We begin our journey when Poland wasn’t. The Partitions of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria, which began at the end of the 18th century, erased it from the map of Europe for 123 years. Life under the Partitions seriously affects the lives of Poles: several generations grow up with no country, deprived of their language. So how then can we speak about Poland as a country, when it didn’t exist? And what does all this have to do with design?
Perhaps talking about Poland as a country during the Partitions was indeed impossible, yet referring to it as a nation wouldn’t be out of the question. In the face of these divisions, Poles clung to culture as a safeguard against disappearance. Poles turned to their regional cultural traditions for a feeling of national identity and belonging. It was in the south, under the Austrian Partition, where Poles enjoyed the greatest social and cultural freedoms. And it is here, in Galicia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, that certain ideas emerged which, for a long time, set the course of the development of Polish applied art and, later, that of industrial design.
World War I, of course, hindered the development of cultural and creative activities, but its end brought many changes. The most important of all: Poland was back on the map. On 11th November 1918, after over 100 years, Poland regained its independence. The difficult task of reuniting and rebuilding the country began – and culture played a key part in the process. This new found freedom allowed artists and designers to look further into national identity as an inspiration and applied art went from craft to industry.
“Legend is a treasure and a power, often stronger than history itself, than reality.”
THE ZAKOPANE STYLE
THE PLACE TO BE
Today, Zakopane is a popular tourist destination. Considered the ‘winter capital of Poland’, the small town at the foot of the Tatra Mountains brings to mind a fairytale: it is picturesque, with wooden houses, horse-drawn carriages and snow all around. Zakopane is a resort town known for its skiing, hiking and spas. But at the beginning of the 19th century, it was still just a village, home to just a few hundred families. It was then that it began gaining popularity as a spa town. City folk, especially artists, writers and musicians, began to flock to Zakopane to breathe the fresh mountain air, rest and seek inspiration. It quickly became ‘the place to be’. And it was in this particular intellectual and artistic atmosphere, that the Zakopane Style was born.
In 1886, following doctors orders, Stanisław Witkiewicz travelled to Zakopane to rest. In 1890, he decided to stay. He was enamoured by the rich material culture of the Gorals, or Highlanders. He saw in it a pure strain of Polish culture, which had survived for centuries. It inspired him to create ‘the essence of the Polish form in culture’. And so, in 1893 he built the first house in the Zakopane Style. Witkiewicz’s houses had stone foundations, a simple log frame construction, high gabled roofs decorated with vertical ornaments at the ends of the roofs’ ridges, with extended eaves covered with shingles and decorative motifs on top of the windows and doors.
Inspired by the Highlanders small wooden homes, these houses were made for the city slickers who had fallen in love with Zakopane. The first Zakopane Style house to be built was the Koliba Villa. Completed in 1893, it still stands today and houses the Museum of Zakopane Style.
It was about (…) building a house that would erase any doubts about the possibility of reconciling folk architecture with the more complex and refined needs of comfort and beauty (…) which goes to show that one can have a house in the Zakopane Style (…) and all the while be surrounded by an atmosphere of beauty no worse than others, and, in addition, Polish.
In 1897, Zakopane the town was abuzz with the news that the Villa Pod Jedlami (House under the Firs) was finally finished. However, the house was only fully complete in 1903, when Witkiewicz finished furnishing the villa. Villa Pod Jedlami was to become the first model house entirely designed in the Zakopane Style – inside and out. The Zakopane Style was not the only attempt to create a Polish national style based on its rich folk traditions,
however, it was the first to include applied arts and architecture. Zakopane Style began with houses and went on to include various everyday objects such as furniture, fabrics, clothing, dishes, trinkets and even jewellery. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Zakopane Style travelled from the mountain side and began to roam all over what was once Poland – it was key in the search for a ‘national style’.
