Chapter 4 – Behind the curtain

1940 –1950s

World War II took an immeasurable toll on Poland. The country suffered enormous loss. The war curbed the development of many fields, design included. Rising from the ashes was not going to be an easy task – especially under the communist regime and its love of socialist realism. The Polish artistic community was quick to try and move past the ruins of war. Pre-war fine arts academies were quickly re-opened and even some new art schools were established. Design was present at all of them, as was the new term: ‘industrial design’.

“We want to be modern (…) the time has come to liquidate the extensive inventories of contemporary technical and artistic thought.“
—Jerzy Hryniewiecki, 1956

The 1950s is, yet again, a time of political upheaval. The Khrushchev Thaw, which came after Stalin’s death, brought a softening of the social realist norms in art and design dictated by the communist regime. All of a sudden, artists and designers have more freedom to experiment, to explore new techniques, new styles, new materials. The Iron Curtain isn’t as impenetrable as it once was – the government wants to show the world what Poland has to offer. Many designs finally make it into production. And even make it to store shelves.



Wanda Telakowska was the person behind the concept of ‘beauty everyday and for everyone’ and the first post-war state institution created to help artists work with industry. In 1945, Telakowska stood at the helm of the Planning Division at the Ministry of Culture and the Arts. In 1947, a separate department was formed: the Aesthetic Production Supervision Bureau (Biuro Nadzoru Estetyki Produkcji). It was here that the phrase ‘industrial design’ was first used in Poland.

1950 saw the creation of the Institute of Industrial Design (Instytut Wzornictwa Przemysłowego, or IWP). The institute conducted research and organised lectures, seminars and panel discussions, as well as designated councils to review designs for serial production. Telakowska, the founding director of the institute, was known as the ‘national Joanne of Arc of design’. One of the employees of IWP once described her – and her tireless work to promote design in Poland – as ‘Don Quixote in a skirt’.

Two elderly women are shown in a black and white photograph: the one on the left, with grey hair, is presenting a white cloth with a black design to the woman on the right, who has black hair.
Prof. Wanda Telakowska looks at folk textiles in the Institute of Industrial Design's showroom. Also pictured: artist Lidia Buczek, 1965. Institute of Industrial Design archives
A piece of black fabric with a black and white decorative pattern showing animals that look a little like alpacas.
A decorative fabric, by Czesław Dukat, 1955. Institute of Industrial Design archives
A monochrome photograph of a white teacup with a simple flower artwork.
A faience cup, designed by Maria Kiwior, Zalipie, 1953. Institute of Industrial Design archives
A black and white photograph depicts three women and a man in a room that looks like a painting studio. The women are located by the table full of painting accessories. The man behind them is putting a decorative image on the drawing board. Similar images are hanging on the walls.
A painting course for folk artists from Zalipie at the Institute of Industrial Design (designer Roman Orłow in the centre), 1952. Institute of Industrial Design archives
"A snapshot of a fashion design studio in black and white. An older woman instructs the young girls as they gather around a table with skirt patterns. "
A group of students from the Institute of Industrial Design in Warsaw at a training session at the Basic Clothing School in Zakopane, 1952. Institute of Industrial Design archives
A black and white photograph depicting a detail of a piece of fabric decorated with a flower pattern.
A print for a decorative fabric, designed by Maria Wojtyło, 1954. Institute of Industrial Design archives
Four women of varied ages are photographed in black and white. Two of them are dressed in traditional clothing. They are all enthralled by a little object held by one of them.
Lidia Buczek with folk artists from Kszczonowo, 1955. Source: Institute of Industrial Design archives
A black and white close-up of a woman's headscarf with floral paintings on it.
A headscarf, designed by Felicja Curyło, 1954. Institute of Industrial Design archives
A black and white snapshot of a historic old house with folk designs on one wall. A section of a black fence can be seen on the left.
The wall of Zalipie artist Ms. Kosiniakowa's house, 1953. Source: Institute of Industrial Design archives


