Recollections of Polish “Fathers” of Design*
A living room of a villa in the old part of the Grunwald District of Poznań is decorated with furniture from various periods. The 19th century antiques sculpted from solid wood and the contemporary Scandinavian design are so different and yet so harmoniously blend together against ivory walls adorned with impeccably selected paintings. The 19th century furniture from the Greater Poland and Pomerania, goods from Swarzędz, and Polish designs for IKEA intertwine with each other – everything throbs with memories, shrouded in the prewar charm of an adorable host.
On the other hand, there is a modern one-story house in the middle of the forest in Koziegłowy. Its numerous large openings give a view on the greenery which, according to the owner, is the finest interior decoration, surrounding it on every side. These views fuse with modern furniture designed by the host and his students as well as with Herman Miller design classics.
photo. 1. left: KAL chair, designed by Aleksander Kuczma / nowymodel.org; right: TIRUP armchair, designed by Carl Öjerstam, IKEA;
photo. 2. professor Władysław Wróblewski, photo Zuza Mielczarek;
photo 3. professor Aleksander Kuczma / nowymodel.org;
These two entirely different worlds, captured so meaningfully in their natural settings, are the worlds of two predecessors of Polish design coming from the Poznań design environment – professor Władysław Wróblewski (b. 1939) and professor Aleksander Kuczma (b. 1935). While the latter figure is perhaps better known to a wider audience considering publications on his experiments with new materials published by numerous contemporary publishing houses (e.g. Anna Maga’s text in "Rzeczy Niepospolite" or Krystyna Łuczak-Surówka’s text in "Wizje nowoczesności"), the silhouette of Władysław Wróblewski is equally interesting and significant to Polish design. And it was he who welcomed me in the tastefully designed apartment in Grunwald – the harmony of an interior decorated with beautiful objects from various periods and places reflected not only calmness but also the professor’s life’s work – the work of a furniture designer fascinated with grandeur of the craft and the minimalism of Scandinavian furniture making.
When it comes to professor Kuczma, a long-time and distinguished teacher at the Univrsity of Arts in Poznań (just like Wróblewski), he seems to be always searching for something more, the “wow effect”, in his everyday life and design aesthetic alike. This search is mirrored in his numerous furniture designs – he is the precursor of the shell furniture in Poland and he was the one to use new materials such as polyester-glass laminate in his work.
photo. 4. Chair designed by Aleksander Kuczma, photo from the book "Rzeczy niepospolite"
Young designers living in the contemporary reality of the free market have a really hard time imagining what reality looked like for those who paved the way for design in Poland forty or fifty years ago – in the times of the Polish People’s Republic [PPR]. The necessity to search for clients, commissions and funds for the implementation of one’s ideas keeps present-day design freelancers awake at night. Speaking of a freelance work – if it did exist in the previous system, it must have been in the underground only. Today, not everyone realizes that the state-controlled economy had repercussions on not only politics or everyday life but also furniture making and design in general. The fancifulness and quality of both the Kowalskis’ furniture, well-known modular cabinet systems, and Aleksander Kuczma’s or Roman Modzelewski’s unconventional projects of shell seats made of plastic did not differ from the fancifulness or quality of Eames’ designs. All of these realizations were somehow rooted in the characteristics of the political system of that time even though their brilliance and innovativeness took them to a completely new level.
photo 5. Aleksander Kuczma's projects, from the book "Wizje nowoczesności"
The Institute of Industrial Design was established in 1950 in Warsaw by the diva of Polish design – Wanda Telakowska. The foundation of the institute was considered a groundbreaking event in that it influenced authorities to give up forcing the social realist style on designers – the style despised for its mediocrity and archaism – and turn to the Modernist thought. Suddenly, the government’s concepts took a completely different direction and Poland aimed to not only catch up with the galloping West, but to prove that it could be better than everyone else. In the first issue of a revolutionary magazine "Projekt" [Design], treating of the latest tendencies in the world of design and art, the editor-in-chief, architect Jerzy Hryniewiecki published an opening article entitled "Kształt przyszłości" [The Form of the Future] in which he made a postulate to pursue modernity. His first words "We want to be modern" became the title of a 2011 exhibition on Polish design from 1955 to 1968 hosted by the National Museum in Warsaw. And even if, as author claimed, we did not really know right then what this modernity was to be about, designers, theorists, and society were knowingly moving towards the new Modernist aesthetic.
