Beyond the Triumph on Ugliness: Polish Design after 1989
Not long ago, it seemed that Polish design would achieve great success by overcoming the widespread unseemliness of its surroundings. Now it is clear that exponents in Poland must set far more ambitious goals for themselves.
Contemporary Polish design history began after 1989. Freedom and democracy created the basis for a free-market economy and new social contexts. Polish society and the economy made huge leaps during this period, breaking out of the grip of socialism and falling into the embrace of consumption.
The consequences of that socialism, however, were still being felt into the 1990s. Foreign companies with capital started coming to Poland – a shock for producers and consumers, with a severe clash as local products could not compete with imports. Industry required modernisation and new managing staffs that were conscious of the free-market mindset. Modern investments were financed by foreign companies, which came to Poland with capital, machines, technology and designs.
The real breakthrough arrived after the year 2000, as Polish producers who had survived and those that were newly created began achieving greater results with the stylistic qualities of their products. The 1990s had also brought about new developments the housing industry. As Poles began to furnish new homes, demand rose for furniture and household appliances, bringing intensive growth to the furniture industry. Aiding this expansion, and taking Poland to a pinnacle position in this field, were ideal conditions due to the nation’s abundance of high-quality wood.
Fine examples of these early accomplishments in the design of everyday objects have been collected by Prof. Czesława Frejlich, the curator of the exhibition Rzeczy pospolite / Common Things. Among the 1990s designs are the Cello armchair by Jerzy Langier designed for the Eljot factory, the halogen-lighting systems by Żneta Govenlock and other interesting designs in glass and ceramics.
The formation of the European Union greatly accelerated the growth of the design industry, and as design became an important factor in the competitiveness of a product, its value was more appreciated and producers became more conscious of its use. As with other European countries involved in the design scene of recent years, we find in Poland a division of career paths into three trajectories: mass-market designers, independent designer brands that produce in small quantities, and non-commercial designers that often create speciality items.
Design as a tool for brand promotion: Poles furnishing their apartments
The largest design studios are employed in mass production and cooperate with big companies for which they create one-time designs as well as business strategies for design. Some of these studios include Towarzystwo Projektowe, Inno Design, Marad Design, Studio Rygalik and Kompott Studio. Ergonomics and functionality are the most important factors in their projects. Designers pay great attention to the costs of production and that the aesthetics of their designs meet the expectations of mass consumers.
Much Polish furniture remains of poor quality in materials and design, but there are brands on the market demonstrating that excellent design can be a weapon in besting the competition. Confirmation can be seen in the cooperation between office-furniture producer Balma and Piotr Kuchciński. Their Xeon series was for years the company's most visible project. In 2005 the producer decided to create a new brand called Noti. This subsidiary was to make furniture exclusively for living rooms and dining rooms. Working on Noti along with Kuchciński were the designers Renata Kalarus, Jerzy Langier, Jerzy Porębski and Mikołaj Wierszyłłowski.
The Comma chair designed by Kalarus received an award of distinction at Red Dot Design, the most prestigious European design competition, in 2009. Recent times have seen bold entrances into the world of design by other furniture producers including COM40, Vox Meble and Paged Meble.
Modes of transport and city sign posts: Poles shall not live on furniture alone
Poles also design and produce excellent yachts, including the Noon 55 model by Leszek Gonciarz, and planes, such as the EM11 Orka designed by a team led by Edward Margański. Projects for modern railway cars produced by Bydgoszcz PESA were designed by the Marad Design Studio in Gdańsk under the direction of Marek Adamczewski. The H. Cegielski Factories are known for their design and production of low-floor trams.
Citizens of Warsaw have grown quite accustomed to MSI or the City Information System, introduced in 1996 and designed by Jerzy Porębski, Grzegorz Niwiński and Michał Stefanowski from the Design Association. The system was based on exhaustive research which included city specifics, historical and common names of parts of Warsaw, and the habits of citizens. One of its distinguishing features is the use of pictograms to inform travellers of the position of streets in relation to the Vistula River.
There is even room for innovation in the design of traffic lights. The ZIRslim system by Michał Latko and Leszek Czerwiński was designed for the Zakład Inżynierii Ruchu from Bytom. Conceived as a modular system, it comprises repetitive elements that can be reconfigured. This design allows for inexpensive production, easy installation and replacability in case of damage. The signalling system was awarded in the Śląska Rzecz competition in 2009.
A carpet decorated with folk cut-outs: Small is beautiful
Recent years have brought about an interesting phenomenon that centres on the development of small designer-producer companies. Independent brands created by designers give consumers a new aesthetic and functionality that meets their personal standards. The Moho Group debuted a few years ago and is now the CODE Studio run by Magda Lubińska and Michał Biernacki. In 2006 their Mohohej! Dia carpet design, based on a folk cut-out, was awarded a special prize from the influential British magazine Wallpaper. In 2008 they won an award at the prestigious German competition Red Dot Design. Moho Design carpets are remarkable for their use of traditional materials like felt, characteristic to the mountain region of Podhale, and their employment of folk cut-outs for motifs.
Joanna Rusin and Agnieszka Czop have also been known to use felted wool, but their materials appear in more natural colours. They also give the fabric a more individualistic and creative treatment; they use hole-punchers for cut-outs, do embroidering, printing, open-work, weaving and use reliefs. It is thanks to these innovative ideas that the naturally simple material can become a wall decoration or carpet.
Very consistent in the creation of their portfolio are Anna Siedlecka and Radosław Archamowicz from PuffBuff Design. They started with the design of light objects and movable systems that can easily change size. This led them to experiments with inflatable structures. PuffBuff knows how to handle not only design but also production, organisation and product distribution. As regular visitors to international fairs, they are able to sell all over the world.
Also worth mentioning is the Gdańsk group Malafor. They are among the designer groups creating independent collections in small batches. Formed by Agata Kulik and Paweł Pomorski, the group explores materials and themes. In the sphere of ceramics, Bogdan Kossak presents very interesting patterns. Agnieszka Bar, Karina Marusińska and Agnieszka Kajper specialise in original designs of ceramics and glass. Daria Burlińska creates intriguing lighting systems. The M.A.M.AirBag Group has designed original bags made of recycled car airbags.
A radio cut from wood: Manifestos
An auxiliary group in the sphere of design that deserves mention is one that concerns itself with individual projects, or project-manifestos. Bartosz Mucha appears to be the most interesting artist of recent years who has contributed to conceptual, or critical, design. Mucha states that he does not feel like a designer and has no desires to be a part of the profession. Instead he calls himself a pragmatic artist and admits his admiration of Milewicz and constructivism.
The works of the now dissolved Gogo Collective (Maria Makowska and Piotr Stolarski) also deserve attention. Their idea for a Meter Cut Radio was unconventional. Radio receivers were installed into a long log of pine wood, one right next to the other. The customer who wanted to buy one was then required to cut it off, preferably with a hand saw. This designs serves as a fine example of a project manifest that called for unconventional behaviour by both sales person and client. It focuses our attention on the ease of buying and consuming in today’s market.
One of the personalities whose work treads the boundary between art and design is Marek Cecuła. He creates both utilitarian forms and ceramic sculptures and in his case design inspires art. His works can be found in 14 museum collections including galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City.
Conceptual projects, unique objects and experimental design are subjects that inspire deep reflection and communicate meaning. Poland may not yet be on an equal plane with designers from the West, but the professional level of its designers at work domestically and abroad and their non-commercial achievements show that Poland has already reached an high intellectual level.
Magda Kochanowska, translation: Eryk Laskowski