"A black-and-white snapshot depicts a young black-haired woman dressed in a white blouse, white long gloves, and a tree-patterned medium-sized skirt. She's leaning against the front bumper of a Warszawa car. "
Skirt, designed by Rościsława Krasoń and Aleksandra Michalak-Lewińska, 1959. Photo: IWP / East News

Folk art, which was always a source of inspiration for Polish designers, found its way back onto their radar screens after World War II. Starting in 1949, socialist realism was a clear blueprint for artists – they couldn’t stray very far from the communist ‘norms’. At a time when modernity was taboo, as were many historical motifs, artists looked once again to Poland’s folk traditions. In 1949, the Headquarters of the Folk and Artistic Industry (Centrala Przemysłu Ludowego i Artystycznego, or CPLiA) was established, under the leadership of another dame of Polish design, Zofia Szydłowska, to supervise the work of folk artists and ensure their crafts made it to store shelves around the country – they were creating folk art for city folk.

At the same time, the Institute of Industrial Design under Wanda Telakowska was hard at work. She saw folk art not only as a style, but rather as a source of inspiration for designers all over Poland. She would send groups of designers to centres of Polish folk art, such as Podhale, Zalipie and Kurpiów, to learn the traditional patterns and techniques they used. With this newfound knowledge, the designers would return to Warsaw to create new designs based on these traditional patterns that would be created for mass production, and thus, a wider audience. This model of co-operation proved particular effective when it came to fabric and ceramic design.



The New Look took over cafes, living rooms and… closets. The end of the 1950s saw an explosion of vibrant, colourful fabrics – printed and painted. Simple lines, repetitive patterns, interesting textures, black and white contrasted with bursts of colour. These fabrics made their way into living rooms and onto runways.

“Too grey is the external image of our everyday society. Modern technology shares generously – the richness and intensity of colour, strong light, wide space, the lightness of the material.“
—Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Projekt magazine, 1956

The prints and patterns created by Alicja Wyszogrodzka are the perfect example of the vibrancy and variety of fabrics created at the time. One of her most recognisable patterns has to be Panny (Ladies): women in flared dresses seemingly dance along the edge of the fabric. With their black and white silhouettes up against a bright colourful background, they look as if they are strutting on a catwalk. Their energy is palpable. Wyszogrodzka’s fabrics were very versatile. In her MDM (1955) fabric, she used simple lines to create a complicated and rich pattern that showed modern city life. Her kerchief with a “quilted” motif of a stylised female head on a red-and-amaranthine background, with a graphic design or composition in red-and-gold, more resembles a poster than an applied fabric. Meanwhile, Fish was an interpretation of geometrical patterns for the Beach series.

A decorative graphical image of thirteen young women wearing the same type of flared white dress. They all have black, skinny bodies with no facial details. The image is embedded on a green piece of fabric that is intercut with white vertical stripes. For a change, the bottom part of the cloth is white with black stripes.
Decorative fabric known as LADIES, 1958, designed by Alicja Wyszogrodzka, produced by the Institute of Industrial Design in Warsaw, photo: M. Korta, from the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw
A textile pattern showing a sequence of repeating elements. It consists of rectangles in orange, yellow and purple on a black background. The squares imitate streets and blocks, and between them there are light green painted figures: a couple holding hands, a gentleman walking with a cane, etc.
Marszałkowska Residence District (MDM) printed clothing fabrics, produced by the First Rudzka Dye and Finishing Shop in Ruda Pabianicka, 1955, photo: M. Korta / National Museum in Warsaw
A textile pattern showing a stylised female head on a red, pink and white striped background. The head has a triangular shape with thick eyebrows, straight nose, two black dots for eyes, two small rectangular lips and thick black lines for hair outlining the head.
KERCHIEF, produced by the Photo Printing Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, 1958, photo: M. Korta / National Museum in Warsaw
A geometric textile pattern. It shows stylised fish shapes of different sizes drawn in thin black lines on a turquoise background. Each of them has geometric patterns in it. There are black dots between the fish.
FISH, printed fabric from the BEACH series, produced by the Photo Printing Wing of the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, 1958, photo: M. Korta / National Museum in Warsaw


With the Thaw, a new global trend in design came to Poland: organic design. It meant flowing, natural forms, undulating lines, dynamic curves and powerful arches. Sculpture came to the fore. And it is sculptors who created a brand new phenomenon in Polish design – the bibelot, or trinket.

