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Exhibitions > Past

Polish Design, 1945-1989: From Applied Arts to Industrial Design / Anna Frackiewicz

From the catalog of the exhibition "Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe"

Modern Polish design evolved out of the fields of traditional applied and decorative arts, the theories of the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, and the ideas of the German architect and author Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927). The early development of this field was related to efforts to turn to the art of the past in order to create a national style and define Poland's national identity.

In the years following the Second World War, an interest in the "composition of solids and surfaces" (an expression first used in the 1920s by Wojciech Jastrzebowski, Warsaw School of Fine Arts) came to play a central part in shaping an entire generation of Polish artists. In this context, students were assigned to design objects defined by a given color scheme, texture, and other specified qualities, which they subsequently produced using different techniques and various materials. They typically began by designing in two dimensions (letters, monograms, clock faces, zodiac signs, etc.), and then progressed to small three-dimensional objects and finally to small-scale architectural structures. This approach was supposed to develop spatial imagination, compositional skills, and the ability to work with a range of materials.

This type of training was considered ideal for the artists who began working with the renowned designer Wanda Telakowska (1905-1985) in the 1940s. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Telakowska, who had achieved success in the 1930s as a graphic artist, focused her attention on fostering the development of Polish design. She was interested in encouraging artists to design everyday objects, while persuading producers to use these designs. In 1945, Telakowska was appointed as the director of the Planning Department at the Ministry of Culture and Art, which was subsequently renamed the Manufacturing Department (1945-1947) and later the Bureau for the Supervision of Manufacturing Aesthetics (1947-1950). The purpose of this small department was to coordinate collaborations between qualified artists and manufacturers, as well as to supply producers with designs and prototypes. To this end, it was necessary for designers to make contact with factories, and to become familiar with their industrial capabilities and needs.

Designers received orders for the creation of mass-produced items, as well as for handmade objects and limited series. Experimental workshops were also set up for the design of models and prototypes of everyday items such as furniture, toys, clothing, metal goods, and printed fabrics.

A central goal during this period was the rehabilitation and stimulation of the war-ravaged economy, a goal that was more easily achieved by a focus on small-scale production rather than on heavy industry. The earliest designs created in this context were thus produced in workshops that used the most inexpensive, locally available materials. It was assumed that the artists creating these designs could - and would - take jobs in industry. Artists from a wide range of different backgrounds were asked to participate in this project, including both the ones who had specialized in the design of everyday objects during the prewar period (such as members of the ?ad Cooperative), as well as the ones who had no prior experience in this field. Art school students, painters, graphic artists and sculptors all volunteered for participation.

The first tangible proof of this project's success was the opening of the 1946 Folk and Art Industry exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw, which included close to 500 exhibits: furniture items, textiles, and other interior design elements that showcased the abilities of the participating designers. Some of the featured objects had been made in small crafts workshops; others were produced in larger factories, while a significant number of them were prototypes. In this sense, the exhibition revealed the dual character of this period's design world, which included both items (mainly furniture), designed for mass production alongside handcrafted lace, jewelry, and souvenirs.

The most outstanding achievement in the field of Polish design during the first postwar years (and one of the most important achievements in the entire history of this field) was the furniture created by the Lad Cooperative, which was designed by Olgierd Szlekys, Wladyslaw Wincze, Czeslaw Knothe, and Jan Kurzatkowski. These furniture items were produced beginning in 1946 at the Cooperative's workshops in Warsaw and Klodzko. They were relatively inexpensive and very simple, yet were shaped by distinct stylistic traits, and exemplified the idea of "furniture for the people." Designed and sold as a series of matching items, the various furniture pieces could be combined into a set. Their main decorative features were their colors and natural ring pattern (most of the pieces were made of pinewood). These pieces came together to create an interior that was unpretentious, cozy, and slightly rustic, becoming the most common furniture items in postwar Warsaw apartments.

In 1950, Telakowska established the Institute of Industrial Design in order to pursue the goals of the Bureau of Manufacturing Aesthetics Supervision, as well as to carry out research activities. The institute became a kind of design laboratory for the Polish industry, where artists undertook specific tasks and created prototypes that were offered to factories, and mass-produced under their supervision if they were accepted. The institute itself also produced small series of products that were sold in Warsaw shops, and offered art-school graduates the opportunity to hone their skills, create new designs, experiment, and study specific design-related issues. It was also the site of competitions, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions, and its library made it possible for designers to familiarize themselves, at least to a certain extent, with international design trends.

Due to a lack of machinery, the furniture made in the institute's carpentry workshops was hand finished, clearly distinguishing it from industrially produced items. The Department of Ceramics, which acquired a fully equipped workshop in 1957, operated in a similar manner, providing the porcelain industry with prototypes that were used as production models, while also producing small series that sold with great success in several Warsaw shops. Designers at the Department of Silk-Screening, meanwhile, created excellent printed fabrics for decoration and clothing, many of which were produced by the textile industry.

