Roman Modzelewski was a designer and pedagogue. He was born in 1912 and died in 1997. Together with Władysław Strzemiński, Leon Ormezowski, and Stefan Wagner he co-founded Łódź Academy of Fine Arts. His projects were highly regarded by Le Corbusier himself. A lover of music and dance, he taught his students to dance the twist.
Roman Modzelewski was born in Łoździeje, today in Lithuania, in 1912. As a child he attended science classes in a middle school in Suwałki. In 1931 he started higher education in the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw specialising in decorative painting, where he was tutored first by Felicjan Kowarski and later by Leonard Pękalski. He graduated in 1946, and also then he took part in a career-defining getaway in Nowa Ruda. It was there that Modzelewski began experimenting with afterimages and analysing sunlight effects. His attempts were similar to those of Strzemiński, who called his style solarism. From early 1990s, Modzelewski started painting abstract painting with contrasting brushwork patterns, as well as so-called relief paintings.
He was strongly involved in the Academy of Fine Arts from the very beginning. Between 1952 and 1963 he was its rector, and he continued working there up to the 1980s.
In his design career he liked experimenting with new, unusual materials, exploring their usage in furniture, as well as using them to build yachts. He started off his search with bending plywood and combining it with metal to create lightweight chairs. These first projects already brought critics attention to him, as he was awarded second prize for innovation at the 2nd Polish Interior Design Exhibition in Warsaw in 1957. After trying plywood, he went on to try his luck with plastics, which turned out to lead to the most interesting creations in his portfolio.
Modzelewski was a sailor, which resulted in his interest in yacht designs. He went on to create three. The first, Bialy, was co-authored, as he designed an alternative deck for the English Silhouette. After that he created two projects, Amulet and Talisman. His two first yachts were made of plastic, the third one of carbon fibre. Wera Modzelewska, designer’s wife, recalls Bialy’s construction as follows:
Well, preparations, translating, and everything else took over a year, and construction of the yacht with all necessary tweaks yet another year. Let’s say two and a half years in total. All these calculations were extremely dull, and that was, mind you, under Gomułka’s reign in Poland. The construction took place in an old house on Zachodnia, which we could use courtesy of sculpture department of the academy. When we announced that we were looking for craftsmen of all crafts, many people got in touch and Roman chose who he thought best. For example, people who took care of metalwork and ferrules worked with us on our subsequent project, Amulet.
Modzelewski used plastics to create armchairs too, among which the RM 58 model is the most interesting. It was made of polyester-glass laminate, a material that greatly pleased the designer. It was the first project of its sort at the time in Poland. Its organic form impressed even Le Corbusier himself, however, it had to wait for serial production for over 60 years, as was the case with many of his projects. Then, they resurfaced thanks to Jakub Sobiepanek and his studio Vzór. Because of their interest and after negotiations with Modzelewski’s wife, the project was finally delivered to Polish consumers.
Their interpretation is true to the original, while honing and upgrading, for example, the materials used. Vzór tries to create an overall image of Modzelewski’s output by working on his different projects. Nowadays, they are working on RM 56 and RM 57, which show great versatility in his output. RM 57 is his first and only venture into upholstered furniture, where quite raw frame contrasts with warm, soft cushion. In RM 56, on the other hand, this contrast is not as striking. Modzelewski, using bent plywood, achieved unity between the oval backseat and the delicate, rounded shape of the legs. Just as in the case of RM 58, RM 56 will be available in two versions – one true to the original, and in which Vzór used PVC instead of plywood.
Modzelewski’s furniture designs are highly regarded worldwide, as proved by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s purchase of the original, white model of the RM 58.
Originally written in Polish by Agata Morka, translated by AS
Selected exhibitions and awards:
- 2012 – Roman Modzelewski. Spectrum, The Centre of Art Promotion, Łódź, Poland
- 2011 – We Want To Be Modern: Polish design 1955-1968, National Museum, Warsaw, Poland
- 2004 – 100% ABSTRACT – Modernists in Łódź 1955-1965, Gallery 86, Łódź, Poland
- 2002 – Roman Modzelewski, PROGRAM Gallery, Warsaw, Poland