Michał Titkow, a self-taught craftsman, rose in the ranks of his family-owned business to become a skilled, multifaceted designer, whose name went down as one of the finest talents in Polish glass art.
Designer of the household glass items in the art déco style.
The son of the Russian Jan Titkow, and Franciszka Rokoss, the granddaughter of Jan Augustyn Stolle, was educated in Wilno [present-day Vilnius] from 1931-1934, where he received a diploma in 'workshop movement technique'. His choice of occupation was no accident – by tradition, relatives of the owners of Niemen Glassworks held certain positions in the factory’s organizational structure, which favored the consolidation of the family enterprise in a natural way.
The Niemen Glassworks was one of the more prosperous companies in the glass trade during the inter-war period. The history of the factory goes back to the 1990s, when Juliusz Stolle and Wilhelm Krajewski owned a small, primitive factory producing bottles in Ustroń, Lithuania. The investment gathered steam over time, and by the First World War, the Stolle & Krajewski Company owned three factories, technically well-equipped, replete, for instance, with their own lathe-room for preparing iron molds, a twelve-pot furnace, and twenty hand presses. World War One marks a clear break in the factory’s operations. In 1915 production ground to a halt, and soon thereafter the Russian armies destroyed the 'new factory' in Ustroń, along with all of its stores. In the 1920s the factory director, Juliusz Stolle, and his two sons, Bronisław and Feliks, laboriously rebuilt the family company. Production was concentrated at the surviving factory in Brzozówka, which was furnished with new equipment that allowed the mass production of high quality items.
Since the beginning of the glassworks’ existence, it had presented its line in advertising catalogues, the first of which is from 1911. Originally, lighting units took pride of place in the post-war line, along with numerous pressed glass designs and the costly Moser-style glass. The designer of the earlier models remains unknown – the models (as was the practice of the time) could have been copies or travesties of Czech glass, which was having its day on the European market, or perhaps original works put forward by Niemen modellers.(1) One of these was Michał Titkow.
By pure chance, Titkow did not go to work in the workshops after graduating, but was employed in the design room. After the demise of Sylwester Wasilewski, a proficient drawer and the illustrator for the first three parts of the company catalogue, a successor was urgently sought. With his outstanding artistic abilities, Titkow turned out to be the finest candidate.(2) Being splendidly acquainted with the glassworks’ technical capabilities, he soon turned from being a self-taught man to a skilled, multifaceted designer, whose abilities were still admired decades later by the finest names in Polish glass art.
He was modest, conscientious, and disciplined. In an interview he gave me in 1979, he took credit for only a few of the nearly 400 models from the fourth part of the design catalogue he had prepared for print in the late 1930s. The items he claimed as his own included some modest ashtrays (Catalogue Numbers 1724, 1728, 1731), herring trays (Catalogue Numbers 1735, 1736), plates, tazzas, and flower stands (Catalogue Numbers 1742, 1744, 1743, 1719). On the basis of obvious similarities, Titkow’s authorship can also be assumed for of a large and impressive flower stand (Catalogue Number 1827). The above examples can in no way exhaust the list of his designs. The final form of the models adopted for serial production was the effect of collective decision-making, involving the opinions of glassworks masters, grinders, and decorators, while the deciding voice was given to Chief Director Bronisław Stolle. He was well versed in the current tendencies in European design, and he brought back objects from his numerous trips to be used as models or sources of inspiration. Among these were surely small items from Czech glassworks, above all from the famous Moser Company, the products of René Lalique, or the smaller French and Belgian companies. Titkow spoke of the Niemen products with his trademark restraint, saying that they were not 'patented objects', while adding, 'but we seldom copied others'.(3) Even to this day, with such advanced research on the European glass of the inter-war period, it is hard to say beyond a shadow of a doubt if the Niemen models were conscious and blatant copies, or merely took some generally applied shapes, decorative motifs, and ornamental techniques. The fact that Niemen glass clearly draws from the Moser style is indisputable, but there are numerous remarkable models in the third part of the catalogue for which one searches in vain in Czech design. The inspiration of French glass would also seem evident, as shown for instance by the toiletry sets (e.g., Catalogue Number 1585). There are also sporadic examples of evident copying. The 'softly blown' vase (Catalogue Number 1109), produced in several color schemes according to a model by Charles Cotteau (1927–1930), simply removed the artist’s original signature and that of the Belgian Scailmout Ltd.