A black-and-white snapshot of a black-haired man meticulously constructing a little bull sculpture on a stool.
Mieczysław Naruszewicz working on a ceramic figurine - 1957, source: Institute of Industrial Design archives
A ceramic figurine of a woman sitting cross-legged. She has a black head, a white top, and a red dress.
Girl figurine, by Henryk Jędrasiak, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: M. Korta
Two thin and tall ceramic figurines depicting Arab women in burkas. The left one is black with white accents, while the one on the right is black with bright-red elements.
Arab women figurines, by Lubomir Tomaszewski, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: M. Korta
A polar bear figurine depicted in motion, made entirely of white porcelain. It is just a form with no painted facial features.
Polar bear figurine, by Mieczysław Naruszewicz, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: M. Korta
A porcelain figurine of a kiwi bird. It is mostly white with some orange accents, black facial features, and random black lines.
Kiwi figurine, by Lubomir Tomaszewski, 1958, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: M. Korta
A ceramic figurine of a black cat sitting. Its head is turned back, facing ground.
Cat figurine, designed by Mieczysław Naruszewicz, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: P. Dzienis
A black ceramic figurine of a camel. Its structure looks as if it were a little cracked.
Camel figurine, by Lubomir Tomaszewski, 1957, produced by Ćmielów Porcelain Factory. Photo: M. Korta

Henryk Jędrasiak, Mieczysław Naruszewicz, Lubomir Tomaszewski and Hanna Orthwein began making human and animal figurines – their streamlined silhouettes seemed as if caught mid-movement. They were being produced in the biggest porcelain factories and became extremely popular.

In the style known as New Look, the figurines were a must-have for any stylish home and were the highlight of fairs and exhibitions around the globe – in New York, Chicago, Moscow and Berlin. The British magazine The Studio even presented them in their annual best design edition in 1959.


Two wooden chairs with round and low backrests, resembling the shape of a shell, The left one is brighter and has light-brown legs. The right one has black legs and a wide black stripe on the back.
Shell chairs, by Teresa Kruszewska, 1956, produced by the ŁAD Artists’ Co-operative. Left: from the coll. of National Museum in Warsaw, Photo: M. Korta, right: Photo: P. Dzienis


The opportunity to explore led Polish designers to start experimenting with plywood and wicker. Wicker had of course been used for centuries, however plywood was a relatively new material and hadn’t really been used for manufacturing furniture in Poland. The flexibility and endurance of plywood gave designers free rein for experimenting with construction. The artistic possibilities of plywood were first explored by Jan Kurzątkowski, a designer from the ŁAD Artists’ Co-operative and teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. His disciples continued his work.  Jan Krzątkowski’s student Teresa Kruszewska debuted with a set of furniture for the home.

It included the iconic Muszelka (Shell) chair. Shaped like a shell, the seat itself was made of plywood and sat on a sturdy steel frame. Then, Kruszewska wound colourful plastic string around the frame and seat over and over and over, creating a ‘woven’ chair. It came in a variety of colours and people absolutely loved it! Woven stools, baskets and even knock-off Muszelka chairs soon followed. The Muszelka chair stood out in 1956 and quickly became an icon of Polish design. Even though it was admired and presented at numerous trade shows around the globe, it was never actually put into mass production.


Maria Chomentowska, another one of Krzątkowski’s students, also used plywood in her designs. In search of a comfortable seat, the designer tried to take full advantage of plywood’s flexibility. The Płucka (Little Lungs) chair’s backrest consisted of two parts which, in shape, resembled… little lungs. Connected by a small leather strap, they gave the material some give and the user could lean back comfortably. The seat itself was also an interesting shape – its distinctive incisions allowed for the backrest to be hooked into the seat and almost seamlessly join the legs. The Płucka chair was both extremely simple and extraordinarily decorative. A wise and wonderful use of plywood.