photo 6. Bogusław and Czesława Kowalscy with their famous furniture system / nowymodel.org
Unsurprisingly, the Ministry was at the top of the hierarchical ladder with numerous subordinate units. Research and development units had to exist in almost every factory. Władysław Wróblewski, right after the graduation in the 1960s, began his career in OBROM – Ośrodek Badawczo-Rozwojowy Meblarstwa [Center for Research and Development of the Furniture Industry]. From today’s perspective, such career may not sound like a dream; however, back then, individualism and ingeniousness were not valued as much as they’re today – the only possible choice for young adults was to go work for a public institution. This proved to guarantee stabilization and work, but also the possibilities of introducing one’s own designs thanks to access to production facilities. Back in that time, contrary to what we may think, the focus was put on education through access to foreign publications. Wróblewski recollects that the Institute of Industrial Design really did care about it as aesthetic education was the Institute’s main goal.
Poznań was lucky enough to be the seat of Zjednoczenie Przemysłu Meblarskiego [the Union of the Furniture Industry], with ambitious and progressive Bolesław Usarewicz as the head. In the times of PPR, Unions were in charge of specific branches of industry. Aleksander Kuczma describes his activity in the Union as a great chance that let him experiment with his unorthodox ideas. First and foremost, he was given a free hand to realize his projects; secondly, he was guaranteed access to up-to-date production lines imported to Poland. That’s what allowed Kuczma to work with a new material – polyester-glass laminate. His sculptural education influenced his thinking about furniture, his view on design was fresh and open, opposite to the views of his fellow designers who thought about furniture as skeletal structures.
As a sculptor with an extraordinary spatial imagination, Kuczma was a perfect fit for working on spherical forms. As he says he was the lucky one because he had a chance to develop himself in such hard times. On the other hand, what professor sees as his greatest failure is the fact that the majority of his precursory projects were not produced. They were merely prototypes that nowadays can be admired mainly on archival photographs. Despite having all the advanced machines on the spot, there were no qualified workers who could operate them hence, the key thing – fulfilling a quota – was not possible. What’s more, the production of unusual objects was too expensive and, after the war, Poland was in dire need of furniture. So even though Polish designers’ brilliant projects were available, mass production often meant tacky furniture – made of cheap material and sloppily finished. Wanda Telakowska brought up this subject in her article Dramatyczne kontrasty [Dramatic contrasts] published in Projekt in 1956. While comparing the glamour of Polish furniture exhibitions to what’s happening in everyday production, she stated that:
"It is so hard to believe that, regardless of the already mentioned and very rare triumphs, our „everyday” design culture remains so below the mark. (…) Remembering the culture of trade in GDR and CSR – we do regret to state that we are behind these countries, despite the fact that Poland can boast superb specialists in the art of arranging exhibitions or occasional decoration."
She also noticed that even though society craved beautiful designs which, in fact, were created by talented Polish designers, what went to stores did not reflect the contemporary aesthetic at all. Indeed, this was the kind of a burden of designers at that time. They wanted to catch up with the West but constantly faced material and production restrictions.
Still, both Władysław Wróblewski and Aleksander Kuczma agree that the advent of real industry came after the introduction of the carpentry board and the chipboard in the 1950s. Those materials, accused by some of depriving furniture of class and authenticity, opened the door for more sensible construction solutions and mass production. Swedes were the first to built factories of wood-based panels in our country and it didn’t take long until their technology gained popularity in the entire Poland. Designers were in awe of new possibilities of furniture making – they were glad to move away from the necessity of creating special wooden skeletal structures from solid wood. Yet a quota was fulfilled because mass production radically increased the pace of making furniture.