out of the ordinary
The above-mentioned examples and the range of other 'creative travesties' encountered here and there in the catalogues do not undermine the basic thesis of the significant self-sufficiency of Niemen’s design, particularly that of the 1930s. Titkow’s designs situate him in the purist movement, close to the ideals of Wilhelm Wagenfeld or Bruno Mauder, whose glass work might have found its way into the storehouse of copy-worthy models through their close contact with the Stolle family of Weiswasser. These suggestions ought not to be taken too rigorously, however. Titkow most certainly could not have limited himself to designing in the framework of the convention that most appealed to him – he was duty-bound to present various designs, according to the market demands and the suggestions of Bronisław Stolle. And thus in the Niemen catalogue it may be prudent to search out groups of works that are formally affiliated, and yet absent from the catalogues of other familiar companies. Having direct contact with the metal workmen, Titkow was well aware of both the limitations and the virtues of pressed glass. It seems safe to attribute to Titkow not only the flat, partially frosted tazza, tray, and plate sets (such as Catalogue Numbers 1788, 1790, 1771, 1772, etc.), but also the numerous round tazzas decorated with subtle reliefs of complicated rosette patterns (Catalogue Numbers 1695 and 1764), the frosted bowl (Catalogue Number 1782), and the table settings (such as Catalogue Numbers 1745and 1752). It should be added, quoting the advertising brochure of 1937, that the 'above settings separate themselves from the white tablecloth or the glistening lacquer of the tabletop with their gentle tones and the effective gravity of their shapes. The harmonious, semi-rounded lines of the drawings emphasize the frosted motifs.'
The situation of the Niemen Glassworks, its owners, and its staff radically changed after the Red Army took Brzozówki in September 1939. However, the outstanding, irreplaceable head technologist Herman Szall remained at his post for many more years, and Michał Titkow kept on working in the design room. His last design, it would seem, produced with the 'Galle System', was a large vase prepared for an exhibition in Minsk in 1940. Titkow was soon arrested thereafter as a 'brethren to the capitalists'; and, to make matters worse, after spending a few months in a jail in Novogorod, he was forced to become an Officer Cadet. He served in General Anders’s army where he spent the remainder of the war, traveling even as far as the cities of Italy. In 1947 he returned to Poland via England, and finally settled down in Świdnica. He never returned to design, but drawing and painting remained his life’s passions. Shortly afterward, the School of Fine Arts in Wrocław created the very first Polish education program in the field of glass. Its first graduates, Józef Jarnicki and Józef Misztela, were over a decade younger than Titkow; but like him, they came from families that had been affiliated with glassworks for generations.
Michał Titkow (1909–1979), an draughtsman and an industrial designer at the Niemen Glassworks Factory, is credited with creating many of the designs in the company catalogue, particularly the household glass items in the art déco style. From 1931–1934 he studied at the Marshal Józef Piłsudski Technical College in Wilno [today Vilnius, Lithuania]. During the occupation he was arrested by the Soviets; and in 1941 he entered Anders’s army, whose warpath he joined. In 1947 he returned to Poland and settled in Świdnica in Lower Silesia, where he worked at the ELMOT Motor Electronics Plant until he retired.
Author: Paweł Banaś
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) In the 1920s three issues of the catalogue were published, while the fourth came out in the 1930s.
(2) See: P. Banaś, Początki polskiego wzornictwa przemysłowego na przykładzie szkieł huty 'Niemen' [in:] Sztuka dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, Warsaw 1982, pp. 319, 320. This article was the first to call attention to the design work of Michał Titkow.
(3) P. Banaś, Szkło huty "Niemen," The Mazowsze Museum in Płock, 1984. p. 30, note 132.