“I would like to remind you that modern furniture should not be a capital investment: solid, expensive, bought to last a lifetime. It should be painless for its owner’s pocket and change with the needs of the household.”
— Maria Chomentowska

A wooden chair Its legs are light-brown, while the seat and a lungs-shaped two-part backrest are black.
Lungs chair, by Maria Chomentowska, 1956, produced by the Furniture Factory at the Institute of Industrial Design. Photo: M. Korta
A chair made of wood. It has black legs and a backrest with two black vertical lines and a bright, slightly curved horizontal section on top.
A587 Chairs, by Marian Sigmund, 1958, produced by Bielskie Zakłady Przemysłu Drzewnego in Jasienica. Photo: M. Korta


The A587 chair designed by Marian Sigmund, one of the founders of the ŁAD Artists’ Co-operative, was intended for export to Great Britain to be used as a school seat. The bentwood structure, both from plywood and solid beech wood, as well as the contrast between natural and black-dyed wood made the chair unique in its simplicity and beauty. Pupils today would be lucky to spend their school days in such a classy chair! Originally designed in 1957, the A587 chair was produced in 1958 at the Bentwood Furniture Factory in Jasienica. The factory, today the well-known Polish furniture company PAGED, came out with a new edition of the chair for its 100th anniversary in 2017.


Władysław Wołkowski was known as the ‘Michelangelo of Wicker’. A fascination with nature lay at the core of Wołkowski’s aesthetic and philosophical concepts. Wołkowski weaved, braided and pulled, looking for harmony in asymmetry. He never used existing designs. His Chuligan (Hooligan) chair is precisely that – a hooligan. Completely out of whack, not in keeping with standard expectations and kind of cheeky, one can’t help but be mesmerised by it. It is living proof that even something as simple as a wicker chair can be surprising.

An asymmetrical wicker chair resembling a letter G.
THE SWIRLY or MODERN, armchair, designed by Władysław Wołkowski, end of the 1950s or 1970s, Collections of the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski. Photo: M. Korta
An asymmetrical wicker chair resembling a letter Q.
A wicker armchair from the Steeds set, by Władysław Wołkowski, 1967. photo: M. Korta, the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz

“I can’t stand the monotony of technological civilisation, of industrial production standards. In nature there is infinite diversity and great harmony. There are no two leaves that are the same on a tree, and yet there are thousands of them on the tree.”
— Władysław Wołkowski

A wicker chair. Its seat is placed surprisingly low, while its back is disproportionately tall and resembles a gothic tower.
A wicker chair, designed by Władysław Wołkowski. photo: M. Korta, the Museum of the Work of Władysław Wołkowski in Olkusz
A wooden chair in the shape of a young deer. The back of the chair resembles the animal's face, while the seat resembles its body. The legs are long and slim, with a wide spread.
DOE chair for children, designed by Olgierd Szlekys, Władysław Wincze, 1943, produced by the Experimental Furniture Workshop in Kraków, photo: courtesy of DESA. Photo: Michał Korta, the National Museum in Warsaw
The edges of a black chair are slightly curved. It features two cutouts on the back. There are no armrests, and one base connects the three legs.
Chair, by Jan Kurzątkowski, 1956, produced by the ŁAD Artists' Co-operative. Photo: M. Korta
An armchair and a table are depicted in this image. On the left, there is an armchair. It is red and constructed out of a supple cloth. It has tiny, black legs. The black armrests, which are also extensions of the two back legs, are rather short. The table has a transparent glass tabletop with a round wooden shelf beneath it. It stands on three black, stick-like legs.
Armchair & table from a set of home furniture, by Danuta Kowalska, Roman Lisowski, 1958, produced by CPLiA in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Photo: courtesy of DESA
A basket-like chair made of steel and rope resembles the one from the previous photograph. This time its ropes are yellow.
Armchair, designed by Witold Popławski, 1958, produced by the Experimental Furniture Workshop in Kraków. Photo: courtesy of DESA
A chair. Its colour is green and it resembles a basket. Its seat and back are woven out of dyed rope. Its legs and frame structure are made of steel painted black.
Armchair, designed by Teresa Kruszewska, 1958, Cooperative KOLOR for CPLiA. Photo: courtesy of DESA

