Polish design in the 50s, 60s and 70s

Designer projects from the Polish People’s Republic era are getting more and more into fashion. By just one look at interior design magazines we can see that industrial design is no less popular. Designers return to cult and well-known household items from the post-war period, often creating their contemporary versions and substitutes. Unfortunately, these pieces of furniture, although visually identical with the originals, often lack quality… Our native furniture did not become known internationally because of the political chaos, but they are no worse than the global patterns. The variety of designs from PPR is indeed impressive, their construction and workmanship – solid and lasting. When looking for a ‘modernist’ piece of furniture, it is worth trying to find the original. It will give a modern interior a designer atmosphere. Polish designs look good both in old apartment houses and modern flats.

‘We want to be modern,’ wrote professor Jerzy Hryniewski in the ‘Projekt’ magazine. What did the Polish designers of the 50s, 60s and 70s see as ‘modern’? Undoubtedly they meant freedom, colour, courage in creation of form and content, as well as the liberty of inspiration. Design was also supposed to serve people and their needs.

Projects from those times are fascinating  due to the multitude of colours and the use of light and glossy colours – it is especially visible in decoration fabrics that were designed by Polish artists. Different forms with gentle, asymmetrical outlines came to life in the applied arts. For designers, one of the most important reference points was abstract art. Its influence can be seen in ceramic decorations, fabric patterns and interior design.

One of the most important trends of this era was the fascination with new materials, however Poland had almost no access to synthetics. Their most popular substitute was plywood which gave enormous opportunities of experiments. Plywood allowed for creation of light, small goods adjusted to highly limited space of the apartments of the time.

Polish artists worked in completely different conditions than designers from Italy, Britain or Germany. They did what they could to study their foreign colleagues’ works, to shorten the distance caused by Polish isolation in the Stalinism era.

It may be surprising, but much of their work was immediately received by the industry. Individual orders came even from certain hotels, cafés, or clubs. During that era, special porcelain for kindergartens and holiday houses was designed – however, typically for that time, the first series of these attractive and pretty products went under the counter only to few.

Projects of the 50s, 60s and 70s that often ended their lives as prototypes or short series, today are iconic for the Polish design. No sooner than vintage fashion emerged, we nostalgically recognised furniture, ceramics, glass, and fabrics known from our childhood or grandparents’ houses – and eventually, we learnt to appreciate their value.

It took a long time for our industry to dust the magazines and pattern rooms. It can be explained by costs much higher than when one introduces a new design to a market. The first in Poland to see this tendency was Fabryka Porcelany ‘AS Ćmielów’. Already in 1999, it resumed its production of ceramic figurines from 1956-65 (about 120 models). Until now, they have been made by hand from the original models, using their parent forms. They are often crafted by the old residents of Ćmielów who had worked in the production 40 years earlier. Ćmielów also resumed the production of the Dorota set designed by Lubomir Tomaszewski in 1962 (can be seen e.g. in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). Objects from the past still present in our environment can give us a feeling of strong roots and intergenerational bond. We are glad to see that more and more producers discover the value of the Polish design from the past years that is no worse than foreign projects.

If you associate the PPR with dullness, greyness, underdevelopment and dirt, this exhibition is bound to shock you. With your own eyes you can see how modern the Polish design half a century ago was. Taking into consideration their form, exhibits are certainly modern also today.

The 1950s – The Decade of Contrasts

The first half of the decade was limited to the doctrine of art with realistic form and socialist content. Pattern-design was marginalised by the government, but – just like all the other domains of the Polish life – it was also subject to the central supervision.

In 1950 INSTYTUT WZORNICTWA PRZEMYSŁOWEGO (Institute of Industrial Design – IWP) was opened, which is still active today. Its creator, Wanda Telakowska, strengthened the position of the new discipline by popularizing the idea: ‘Everyday beauty for everyone’. The aim of the Institute was to develop a model of cooperation for designers and the nationalised industry, and to supervise national design.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 information about Western lifestyle and design reached Poland more often. However, visible changes came with the year 1956. When Władysław Gomułka took over, Poland began its several years of the ‘thaw’. Private initiative was welcomed on the market, part of heavy industry was set to meet the consumption needs of Poles – which had consequences for the design. Both the rejection of the social realistic doctrine and opening for the Western influence meant style and construction change, as well as experiments with new fabrics, even though there constantly were problems with access to modern materials and technologies.

