Defining Polish design

Cynicism and professional confusion mean Poland still struggles to find a design voice. Will a new government help? asks Lynda Relph-Knight

Sunday 21 October was a momentous day for Poland. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was ousted in an election forced on him by a nation sick of his reactionary ways. His political demise ended what Poles deemed to be an unholy alliance between him and his twin brother Lech, who remains President.

His successor, Donald Tusk, is more liberal and is expected to take a more entrepreneurial stance towards business. Hopes are that this will stem the flow of disillusioned Poles leaving the country over the past couple of years, and that it might even mark the return of many who have emigrated to the UK and beyond.

That may be a vain hope. But, for young designers in Poland, Tusk’s ascendancy brings a beacon of hope for a future in the country of their birth. It also bodes well for plans by cultural activists at Warsaw’s Adam Michiewicz Institute and others to mount a Polish season in the UK in 2009/2010, as part of a bid to promote the country.

Though there is no literal translation for ‘design’ in the Polish language, ‘dizajn’ – as they coin it – is central to finding a national identity. A couple of years ago, British identity guru Wally Olins was employed by the Polish Chamber of Commerce to this end. He summed up the Polish spirit as ‘creative tension’, a strapline that all the disparate factions in the country could all get behind, he claims.

Sadly, there has been what Olins terms ‘a pause in the relationship’, prompted largely by the ‘political interference’ of the Kaczynski regime, and there is no undertaking that it will be resumed.

Olins points out that Poland is the biggest of the former Eastern Bloc countries and potentially has a great future, in about ten years. But, it is ‘struggling to find a voice that is international’, he says.

Design wasn’t identified separately by Olins, who worked with the Polish foreign ministry and tourism and inward investment bodies. But, it is patently seen by designers and the cultural establishment as a route to future success, particularly in Europe. Several, such as designers Artur Puszkarewicz and Anna Koltowska of AZE, which moved out of Warsaw to eastern Poland, are looking to build on craft traditions to create a new aesthetic. But, local manufacturers generally do not share this zeal.

On paper, Poland has a head start over countries like the UK in trying to beat international competition through design, because it still has a manufacturing industry. But, design is recognised as an asset by very few – notably furniture company Iker, which is a staunch champion – and there is a tendency to copy from other countries to make similar lines more cheaply or to ‘steal’ designers’ ideas.

Until that issue is resolved, designers generally will look elsewhere to have their ideas realised. Among the most successful to date are Moho Design, whose felt rugs combine traditional crafts with contemporary design for companies such as the Italian giant Moroso, and Tomasz Rygalik, who teaches at the Royal College of Art in London.

So, what can we expect of Polish design? It has an international reputation for outstanding graphic design. Its typography, explicit pictograms and bold imagery have made for great posters over the years, born of propaganda campaigns or rebellion. It is significant that, as they feel their way towards the UK/Polish season, one of the few projects protagonists can talk about is a potential show of old posters at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Oddly, though, this heritage seems not to be valued by the new generation of designers, who view product and furniture as ‘real design’ – as designer Piotr Stolarski puts it. He and Maria Makowska run product and furniture group GoGo in their spare time, but, he says with regret, to make money they, and their peers, work in graphic design or in advertising agencies. Unlike the UK, there is no shortage of graphics work, it would appear.

What has made this diversity possible is a design education system that gives undergraduates a grounding in all aspects of design.

Michal Stefanowski of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts explains that students studying ‘industrial design’ also learn about branding and craft techniques, and that art – sculpture, drawing and painting – is a compulsory element of its four-year undergraduate course. Whether this will change when the course is reduced to three-and-a-half years next year remains to be seen.

The academy has links with business schools. Ironically, though, industrial design students don’t mix, in terms of course work, with their peers studying interiors, because, says Stefanowski, different course leaders have developed different teaching methods.

The UK can learn as much from Poland as its designers can from us. With assets such as strong visual and craft traditions, a manufacturing base and a relatively enlightened education system, it has a lot going for it. Political support can only help. It needs, though, to build its confidence, decide what exactly it means by ‘dizajn’ and sell it to clients. A familiar saga? Maybe.

Snapshot of a nation

• Poland has a population of 40 million

• It is the largest of the former Eastern Bloc countries

• It has a strong manufacturing base and is the fourth largest producer of furniture in the world, 90% of which is for the mass market and branded by non-Polish manufacturers

• Few Polish manufacturers value design, and designers talk of having designs stolen or being asked to copy others’ work

• It has a strong tradition in graphics, but product and furniture are more likely to be considered ‘real design’

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