Acquiring plastics behind the Iron Curtain was not easy. Despite these difficulties, a few Polish designers managed to obtain them and began experimenting. Furniture with elements made from materials such as igelit, a popular polyvinyl chloride at the time, began to pop up in cafés and at exhibitions in big cities. More and more often, Poles were asking where and when they would be able to buy these chairs and tables for themselves. The biggest show of plastic furniture took place in 1958 in Kraków. It was the first time that people could not only admire it, but also buy it. They could take pieces created by Jan Szczurek, Halina Cieślicka, Maria Michajłow and Witold Popławski, straight home to their living and dining rooms. Resin was even harder to get your hands on. But there were always exceptions! And this exception lead to the creation of one of Poland’s most iconic designs.


The Armchair was ahead of its time. And people loved it. The chair was so popular it was featured in a number of Polish movies and a French furniture manufacturer was even interested in producing it. Modzelewski obtained a patent but was banned from selling it to the French by the communist regime. And so, in the following decades, the chair was only made-to-order. This instant icon had to wait half a century to finally go into mass production. Modzelewski’s iconic design remains fresh and compelling to this day. The Polish company VZÓR took it upon themselves to bring the armchair to today’s consumers. In 1958, despite plastics and resins being so inaccessible and Polish designers being relatively uninterested in the technology used for mass production, the artist and designer Roman Modzelewski created a surprising armchair. What’s so special about it? Well, it was one of the earliest Polish examples of polyester-glass laminate furniture. And that’s not all. Its fully-closed organic form was like nothing else created at the time – it impressed even Le Corbusier himself! Modzelewski created an armchair that was both beautiful and comfortable, and managed to avoid the imperfections of the material.

A plastic red curvy armchair with four black, short legs sticking out from the unified main structure.
Armchair, by Roman Modzelewski, 1958. Photo: P. Dzienis, from the private collection of Krystyna Łuczak-Surówka



Modernity took over more than Polish households – modernity was taking to the roads.  Cars and scooters were also a fashion, or rather design, statement! As Poland’s first post-war car, the SYRENA was created to be a popular car – and it quickly lived up to its potential. Designed by the FSO (Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, in English: Passenger Automobile Factory) under the supervision of Stanisław Panczakiewicz, it significantly changed Poland’s roads.

The SYRENA SPORT from 1960 was designed by Cezary Nawrot who wanted to create the ‘car of his dreams’: red, sleek with a modern, sophisticated body modelled from laminate. Poles were ready for a classy car for two, but, yet again, the Polish People’s Republic believed that it was ‘too extravagant’. This dream car never hit the open road. At the end of the 1970s, the ‘the most beautiful car behind the Iron Curtain’ was officially destroyed. The red convertible was to remain, like true mermaids, the stuff of legends.

A black and white photograph. In the foreground, there is a two-door car with no backseats for the passengers. A middle-aged man is behind the wheel. Beside the car, another middle-aged man, wearing a trench coat, can be seen. Behind them is a modernistic little building with a prominent white roof. There are two transmission towers visible in the background.
SYRENA SPORT, car, 1950s, National Digital Archives


The famous Italian Vespa was first introduced in 1946 by Piaggio. Everyone longed to hop on a Vespa and ride around without a care in the world! And so, Poland needed it’s own ‘wasp’. The Polish Osa, designed by Krzysztof Brun, Jerzy Jankowski, Tadeusz Mathia and Krzysztof Meisner, was slightly bigger and a bit sturdier than its Italian cousin. By the mid-1960s, the Warsaw Motorcycle Factory had already produced several thousand of the scooters. Its 14-inch wheels and solid suspension meant that the Osa did well not only on Poland’s uneven roads but also in rallies in Italy and Great Britain. The Osa became extremely popular – it was everywhere: on the roads, in the press and even in movies. It became synonym for youth and social change.


