Creative Tension in Polish Design

WARSAW, POLAND–Last spring I had the rare privilege of getting a guided tour of the storage facilities of Poland’s Modern Design Center (a part of the National Museum of Warsaw), currently housed in a pre-war palace on the outskirts of Otwock, a town which is about a 30 minute drive from central Warsaw. Anna Frackiewicz (one of the curators) and I walked around the rooms, oohing and aahing at a few of the 24,000 objects including furniture, toys, print fabrics, glass, ceramics, fashion accessories and clothing spanning from the 1920s through to the 2000s that are kept, literally, under wraps and only rarely taken out for exhibitions, like the well-received and much-visited show “We Want to be Modern” (“Chcemy Byc Nowoczesni”) that was held earlier this year at the National Museum. My favorite pieces included some funky and colorful textiles done by Alicja Wyszogrodzka in the 1950s and Maria Chomentowska’s “Lungs” (Plucka) black and wooden chairs that she designed in 1956. Many of the pieces are rare prototypes of objects that were designed but never produced for the mass market (including porcelain figurines) while others pieces, like Roman Modzelewski’s 1958 red armchair, exemplify the richness of Poland’s design history. Unfortunately the facility is not open to the public and until Poland gets a national design museum—much discussed but yet to come to fruition—these fantastic objects will continue to remain tucked away for only the lucky few to see.

Polish design, however, is not just something confined to the past. There are a growing number of young designers, curators and companies that are gaining a formidable reputation internationally for their innovative and inspired creations. Earlier this spring during Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Polish-based furniture manufacturer Comforty made their international design debut at the Temporary Museum of New Design SuperStudio Piu with the show “Future Classics”, curated by designer Tomek Rygalik. Meanwhile across town another exhibition “Young Creative Poland: In Production” highlighted the connection between Polish designers (including Oskar Zieta, who has studios in both Wroclaw and Zurich) and furniture companies like Meble Vox, Noti and Iker. Design consortiums like Malafor (run out of Gdansk by Agata Kulik and Pawel Pomorski), Gogo, Kompott and Puff-Buff (all based in Warsaw) have been making waves abroad with their furniture, fashion, lighting and landscape pieces while this autumn the School of Form (a branch of Warsaw’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities) will open up in Poznan offering Polish and international students the opportunity — for the first time in Poland—to take a specific Bachelors degree in design at a private university. “There has always been a strong tradition of design in Poland,” says Miska Miller-Lovegrove, a Polish born London-based architect who along with Anna Pietrzyk-Simone, Monika Unger and Agnieszka Kwiatkowska-Dragic recently founded Creative Project Foundation (Young Creative Poland is one of their projects), which will focus on promoting creativity and connecting manufacturers, designers and architects. “There is talent everywhere across the country and Poland is really starting to develop a strong relationship between industry and design.”

That marriage between industry and design is something that Polish companies are beginning to investigate more intently. The country currently is the fourth largest exporter of furniture in the world—and is the second biggest manufacturer for IKEA—but only recently have Polish furniture companies realized the importance of hiring in-house designers who can help make a name for their company besides just being exporters of products. “We have the capacity of producing but we lack our own designs,” Maja Ganszyniec, one of the four partners in Kompott, which has designed everything from flexible shelving units to funky plugless sinks, tells me during an interview in Warsaw. “Some of the bigger companies are starting to realize that without their own brands, they might be in trouble one day.” Comforty is one such business that realized they needed to develop their own brand identity –though a large portion of their business is still in the production of furniture —and last year they launched a competition “Future Classics”, to look for new Polish and international design talent. French designer Philipe Nigro’s “Floating Couch” eventually won the competition and his piece, along with the other entrants of the competition were featured in the Milan show. The reason behind the competition, says Comforty Living’s communications and design manager Pawel Kubara, was to, “awake the attention of a younger generation and also help to search for new talents.”

comforty-use1That search for –and promotion of—new talents has been something that Miller-Lovegrove and Pietrzyk-Simone have been focusing on since they first organized a show of young Polish designers at London Design Week in 2009. Since then they have done two shows in Milan (last year they curated a Young Creative Poland show that focused on the country’s strong design heritage) and they plan to participate in other design fairs including Stockholm Design Week in early 2012. “Though Polish contemporary art has made an impression [abroad] there was not much knowledge of other Polish creativity so we thought this was a way to help [highlight] design and architecture,” Pietrzyk-Simone told me recently over breakfast at Warsaw’s Miedzy Nami café (a favorite hangout for artists, designers and writers for over a decade). “We see more and more talent coming out of Poland. We have been receiving letters from young designers—studying not just in Poland but also in places like London, Vienna and France—asking to [work] with us. This is really a good indicator that people want to be a part of the global economy and gain experience.”

Tomek Rygalik is one such talent who gained experience abroad—he has degrees from Pratt in New York and London’s Royal College of Art—and now is keen to promote Polish design both in the country and abroad. “Poles have a natural creativity,” he tells me. “Over the years we were forced to live in difficult situations so the nation is hungry to express itself. During the Communist times you had to be creative, like my father making things like a lawnmower [seemingly] out of nothing. We do not have the burden of [design] being contrived or things being set in stone so people are open to be really creative.” Rygalik—who is the artistic director with Comforty —says he would define Polish design as being about resourcefulness. Pietrzyk-Simone thinks that –at least for now—it’s hard to define what Polish design is. “I would not put a tag on it yet as I think it is still in the process of very chaotic development,” she says. “I think there is a bit of humor and a bit of edge to it. Brand consultant Wally Olins defined Poland as having “creative tension” and I think that is spot on.”

That “creative tension” is something that is highlighted every year at events like the Gdynia Design Days (currently taking place until the 30 June), Lodz’s Design Festival held in October and Poznan’s moodFORM, which just finished at the end of May. Next spring DCK, a new design center in Kielce that aims to have international scope similar to places like the Netherlands’ European Ceramics Work Centre and the Guldagergaard International Ceramic Centre in Denmark, will open up housing a ceramics studio, a design and art gallery and a research facility. “Design is one excellent way to communicate a nation’s capacity to be innovative,” says the London Design Festival’s William Knight. “Design can help shift perceptions and be a very good vehicle for the modernity of a nation.” Polish designers, promoters, curators and manufacturers are banking on that.

1st photo courtesy of Young Creative Poland, photo by Jan Lutyk

2nd photo courtesy of Comforty