides by hanging kilims with plant motifs, recalling the ornamental decor of the above-mentioned shelves. Tichy took motifs popular in art nouveau circles while adding a strong sense of rhythm and geometry, giving the whole an almost monumental effect.
This tendency toward geometry was most strongly marked in the designs the artist put forward for the TPSS bedroom furniture competition of 1908. This furniture, produced in Andrzej Sydor's workshop, brought Tichy his first award and secured him a place in the history of Polish art.(2) The designer made something previously unheard of in Poland – a form that was consistently cubist, with a minimal use of ornament. He enclosed his pieces in simple geometrical shapes, such as cubes, cylinders, and prisms. In spite of its simplicity, the set was given an extraordinary elegance through its balanced proportions and contrasts of straight and curved lines. The basis of the furniture's shape was its construction, which was also treated as an aesthetic value. This "constructivist minimalism" found its finest expression in a famous chair design which resembles an open-work music-stand. The ornamental, two-tone friezes were tied to the geometrical shapes of various pieces of furniture. In Tichy's designs, simplicity had nothing in common with standardization; rather, it was a refined manner of shaping forms. At the same time, the artist was drawing from the experiments of artists from the Vienna Workshops, and in particular, the work of Josef Hoffmann,(3) who was, in turn, inspired by the Viennese Biedermeier, and had made a radical attempt to simplify his forms while simultaneously interpreting the classicist tradition in an innovative fashion. Tichy's designs forged a dialogue with the Viennese works, which was an exceptional phenomenon in Poland. Design historians see him as a precursor to the avant-garde solutions of the 1920s.(4)
In this period, Tichy became known as an architect whose work was not remote from the proto-modernist impulses in the Austro-Hungarian architecture, as represented by Josef Hoffmann, Béla Lajta, and Roman Feliński. In 1912 Tichy designed a building with geometrical forms and an aesthetic facade decorated with simplified classicist ornaments for Krakow's Na Groblach Square. The building had a luxurious, big-city look, and stood out from the standard constructions in the center of town. Tichy designed stainedglass windows for the staircase and mosaics for the facade, and based the construction on reinforced concrete, which is still seldom used in Krakow's old town.
Decidedly more radical was Tichy's unrealized church design for Limanowa (1909), whose elevation was entirely devoid of ornament. The shaping of the side nave elevations, their peaks being drawn with a sinusoidal line, a travesty of the typical neo-Baroque motif, was particularly extraordinary.We must stress that Tichy was not seeking to create works divorced from the tradition of sacral architecture – his design alluded to the appearance and spatial disposition of early Christian and Romanesque basillicas.(5)
Tichy's attempts to reconcile modernity and tradition are also visible in the furniture he produced for the Exhibition of Architecture and Interiors in Garden Surroundings, organized by the TPSS in Krakow in 1912. Among the model examples of homes for various social strata, the exhibition featured a manor designed by Józef Czajkowski. Tichy arranged the building's foyer and salon with a furniture suite produced in the workshop of Józef Zabeż. This attempted a new interpretation of the traditional Polish nobleman's residence. Elegance and functionality were combined here with forms more traditional than the furniture of 1908. The designer once more demonstrated originality, creating a work that was an example of "conservative modernity." The precision of the design was shown in the organic connection between the construction and the shape of the furniture and the linear ornament, which fulfilled both a decorative function and emphasized the lines of the various pieces. It would seem as though Tichy's later designs exerted a greater influence on the Polish design of the 1920s and 1930s than his experimental bedroom set of 1908.
It is from the perspective of Tichy's work in the inter-war period that his furniture designs from the TPSS period take on new significance. The latter can begin to seem like a "laboratory" of forms that went on to inspire the official style of liberated Poland after independence was regained. Karol Tichy played a key role in this process, both as an original artist and as an organizer of artistic life. He had the prestigious distinction of being designated the first director of the Warsaw School of Fine Arts (1923), where he went on to fill the post of vice-rector and to run a painting and ceramics workshop. An equally important event in the artist's career was his work in the Ład Artists' Cooperative, the inheritor of the TPSS and the Krakow Workshops traditions. Tichy was not only the co-founder of the Cooperative, he also created the name, expressing the members' dominant approach to design, which was close to the positivist tradition of organic work. Instead of "the empty disorder of artists' work, handcrafts, and industry," as it was phrased by Lucjan Kintopf, another leading member of Ład, they tried to promote a kind of design that was full of harmony, drawing from the crafts tradition, and close to the native aesthetic. Tichy, whose main field of work in the inter-war period was ceramics, devoted most of his attention to the Ład ceramics workshop, which was active from 1928–1931. Because he had no technical training, he was forced to turn to the professional help of Julian Mickun. He developed an innovative program of ceramics design, in which the dishes were composed of various geometrical shapes and the ornament was only emphasized by their techtonics.(6)
He educated a whole generation of designers, in particular those active in the inter-war period in the Ład Artists' Cooperative, but also after World War II, creating a basis for the development of modern Polish design.
Karol Tichy (1871–1939), painter, designer of interiors, furniture, stained glass, ceramics, and kilims, and an architect, studied art at the School of Fine Arts in Krakow (1889–1890) and at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, and law at the Jagiellonian University. In 1897 he was among the founders of the Sztuka Polish Artists' Association, in 1901 the Polish Applied Arts Association, and in 1926 the Ład Artists' Cooperative. In 1904 he began work as a professor at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he ran a painting and ceramics studio. After the School of Fine Arts was reactivated in the inter-war period, he became its first director (1923), and then vice-rector (until 1924). As a stage designer he collaborated with the Polski Theater in Warsaw. Before World War I his furniture and architecture designs were marked by a modernist geometry. In the 1920s he supported the emergence of Polish applied arts, which was stylistically akin to organic modernism, art déco, and the vernacular aesthetic.
Author: Andrzej Szczerski
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) Zenon "Miriam" Przesmycki (1861–1944) – a critic, poet and translator, publisher and commentator on the works of Cyprian Norwid, editor of Warsaw's "Życia" and "Chimery," promoter of symbolism.
(2) Cf. I. Huml, Polska sztuka stosowana XX wieku, Warsaw 1978, pp. 34–35.
(3) D. Crowley has written on these relationships in National Style and Nation-State. Design in Poland from the vernacular revival to the international style, Manchester and New York 1992, p. 29.
(4) See also: J.A. Mrozek, Sztuka stosowana i wzornictwo w pierwszej połowie XX wieku, [in:] Sztuka świata, vol. IX, ed. W. Włodarczyk, Warsaw 1999, p. 274.
(5) J. Sz. Wroński, Krakowski konkurs architektoniczny na projekt kościoła dla Limanowej, [in:] W. Bałus (ed.), Sztuka Krakowa i Galicji w wieku XIX, Krakow 1991, pp. 137–159.
(6) M. Jeżewska, Pracownia ceramiczna "Ładu", [in:] A. Frąckiewicz (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Spółdzielnia Artystów "Ład" 1926–1996, vol. I, Warsaw 1998, p. 288.