Although at the time, parking may not have been a problem, Poland dreamed of a micro-car. An affordable, compact car for one and all. The SMYK car wasn’t Poland’s first attempt at a micro-car, it was, however, the most intriguing one. What made it so special? Produced in 1957 by the Design Office of the Automotive Industry, with a body designed by Janusz Zygadlewicz, the SMYK had no side doors – they were removed to make the lightweight body more solid. So how were you supposed to get in the car? The door was at the front of the car, which meant you had to open the ‘hood’ to get in. The car could fit two adults in the front and two kids (or one more adult) in the back seat. It had no trunk. Despite its ingenuity, people didn’t exactly fall in love with it – only about 20 of them were produced. Today, the SMYK can be seen at the Museums of Technology in Warsaw and Szczecin, as well as in private collections.


A small, brightly coloured analogue camera with curving corners that resembles a toy and a brown leather casing next to it. Grey, cream, and green dominate the camera, with yellow accents. It is vertically oriented. The lens is in the centre of the object, with a viewfinder above it and an ALFA red logo in between. The film advance lever is on the right side.
ALFA camera, designed by Krzysztof Meisner, Olgierd Rutkowski, 1958, Warsaw Photo-Optical Works. Photo: courtesy of DESA


With its colourful exterior and rounded edges, the Alfa Camera, designed by Krzysztof Meisner and Olgierd Rutkowski, looked more like a toy than an actual camera. Made out of plastic and aluminium and available in a number of bright colours, the Alfa was made with young photography lovers in mind. It was easy to use and handy, but there was one peculiar feature. 

Or at least it was quite unusual at the time. The Alfa’s buttons and control panels were positioned in such a way that people were forced to take vertical photos. Although today, with smartphones, this seems absolutely normal, in 1961 it was a truly big change. Despite this unusual set up, people loved the camera. Soon Alfa 2 came out and was also a bestseller.


AKAT-1 was the world’s first transistor differential equation analyser. Meaning…? In short, this analogue computer, created by Polish engineer Jacek Karpiński in 1959, was a device that could solve relatively complex differential equations in real time. Karpiński’s invention was actually one of the very first personal computers ever made! In 1960, Karpiński won a UNESCO competition for the most promising young talents in the field of electronics. This opened up many opportunities for Karpiński and he chose to study at Harvard. When he was still a student, he was offered a job at IBM, but he turned them down – he wanted to return to Poland.

The incredible feat of modern technology that was the AKAT-1 needed suitable ‘packaging’. Stanisław Miedza-Tomaszewski, Andrzej Jan Wróblewski, Stanisław Siemek and Olgierd Rutkowski created a computer that looked like something straight out of a futuristic movie: a table with a built-in control panel and monitor covered in a streamlined plastic casing on splayed metal legs. The AKAT-1 was not his only groundbreaking invention. In the revolutionary 1971 K-202 mini-computer, he took all the computing power that once needed to be housed in two closets and put it into the equivalent of a shoebox. IBM’s personal computer wasn’t introduced until 1981, while Karpiński’s computers were ready to go over a decade earlier…

An old type of computer machine with many different elements combined into one unified body. It is grey and stands on four wide-spread legs. The lower panel has many levers, knobs, and gauges of various colours and shapes. The white writing says' Akat-I'. Above the panel, there is a relatively small screen, curvy on the edges.
AKAT-1 computer, casing designed by Stanisław Miedza-Tomaszewski, Andrzej Jan Wróblewski, Stanisław Siemek & Olgierd Rutkowski from the Artistic Research Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, 1959. Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Technology in Warsaw