In the second half of the 50s the key word was ‘modernity’. After years of isolation, Poles, especially the younger ones, wanted to be fashionable in their everyday lives, their behaviours, ways of spending leisure time. Slight opening of the iron curtain caused explosion of creative acts, inspired by abstract arts and organic design.

Features of the 50s style were abstract language, organic forms, asymmetry, diagonal lines, compositions based on letters ‘A’ and ‘X’, bright colours. In the blossoming ceramics ruled the organic form. In furniture making, plywood was popular; the second were synthetics: softened PVC, hardened PVC, and finally, epoxy resins.

In June 1956 ‘Projekt’ magazine was issued for the first time, in which modern design was always present.

The 1960s – The Little Stabilisation

In the still centrally planned economy, the level of investments in consumption goods was raised. The role of design became more important. Its goal was to increase the export. Yet problems with access to modern materials and technologies still remained.

Many new objects designed by Polish industry creators appeared on the market, like furniture, household goods, devices, machines… Segmented furniture became iconic for this decade, among them the most recognisable SYSTEM MK by Bogusława and Czesław Kowalski. The popular name ‘meble Kowalskich’ (Kowalski’s furniture) was identified not with their surname, but with an ordinary Kowalski – the Polish Smith.

In design for industry, projects were focused rather on technology than arts. Abstract-organic style from the previous decade was now joined with formally-construction simplicity, demanded by needs of the mass production.

In 1959, Rada Wzornictwa i Estetyki Produkcji Przemysłowej (Council of Design and Industry Production Aesthetics – RWiEPP) started its activity. As a result of its work, at the beginning of the 60s the I and II Wystawa-Targi Wzornictwa (Exhibition – Design Fair) and other exhibitions took place, numerous publications were released, the Polish design joined to the international information exchange. Polish designers were given prizes for accomplishments in the discipline. Along with design groups in Polish institutes and companies, there were also construction offices and research-development centres, where product ideas were formulated.

In the academic year 1963/64 at the Cracow ASP (Academy of Fine Arts), the first Faculty of Industrial Forms was born, and at Warsaw ASP – the Department of Industrial Forms. During the same year in the capital Stowarzyszenie Projektantów Form Przemysłowych (Industrial Form Designers Society – SPFP) was registered – it was, and still is, an independent organisation uniting designers, design theorists and its promoters. In 1964, the SPFP became a member of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Designers, an organisation consisting of designers from the whole globe.

The 1970s – Living on credit

The economic crisis caused labour protests, and as a consequence, in December 1970 the authorities changed. Edward Gierek became First Secretary of PZPR. Foreign loans were supposed to revive the Polish economy and make its products competitive on the international market. Investments went into electronic, electric, light and automotive industries: Western licences for goods and technologies (e.g. Fiat 126p) were bought to guarantee the production of modern consumption goods. It had a twofold influence on the design: on the one hand, we gained knowledge, but on the other – we were restrained by insufficient expenditure on the Polish industrial design.

Centralised industry was governed by unions. In their professional centres, works were focused on design research and development. However, numerous interesting projects did not leave paper or the stage of a prototype – which was a waste of a design potential. Polish economy, which not based on the market mechanism, was also not able to compete in production of high quality innovative goods. Yet it was the 70s that gave design many opportunities. Products comparable to the Western ones were created. Stylistics of many Polish goods was suitable to world tendencies.

After half of the decade, Rada Wzornictwa Przemysłowego was reactivated. Thanks to its activity, and with ZPAP and SPFP support, by virtue of the RM Regulation rules of pay for art service, including design, were introduced.

In 1977, Andrzej Jan Wróblewski initiated the Faculty of Industrial Design at the Warsaw ASP. A year later, in Gdańsk ASP the Faculty of Interior Architecture and Industrial Design was created; in 1981 it changed its name to Faculty of Architecture and Design. Polish academies of fine arts, apart from classes of arts and crafts, had ‘scientific operationalism’, which influenced education and the development of the design theory.

In 1979, in the National Museum in Warsaw, Ośrodek Wzornictwa Nowoczesnego (Centre of Modern Design) was created. Its collection (that is still being completed) was started by IWP’s and Spółdzielnia Artystów ŁAD’s projects and models.