“A tribute to pure expression”: a Polish design guide

As part of our series spotlighting design in different countries, we look at Poland’s rich history of industrial design and how the country is embracing its idiosyncratic influences.

“Being a designer in Poland today is a great opportunity,” graphic designer Filip Tofil tells Design Week. “You can easily choose from different aesthetics and ideas in design. Poland is some kind of a border of cultures.”

Poland is a literal border in Europe, of course; between Western Europe and the East Slavic states as well as Scandinavian countries. Those regions’ aesthetics tend to overlap in Poland, meaning that it exists “in that state of the middle” – which is liberating for a designer, according to Tofil. “Every time a designer makes a choice,” he says. “It may end with something great or awful, but the amplitude within Poland is very wide.”

Part of Syfon Studio’s poster exhibition

Tofil founded the Warsaw-based graphic design consultancy, Syfon Studio, with Ula Janowska in 2015. The studio’s tongue-in-cheek, eclectic graphic style seems to encapsulate its vision of Polish design. This could be seen at the Institute of Design Kielce, where a poster exhibition played on the cultural significance of Apple logos and balloon letters.

But the studio’s co-founder Janowska points out a very practical reason why Polish designers might be more liberated in their approach: “We don’t have so many rules of design translated into Polish, so designers just go with the flow.”

Poland’s design history

Opportunities for design have not always been so plentiful in Poland. Like much of the country’s politics, design has not followed a straight line and has often been subject to European politics. After World War II, there were efforts to boost the country’s economy through design, primarily through the foundation of the Institute of Industrial Design in 1950. The group’s aim was to increase both production levels and aesthetic values of the country’s design by establishing schools, running competitions and holding exhibitions. To this day, it still does these — and industrial design is a key part of the country’s landscape.

In 2018, Professor Czeslawa Frejlich curated an exhibition at the National Museum in Krakow entitled The Other Side of Things: Polish Design after 1989. Alongside the exhibition, Frejlich produced a documented Poland’s history of industrial design. (It also charts the varying success of movements like Modernism and the ceramics industry.)

Armchair RM58 Classic, designed by Roman Modzelewski and part of the exhibition, The Other Side of Things: Polish Design after 1989. Photo courtesy of Bartosz Cygan.

As Frejlich explains, when Poland transitioned to democracy after 1989, there was a renewed focus on design as an economy boost, especially though international trade. But it was only after the millennium that companies took off — driven particularly by furniture businesses, which in 2007 made up £6.5bn of the industry’s £177bn worth of goods).

Industrial design thrives: as well as being the 3rd largest furniture exporter in the world, the country’s biggest export is the automobile industry, which makes up 11% of its economy. In 2016, the Polski Fundusz Rozwoju (Polish Development Fund) was established to support and develop new business. Its Start in Poland programme helps to fund start-ups and small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the majority of design agencies in Poland.

Innovation through education

To move forwards, Frejlich tells Design Week that Poland must now make “sustainable and ecological design” a focus for the country as well as a “reduction of consumption”. And while these goals might seem “utopian”, Frejlich says they are the ones shared by many countries — “especially the highly developed ones”.

Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts

A key focus for this progress has been through education — EU funds have been, and are continuing to being used as a way to foster links between design universities and industry. These schools have become a hub for bringing creatives together; for example, Syfon Studio’s Tofil and Janowska met while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where Professor Frejlich teaches. The capital’s art school — the country’s biggest — has diverse creative departments ranging from graphics, interiors as well as stage design.

“A bit nostalgic, a bit kitschy, a little folkloristic and contemporary”

This seems to be having an impact on Poland’s increasingly eclectic design scene. Take Oskar Zieta, a German designer who has a studio in Wroclaw, in western Poland. Zieta has developed a new way of distorting steel, by inflating the metal with compressed air. It allows structures to become durable and stable — highlighting the innovation and international design scene Poland is beginning to attract.

Also based in Wroclaw is Maciej Nisztuk, a ‘generative designer’ who studied at Wroclaw’s University of Technology. Nisztuk also talks of overlapping influences in Poland. He specifically mentions the influence of the Catholic Church, the clash of communism and capitalism as well as folk design. “All this creates the specific aesthetics of Polish design,” Nisztuk tells Design Week: “It’s a bit nostalgic, a bit kitschy, a little folkloristic, and contemporary.”

Nisztuk’s ‘Phenotype’ bracelet

But Nisztuk has turned to a different inspiration for his design: biology. He combines the “simplicity of nature” with the “use of computing power” to generate designs for jewellery based on micro and macro patterns found in nature. It is a type of decorative bio-mimicry — which also uses 3D printing — and a fitting combination of Poland’s contemporary design landscape: innovation, modern material techniques and a recognition of the country’s industrial design.

“It’s a tribute to pure expression”

George Him’s poster for American Airlines

In January, an exhibition on George Him, a mid-century graphic designer comes to London’s House of Illustration. Him was a Jewish-Polish émigré who came to Britain with his design business, Lewitt-Him (in partnership with Jan Le Witt) where he stayed until his death in 1982.

His work during World War II, on public safety posters for the Post Office and Ministry of Information, among others, earned Him a reputation for a witty and Cubist-influenced style. And while he mostly worked in Britain, his design education was split between Poland and Germany.

The exhibition is Him’s first retrospective and hopes to shine a light on the largely unknown designer, who is part of both Poland and the UK’s heritage — the exhibition is part of a year-long, UK-wide festival which celebrates the contribution to British culture of refugees from Nazi Europe.

Graphic design from Syfon Studio

In current-day Warsaw, the spirit of Him’s witty visual style is present at Syfon Studio. (And in the capital more widely, there appears to be a growing acknowledgement of the country’s legacy; in 2011 the National Museum in Warsaw put on an exhibition entitled We Want to be Modern: Polish Design from 1955-1968.) As Syfon’s Filip Tofil says: “Poland in the past so badly wanted to become a part of the world, that we have forgotten why we are and the reasons for what we do here.”

“We have kitsch, bad design, errors, lines that are not straight and letters that are not perfect, made in our blood,” Tofil says. “We started to not hide that kinky temptation but to appreciate it — it’s a tribute to pure expression and a lack of rules.”

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