A new dawn of Polish design rises at Maison et Objet
When it comes to making furniture, few nations are as prolific as the Poles. An estimated 30,000 furniture manufacturers pepper the country. The sector has mushroomed since the end of communism’s austerity, when enterprising entrepreneurs such as former electrician Jerzy Karwacki saw a gap in the market. ‘I couldn’t get the tooling, so I started by hand-making furniture in my garage.’ Thirty years on, his business DEVO has 65 employees turning out 1,500 pieces of bathroom furniture a month.
Like many businesses in Poland, DEVO is a supplier to western European and Scandinavian furniture brands. These relationships can last for decades, but there is still a sense of vulnerability. ‘We need DEVO to be well-known so it’s not reliant on one or two customers,’ explains DEVO managing director Mariusz Chrostowski, ‘because we’re not selling under our own brand, we’re replaceable.’
Karwacki hopes to put DEVO on the map with a range of ‘designer’ bathroom furniture. Called Mood, it’s the creation of up-and-coming Polish design firm Grynasz Studio. With its combining of wood and powder coated steel, and its wall-mounted hanging unit, Karwacki thinks he could have a hit on his hands. ‘Noone’s ever designed a piece of bathroom furniture like it before,’ he believes.
The tie-up with Grynasz comes courtesy of the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development. Through its Grants for Design programme, it has paired Polish designers with manufacturers in an effort to boost the industry’s design credentials. In total ten collaborations – heavily supported by EU funding – will debut at Paris’ Maison et Objet fair in September, heralding a new dawn of designed and branded Polish furniture.
Until the 1950s, it was common for Polish furniture makers to commission designers. But communism put paid to that, and with Poland’s more recent role as the China of Europe (for furniture production), the habit has been lost. The programme’s design managers including Monika Brauntsch have forged new links – introducing many of the manufacturers to their first designers. ‘The aim for each is to find a niche in the market and to create a new brand,’ she says.
As well as Grynasz Studio and DEVO, the pairings include designer Magdalena Kasprzyca with 180-strong manufacturer Lech-Pol, which makes 30,000 sofas a year. Kasprzyca’s Sofem seating is inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s hats. ‘We’d like to see it in the French market because we were one of the first Polish furniture companies to go into France,’ says Lech-Pol co-owner Alina Iwanicka. With its quirky profile and slender legs, Sofem is a far cry from Lech-Pol’s typical big, deep, cushioned L-shaped sofas, complete with adjustable headrests. But Lech-Pol’s three women owners are so taken with Kasprzyca’s input that they plan to produce the three other concepts she first presented to them.
Many of the manufacturers see their new ranges as a chance to change perceptions. ‘Rather than making money, I want to be recognised as a company that invests in design and has a connection with tradition,’ says manufacturer Slawomir Sikorski of his new offering, Splot. Designed by seven-strong Beza Projekt, the freestanding furniture references weaving (‘splot’ in Polish), a traditional craft in the Podlasie region, which is home to Sikorski Supreme Furniture. Other designers working magic are Kowalczyk-Gajda Studio, Malafor and Studio Szpunar.
Even with the design managers’ business, design and branding input, these mostly anonymous manufacturers are stepping into the unknown. But they are up for the challenge. As Karwacki of DEVO puts it: ‘I think the grant will translate into a better image of Polish furniture as more “designer”.’ §