Folk art played an important role in the history of Polish design as a central aspect of the country's national identity up until the late 1950s. it was viewed as a valued form of cultural heritage, and as a rich source of inspiring motifs and forms. The most interesting experiments in introducing folkloric motifs into modern design projects were conducted at the Institute of Industrial Design, where Telakowska devised a special method based on collaborations between folk artists and young designers in an attempt to introduce a fresh and vital spirit into Polish design, rendering it at once more authentic and more modern. Beginning in the late 1940s, the institute set up design teams composed of village artists and supervised by professional designers, who created designs intended for serial production. The best results, in this context, were achieved by the textile design teams.

The period of the "Polish thaw," which began in the second half of 1956, constituted a political breakthrough that resulted in wider autonomy for the Polish government, and in the temporary liberalization of life in Poland, which had a significant influence on the local art world: Poland ceased to be isolated from the West, and artists were able to familiarize themselves with current contemporary art trends. In the design world, the rejection of socialist realism led to a flourishing design scene, and to the creation of aesthetically refined, original furniture, ceramic, and textile designs.

During this period, Polish artists, and above all architects, turned back to engage with the strong pre-war tradition of Polish modernism; the works created by members of the Blok and Praesens associations was inspired by Futurism, Soviet Constructivism, the Dutch De Stijl movement, Le Corbusier and, above all, the German Bauhaus. These artists introduced Polish culture to avant-garde designs, a fascination with machine production, functionalism and utilitarianism, as well as to ideas propagated at the International Congresses of Modern Architecture, which first took place in 1928.

During this period, a new generation of artists continued to create and exhibit splendid architectural projects, which revealed the significant influence of modernism on Polish architecture and design - primarily thanks to figures such as Jerzy Soltan, Oskar Hansen, and Lech Tomaszewski. These three artists co-founded the Department of Arts and Research at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1954-1977), which would also have a decisive impact on Polish design. The department's underlying approach was based on a close cooperation between architects, engineers, painters, and sculptors, who worked together on architectural projects as well as on the design of photographic equipment, radios, cars and motorcycles, counting machines, and computer prototypes. Some of these prototypes were actually produced, while all of them bear testimony to original and unconventional thinking.

The artistic community's interest at this time clearly shifted away from the decorative arts towards design. As the art critic and historian Aleksander Wojciechowski wrote, "[...] we must answer this fundamental question: are we going to decorate, or are we going to create items and architecture for daily use? The first possibility would amount to a continuation of old art forms [...]. The second possibility would be tantamount to undertaking work on the modern art of the future."

This period was marked by a widespread rejection of folk art and motifs as a source of inspiration, as folklore came to be associated with socialist realism and the political dictate of creating art that was "national in form and socialist in content." After 1956, the younger generation of designers saw Wanda Telakowska's approach as both conservative and harmful, and blamed her for conflating design with the applied arts, in contrast to the modernist vision of design as a separate artistic discipline.

In the second half of the 1950s, interior design departments at various art schools began to sow the seeds of what would become the industrial design departments of the future, where the importance of designing items for mass production was consistently underscored. The Council of Light Industrial Manufacturing Design and Aesthetics was formed in 1959, followed by the Association of Industrial Designers followed in 1963; that same year, the first industrial design department in Poland was opened at the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow.

The Institute of Industrial Design also went through a series of changes, as its orientation shifted to a focus on the solution of theoretical problems. Product design was taken over by factory "design centers," as well as by other institutions such as the Central Bureau of Light Industrial Design and the Glass and Ceramics Industry Institute. Some workshops (such as the silk-screening plant and ceramics factory) were liquidated, and new departments were opened: the Department of Utility Structures (which was concerned with housing-related problems), the Department of Ergonomic Research, and the Department of Transportation Design.

In an economy characterized by shortages and the absence of a free market, however, design was still considered a superfluous addition to the production process. Superbly designed Polish products were presented at international exhibitions as proof of the high quality of life in the People's Republic; in reality, however, these products were usually prototypes that remained unavailable to the masses. Many excellent prototypes never made it to the production stage, while some of those that did were either deformed or simplified by producers, often to such a degree that they no longer resembled the prototype upon which they had been based. In the following decade, in light of the continuing economic crisis, designers had even less opportunities for work, and some of them established their own small firms in order to continue working on their projects. At the same time, the shift to an emphasis on industrial design did away with the earlier attempts to forge connections between design and the other fine arts, which were common during the 1950s and 1960s, and painting and sculpture ceased to be sources of inspiration for designers.

As this article has attempted to show, the entire period from 1945 to 1989 was marked by the creation of outstanding designs, which occasionally made it into mass production. In terms of the aesthetic and overall quality of generally available goods, however, Polish design was undoubtedly at its height in the 1950s and 1960s, when design as an autonomous field was just coming into being.

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