In 1897, Zakopane the town was abuzz with the news that the Villa Pod Jedlami (House under the Firs) was finally finished. However, the house was only fully complete in 1903, when Witkiewicz finished furnishing the villa. Villa Pod Jedlami was to become the first model house entirely designed in the Zakopane Style – inside and out. The Zakopane Style was not the only attempt to create a Polish national style based on its rich folk traditions, however, it was the first to include applied arts and architecture. Zakopane Style began with houses and went on to include various everyday objects such as furniture, fabrics, clothing, dishes, trinkets and even jewellery. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Zakopane Style travelled from the mountain side and began to roam all over what was once Poland – it was key in the search for a ‘national style’.
The Polish Applied Art Society (Towarzystwo Polska Sztuka Stosowana) came into being in Kraków in 1901. Finding its roots in folk traditions, the society strived to ‘give the Polish industrial arts what it needs: form, colour, decoration’. The society organised exhibitions all over Poland presenting Polish graphics, furniture, fabrics, paintings, interior design and monuments of wooden architecture. They were an important link between the Zakopane Style and the emerging applied arts associations around the country. The work of renowned Polish playwright and Young Poland painter Stanisław Wyspiański was pivotal in this process.
In 1904, Wyspiański was commissioned to design the interiors of the Medical Society House (Dom Towarzystwa Lekarskiego), which was, at the time, the most modern building in Kraków. Wyspiański gave each room its own distinct colour scheme and decorative motif. The staircase leading up to the first floor from the lobby was sunshine yellow, with a metal banister heavily decorated with floral motifs and, to top it all off, a stained-glass Apollo watched over the stairs. The furniture Wyspiański designed was clearly influenced by the Vienna Secession – simple in both form and decoration. The one problem was that many people said the chairs he designed weren’t comfortable. Wyspiański replied: ‘They shouldn’t be comfortable. When chairs are comfortable, people at meetings fall asleep.’ The next design project Wyspiański took on was the home of the writer Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and his wife Zofia Pareńska. Here too, each room got its own colour scheme: the bedroom was designed in different shades of grey, while the dining room was dark blue. The house was beautiful, but yet again… in Boy-Żeleński’s own words: ‘There is one thing Wyspiański did not take into account at all, and that is the anatomy of a human body and its needs (…) Though [the furniture] was insanely uncomfortable, it was beautiful as a whole’.
In 1908, Karol Tichy wins the Kraków Museum of Science and Industry’s competition for bedroom furniture. He creates functional furniture – design that is no longer inspired by the search for a national style nor inspired by folk traditions. Tichy’s designs are simple, light, functional and based in geometry. They seemed almost like mathematical equations written in space: clear lines, the mutual dependence of forms, proportions. Tichy was about a decade ahead of his time.
FROM CRAFT TO INDUSTRY
In 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, the Kraków Workshops were born. They took it upon themselves to continue the work of the Polish Applied Art Society, including the idea of creating a national style inspired by folk art. Their goal was to design things that were both beautiful and functional, rooted in tradition and modern at the same time. The workshops were a place for designers and craftsmen to work together, to learn from each other.
Arists at the Kraków workshops created furniture, fabrics, metalwork, embroidery, wall decorations, ceramics, bookbinding, graphic design, toys, haberdashery and sculpture, all based on existing Polish artistic traditions. Together they wanted to create a new quality of Polish decorative arts. The movement’s crowning moment came with the Polish Exhibition’s spectacular success at the 1925 World’s Fair in Paris
According to Jerzy Warchałowski, the commissioner general of the Polish Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Paris, Poland was supposed to show a coherent vision of a country that had survived the turmoil of history thanks to a national identity based on its culture and traditions. After regaining independence, the Polish nation felt a strong sense of community. Polish artists, therefore, also sought to create a communal artistic language. As the designer of the Polish Pavilion, the architect Jerzy Czajkowski said that no nation can exist without ‘its own artistic form in all its manifestations’.
In Paris, this language that the Kraków Workshops created, which combined traditions of the past with current trends, was hailed ‘Polish Art Deco’. Jerzy Warchałowski’s dream of Poland making its mark in an international arena for the first time after regaining independence came true. The World’s Fair in Paris was a great success. Poland received 35 Grand Prix awards (over half of the amount awarded during the whole fair), 70 gold medals, 56 silver medals, 13 bronze medals, as well as 31 honourable mentions.