In a typical conversation about Europe’s most design-forward countries, Poland doesn’t exactly leap off the tongue. However, this former member of the Eastern Bloc is quietly hard at work smashing a dated preconception—with far-reaching results.
As the third largest European exporter of furniture, Poland clocked in 10.2 billion euros in 2014, behind Germany (15.6 billion) and Italy (12.4 billion). Yet, until recently, while Germany and Italy drew from domestic sources for design talent, Poland merely provided factories and cheap labor.
Partially to blame is Poland’s difficult history, which had a resoundingly negative effect on the creativity and production capacity of its product design industry. As Anna Frackiewicz explains in the book We Want to be Modern: Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw:
The country’s cultural policy underwent gradual changes, civil liberties were limited and censorship became more severe. Conscious of their mission, skills and possibilities, designers came up against a wall of conservative habits.
While 1950s and 1960s Europe powered full-speed-ahead with the Modernist Movement, Poland’s position behind the Iron Curtain both curtailed creativity and left many talented designers undiscovered. Clever prototypes gathered dust, never to reach the manufacturing chain. Furnishings were highly restricted by materials available—mostly wood and metal, since plastics were virtually impossible to obtain—and focused strictly on function.
Gains From EU Membership
Poland’s entrance into the EU in 2004 kicked off a fury of change. “It was a great thing and I am very glad that it happened,” says Mac Stopa, founder of architecture and design firm Massive Design. This global thinker built his firm on corporate interiors for the likes of Google, BMW and Credit Suisse, and has designed for Cappellini, Nowy Styl Group and Tonon & C. S.p.A., among others.
Stopa’s 60-story Warsaw Spire, completed in 2016, is now a landmark in downtown Warsaw. “Poland always wanted to be part of Western culture, but because of our tragic history, we had…dark clouds,” he says. “It wasn’t so easy in the past. After 2004, you saw many very important international companies opening production facilities in Poland or merging with local Polish producers or sub-contracting and investing in new technology in Poland. This was very important for our furniture industry.”
Cheap Manufacturing Fuels Steady Design Growth
Post 2004, as the furniture manufacturing industry continued plant roots, more and more Polish companies realized production was not enough. “They needed their own brand,” explains designer Maja Ganszyniec, whose firm Studio Ganszyniec has created soft seating for Polish manufacturer Comforty, as well as several lines for IKEA. The resulting young and emerging Polish brands naturally turned to designers living and working in Poland.
The strong manufacturing backbone spurred fast growth for the emerging design scene. “Polish manufacturers are increasingly keen to work with designers, and there’s no shortage of interesting projects, competitive in terms of both cost and quality,” says Marta Niemywska-Grynasz, co-founder of multidisciplinary firm Grynasz Studio, whose client list includes Fam Fara, Marbet Style, MUJI and Meesh.
We’ve gone from a handful of designers who launched their ventures in the late 1990s to a plethora of design studios and independent designers active at home and abroad.
Another propelling force is EU backing. “The fact that Polish design and Polish brands are becoming increasingly competitive is due in no small part to the impact of EU funding,” Niemywska-Grynasz adds.
Poland’s Youth Tastes Globalization
EU membership particularly influenced Poland’s youth, which gleaned promising new opportunities. “It is now easier for Polish students to attend design schools in Western Europe—I studied at one myself as part of the Erasmus exchange program—and access to internships has widened,” reveals Niemywska-Grynasz.
In many cases, education abroad meant talent left the country for good. But in recent years, that trend is turning. Maria Jeglinska, a young French-Polish designer who has worked for the likes of Ligne Roset and Kravdrat, straddled two countries as a child. However, she ultimately selected Poland, where being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages.
“Here you can do certain things much quicker because the ratio of designers is lower,” Jeglinska notes.
There’s much more money in London, but also many more designers.
Cutting-edge Technology Delivers Historic Gains
Technology is where Poland’s manufacturing facilities now excel. “We have some of the best modern technology in the world because the entire furniture manufacturing industry is relatively young,” says Stopa. That’s in part due to the fresh state of the market, Stopa believes:
All the machines and technology were implemented five to 10 years ago.
With this technology, one manufacturer is looking to place Poland’s neglected iconic designs firmly in the global eye. Vzor’s first line focuses on the work of artist, designer and teacher Roman Modzelewski, the mind behind one of the earliest Polish examples of laminated fiberglass furniture. Modzelewski designed his glossy, rounded RM58 armchair in 1958, and it is now part of the permanent collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
“Thanks to production technologies, an efficient network of subcontractors and collaborators, logistical support by the company’s sectoral investor and the location of our production facilities in Poland, our brand is able to deliver even large lots of product within four to five weeks, while the market standard is six to eight weeks,” says Vzor’s co-founder and managing director Michal Woch.
The days of languishing Polish prototypes are long gone.