In the 1960s, the founder of the IKEA empire, Ingvar Kamprad – new to business at that time – decided to build his factories in Poland. When Kamprad monopolized Sweden, after getting rid of competition by proposing low prices and catchy solutions, he was boycotted by the furniture making environment and had to look for a backup abroad. Poland seemed to be the right choice in the light of the abundance of specialists there. And the right choice it was, not only for Kamprad, but also for Poland because, despite the fact that our projects were not being launched by IKEA, we gained access to advanced technologies which were of great help for Polish producers and designers. Scandinavian quality kept filling people with awe. That’s how Wróblewski recalls his Nordic fascinations:
"Scandinavian furniture was made of higher-quality wood. Modern in form but rich at the same time, it was to be a match for beautiful stylish furniture. In these contemporary times, an industrial piece of furniture had to be of equally great importance – in terms of a design thought and a form. We were totally stupefied by it all…What these Scandinavians could create…"
Władysław Wróblewski expressed his interest in Scandinavian furniture in a lot of his wooden designs, be it his graduation project – a chair made with the use of flexible plywood.
photo 7. Diploma project by Władysław Wróblewski, 1968 / designer's archives
What IKEA brought to the Polish market was the amalgam of quality, mass production and affordable prices. For us, it stood as a real novelty and the source of inspiration. Modular cabinet systems, so characteristic of IKEA, quickly became a perfect solution for Poles. Tiny apartments in enormous apartment buildings built of large concrete slabs offered very limited living space. The so-called MMM competition for modular furniture (Meble do Małych Mieszkań [Furniture for Tiny Apartments]) selected and promoted Bogusława and Czesław Kowalskis’ design – the famous Kowalskis’ furniture: a modular cabinet system that included everything one needed in a room – wardrobes, shelves or even a pull-out table, armchair and a bed. Such solutions, groundbreaking back then, completely changed Polish apartments but, after the end of the Communist era, started being scoffed at, disliked and associated only with the previous political system. Now, they are back – we attach as much value to original pieces from the past as to the contemporary designs created in a similar fashion. After the economic boom and the capitalism of the 1990s, we are going back to tiny apartments with needs similar to the needs of those who inhabited concrete apartment buildings half a century ago.
photo 8. Czesława Kowalska nowadays, in ForForm / nowymodel.org;
Even though quite a number of young designers cramped in their flats dream about furniture that would connect a wardrobe, bed, sofa and a table in one, the reality in which they live and work differs from the reality of PPR. Today’s novice designers have to look for commissions, production facilities, and often invest their own money. They compete with colleagues, sometimes cooperate with them, more often as part of informal coworking than public organization. What comes next are unspecified working hours, irregular commissions, and the necessity of managing the development of your activity on your own. When Władysław Wróblewski and Aleksander Kuczma worked in OBROM they usually started and finished work at almost the same time. Their projects were guaranteed to be realized, they had machines and knew what they should design i.e. what was needed. They were limited by the system, that’s true, but they had a chance to create something they wanted – good furniture. On being asked about the reality of the furniture making industry now and in the Polish People’s Republic, professors cannot give an explicit answer if it was better in the past. After all, it’s not like we don’t know the dark side of that time: control, censorship and bureaucracy to say the least. But, as Wróblewski recounts:
"(…) there were outstanding people who knew what they wanted. They were the ones to dictate certain things. And, as it turned out, the authorities back then could have certain things imposed on them. Thanks to this, very valuable pieces of design and architecture were created"
When it comes to organization of things in general, it was better in the past… And yet, today’s world is wide open for designers who have access to almost everything. Also, the competition now is healthier and livelier. In any case, what’s the most important in a designer’s work is the quality of what s/he creates. This thought is very accurately expressed in professor Kuczma’s motto, so well known among students:
"A piece of furniture has to be faultless, that’s it!"
* This text is based on interviews conducted by Zuza Mielczarek in March 2015 with Aleksander Kuczma and Władysław Wróblewski – furniture designers and senior professors of design at the University of Arts in Poznań. It is also based on the fragments of the thesis "Dreams meet reality – Furniture Design Industry in People’s Poland in the domestic and European context based on the memories of senior designers prof. Aleksander Kuczma and prof. Władysław Wróblewski" completed at the Faculty of Architecture, Delft University of Technology.
Zuzanna Mielczarek, b. 1990 in Poznań. In 2014, she defended her architectural project of an urban educational farm at the University of Arts in Poznań and obtained the title of an engineer/architect. At present, she lives both in Rotterdam and Poznań and continues her search for design inspiration at Delft University of Technology and Poznań University of Arts. She’s interested in design as a stimulus for social change and interpersonal relations. She’s been in training in such architectural firms as Medusa Group in Bytom, SHAU in Rotterdam, but also in a furniture design and woodworking studio Atelier 365 in Brussels. Her achievements comprise, among other things, furniture projects and cardboard toys.