Polish Design 1955-1968: We Want to Be Modern

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Alicja Wyszogrodzka. Printed decorative textile or a length of fabric for a skirt, traditionally called "Maidens ”, 1958. Courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw. "

Contemporary Polish design has come into focus in recent years, with exhibitions such as architect Miska Miller-Lovegrove’s Young Creative Poland at the 2009 London Design Festival and the 2010 Milan Furniture Fair. Another recent example is the Polish pavilion by WWAA Architects for the Shanghai Expo 2010. The pavilion, which featured a perforated CNC-cut plywood façade, was inspired by traditional Polish folk-art paper cutouts.

Henryk Jędrasiak. “Sex bomb.” Glazed porcelain figures, 1959. Courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw.

But Polish design has a long history, more than a decade of which will be on display at the National Museum in Warsaw until April 17th. “Polish Design 1955-1968: We want to be modern” features more than 180 mid-century objects that run the entire design gamut from posters, magazines and textiles to glass, ceramics, furniture and other household products.

Danuta Duszniak. “Columbus" teapots, 1956. Courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw.

Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Poland, along with much of the rest of Eastern Europe, underwent a period of political and cultural liberalization that culminated in 1956. Less tumultuous and ultimately more successful than the Hungarian Revolution the same year, protests in Poland succeeded in securing a moderate degree of autonomy from the Soviet Union, concessions in favor of the Catholic Church, and liberalization of the cultural sphere, notably within film and theater.

Krzysztof Meisner and Olgierd Rutkowski. Alfa camera, 1958–1959. Courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw.

Along with the rise of a strong post-war film industry came the Polish Poster School, a group of artists – including Henryk Tomaszewski, Józef Mroszczak and Jan Lenica – who created a style that broke free from the Socialist Realism and heavy Stalinist imagery present in the art of many Eastern Bloc countries. Many of these artists had been painters prior to WWII, and they brought a new, more artful approach to graphic design. Several of these posters are on display as part of the exhibition.

Henryk Baran. Decoration, 1958-68. Courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw.

The break with Socialist Realism was not only present within graphic design, however. As can be seen in the chairs, phones and cameras featured in the “We want to be modern” exhibition, modernism and organic forms à la Eames and Aalto were attractive to designers in all disciplines. Patterns on ceramics and textiles, for instance, often sported an aesthetic of art informel and matter painting.

Olgierd Rutkowski. Model of a telephone, 1960. Courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw.

The name of the exhibition was inspired by the words of Jerzy Hryniewiecki, a modernist architect who founded design periodical Projekt in 1956. As he wrote in the inaugural issue of the magazine, “We want to be modern…[..] Today, beauty must surround us. [..] we are too tolerant of the everyday ugliness.” A sentiment that perhaps still applies.

Anna Orzechowska. Printed silk textile, 1956. Courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw.