The Poles quite often kill things with kindness. The event, which began as an opportunity to support Polish brands and find something unique, has already transformed into a holiday shopping mall. Right now, people are killing the socialist era design with kindness, and it will soon be dead – says Krystyna Łuczak Surówka. We talk to her and Zuzanna Skalska about the Polish design in the times of
This conversation was published in the first issue of the printed Architecture Snob on 07/20/2021. Magazine available at shopmies.com.
The Łódź Design Festival has recently published a list of the Must Have category prize-winners, featuring products of over seventy companies. How many of them do you think will survive beyond the pandemic?
Zuzanna Skalska: What I don’t see on this list is bread, water, and minimal pay, so I figure that these aren’t the ‘must-haves’ we need for the coming years.
This seems to be the trouble with festivals and other design-related events in Poland – they are out of touch with reality.
ZS: I need to defend the Gdynia Design Days here, because I am a member of its programming board. For three years now, we have been setting a guiding theme for the exhibitions and conferences, what in turn has translated into increased audience. We no longer put on display chairs, lamps, and tables, or what consumers often understand by the word ‘design’.
Krystyna Łuczak-Surówka: It is crucial to know what we are talking about. I like the fact that design has various aspects, and I don’t have anything against festivals. The trouble begins when they lose their identity. We need places where we can interact with products directly, and places where we confront major issues of the industry, which are of no interest to customers who hire designers to create their interiors. We also need space for reflection. Without these various aspects, design cannot develop.
Poland is in need of exhibitions that tackle specific issues; we don’t have enough material around which we could organize a debate.
KŁ-S: I am a historian by education and I often hear that in Poland we don’t have a history of this or that, which of course is nonsense resulting from ignorance. I don’t expect everyone to have historical knowledge, but if someone is fascinated by a certain period, they should also know what came before and understand that this period didn’t appear out of nowhere. Our national virtue is that we are able to unite in the face of a problem, but when things go well, we tend to fall into conflicts. When I began my career twenty years ago, I was convinced that no matter if you specialized in industrial design, individual design, or design philosophy, it was clear for everybody that we were all on the same team. I remember a debate in Warsaw about creating the Design Centre; the project failed, because the main concern turned out to be who would become the director. I spent two years wondering what the reason of our inability to cooperate was. To me, what counts is that a job is done well, and the kind of the job is secondary. And yet, most of us keep spending time talking about individual interests, not design.
ZS: We have got plenty of materials, but to have a debate one needs partners who also have something to say. Let us imagine that we agreed that design has various aspects and we know what we are talking about. Then there is the context: in the Eastern Bloc design has been developing differently than in Western Europe. We had an amazing opportunity at the turn of the 21st century, but, unfortunately, we lost it due to our national, genetic sense of inferiority and greed. By the end of the 1990s, design became a discussion about form and material on the one hand, and a strategic tool for business on the other: Western Europe began to outsource production. What mattered was a brand name slapped on a product; it was treated as a quality mark. This is what we missed out on. Polish companies could have begun to build their brands faster. We were unable to do that because of societal inequality – few people could afford anything. I think we still don’t have a proper middle class in Poland. First of all, we have a surplus of people with higher education, but no high culture. We are also faking our wealth: many people have taken bank loans and are up to their teeth in debt. Our greed, as I have already said, made us all want to become rich, and our wealth has to be reflected by fancy things we can flaunt.
KŁ-S: I often ask people why they splashed out on a new car, while their home or office, where they spend so much time, is in a state of neglect. The answer is that everybody sees your car, while not everyone gets invited to your place. The Polish tradition of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is still alive.
ZS: This has spoiled the development of design in Poland. Right now, we are at the point that the West reached in the early 2000s. After the 2008 crisis, Western Europe began to live more modestly. Material things have lost their value: they were deposed by experiences – going out to eat together, traveling, concerts. This led to the creation of service design. In Poland, brand building began only a few years ago. We are only starting to feel proud about the ‘Made in Poland’ tag. Consumers are also changing, which has resulted in a boom for events such as Targi Rzeczy Ładnych, where you can find unusual products.
KŁ-S: This boom is already over. The Poles quite often kill things with kindness. The event, which began as an opportunity to support Polish brands and find something unique, has already transformed into a holiday shopping mall. Right now, people are killing the socialist era design with kindness, and it will soon be dead. This bugs me. In recent years, I have taken part in numerous audits of the European Funds. There are quite a lot of successful Polish companies that got stuck somewhere along the way and are reaching out for support now. When we talk to them, it occurs that they have no idea what was behind their achievements; they ‘just happened’. When people are unable to describe what and why they do, I ask them to try and explain their work to a child. If they don’t understand their DNA, they may think that experts try to impose something on them. A brand, a person, or a group of people needs to know what they want and apply themselves to it. Us, experts, are often treated as foreign bodies. On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me – in the end, a lot depends on us, e.g. if they are awarded the grant or not. On the other hand, I am astounded with how much time I need to spend to overcome their resistance. I place great hope in the young generation. My students already have a different mindset and different ambitions. They don’t want to create another IKEA or H&M. They want to work for smaller groups of people, but on their own terms.
ZS: This is also a result of the awareness of the market situation. Only a handful of companies hire designers. Most of Polish entrepreneurs don’t care about the well-being of others but are guided with the cutthroat capitalist logic.
KŁ-S: I am most annoyed with competitions for young designers. Instead of pay they reward you with prestige.
Zuzanna Skalska; Photo: Zuzanna Matusiak; Studio Matusiak & Eddy Wenting
I have a sense that 90% of Polish companies operate in this manner.
KŁ-S: Where will this take us? We cannot go on like this. Serious companies know that design is work and they are willing to pay for it. Let us agree that this is the norm. It is unfortunate, however, that many companies treat this kind of work as ‘pleasure’. There are many companies, including Polish design fairs, that think I work for them only because I like my work. Offers of payments in kind are becoming increasingly more popular, probably due to the growth of the blogosphere, but I am not going to open a design shop. Also, a great deal of marketing is an empty shell; for instance, there are managers out there who expect thirty publications a month. To be honest, I prefer to have information about me published once, but in a publication from which readers would learn something new and get quality content. I don’t need thirty mentions in the tabloid press.
Find me at least one magazine in Poland that publishes original texts about design. Most of them operate on a copy-paste basis. It happened to me once that even the phrase ‘Best Regards, Marcin Szczelina’ was copied. Again, this is about quality of communication, this time in the context of the media.
ZS: Let us not be so unsparing. I would like to defend the Label magazine. They write their texts themselves, publish original articles and photoshoots, etc. This shows that original magazines that don’t reprint articles or copy press releases exist. Unfortunately, most of the magazines content is sponsored… Marketing goes hand in hand with the quality and value of design. The word ‘marketing’ suggests that it has something to do with sales and the market, while in fact marketing is primarily about building value. These are two completely different definitions, and the first one prevails in Poland. In our country, the term ‘marketing specialist’ is associated with somebody who sells things – a car dealer, while marketing departments exist to organize events to which journalists are invited and offered alcohol and bags of goodies to write about a new washing machine.
However, cooperating with the media is essential. When browsing through various magazines we often come across so-called ‘native advertising’ – sponsored content passing off as real, original articles. Sometimes they comprise up to 70% of the magazine. How to get rid of this pathology?
KŁ-S: I don’t know. There was a time when I would be asked to write this type of texts quite regularly, but it never appealed to me. I sometimes post products that I am fond of on my Instagram and immediately people ask if I am paid to do so, or comment that I should be paid for it. But why? If I am enthusiastic about a product and use it myself, I have the full right to recommend it just because I want to, and not because I am paid to do so.
ZS: I would like to refer to the context once again. In Poland, we have urban and rural areas. Let us say that 10 million people live in large urban agglomerations and have wider access to culture. 26 million inhabitants have access to one newsstand if it hasn’t been closed yet, and to a TV showing TV series. The interior design present in these series shapes the taste of the Polish provinces. No matter which magazine we choose, people don’t understand its content.
I beg to differ. I once used to write in pseudo-intellectual language, struggling to use sophisticated words myself. Today I think that the real challenge is to write communicative texts that also appeal to professionals. Maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough people who can write such texts?
ZS: Education is key. An average person will only notice what is useful for them. A well-designed bus station is one where you get off a bus and immediately know where to buy a ticket, even without knowing the local language. People will understand the value of such design, if you show them how it works – and that is missing, because no designer undertakes to design the whole ticket buying experience. This is what UX designers focus on, because other fields of design lack a comprehensive approach. This comes down to the third P word – beside ‘pay’ and ‘prestige’, there is also ‘public procurement’. This is a source of major problems, because it is always the cheapest bidder who gets the contract. We are surrounded by the cheapest versions of reality.
KŁ-S: This is delusional. It doesn’t matter that something is cheaper to buy, if its depreciation and servicing is so expensive, that you will have to give it up in the end.
ZS: Of course, but maintenance and depreciation weren’t covered by the contract. I thought that we would be done with tendering by the end of the early 2000s. Now it is 2020, and here we are still stuck in the age of public procurement. Even now, in the time of the coronavirus, medical face masks are bought through tendering procedure.
KŁ-S: Allow me to get back to education and communication. During my studies, my role-model was professor Jerzy Porębski. I will never forget his first lecture, which he gave showing just one slide on the screen. It was a map of Europe, and the lecture was about the influence of world wars on the migration of artists in the world. It was phenomenal. ‘This is how my studies should look like’ I thought. My rule is that when I teach, I try not to use difficult words, and if I use one, I explain it so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. The more people understand me, the better. I don’t come to class to listen to my own voice. This is why I am far from imagining an ‘average reader’, because there is no such person. Editors often turn down texts that they don’t find challenging enough, because they think their audience won’t be interested. As a result, we are all being misguided! Television has a large share in this, regardless of the channel. I don’t want design to end up like Polish fashion, which will never liberate itself from the omnipresent step and repeat banners. I don’t want us to talk about the so-called ‘pretty things’. They may be pleasant for the eye, but they should be smart in the first place. Wisdom doesn’t manifest itself in using difficult words and pretending to know it all. It is extremely important to me that the item we buy says something about us. I want people to be aware that design is for them, but they also have to give something in return: say openly what they need. It isn’t about pleasing me, I want to feel that a given person made a conscious choice.
The cover of even the most popular magazine reaches fewer people than a show on a small cable channel. The power of television cannot be overstated, yet design is present only in the form of breakfast TV product presentations or home makeover reality shows. This is all just decoration.
KŁ-S: I was invited to several job interviews to work for TV stations. I was expected to be a nice lady who gets excited over pretty things. I put forward an idea of a show that would combine the past and present-day Polish design with traveling around Poland. We would go off-road, examine the objects, talk to guests. Two channels rejected my idea. I have no regrets, because I don’t want to sit in a TV studio, and I don’t think I have the right to tell people from what cup they should their drink tea. Maybe this is what sells. I have no influence on people’s expectations.
Krystyna Łuczak Surówka; Photo: Hubert Warulik
So, are we supposed to ignore such occurrences? Do you really believe you cannot change anything? I can even comprehend all this sales and marketing pressure – fairs and so on. People make money and make ends meet. But when talented, smart, well-educated designers enter such contexts – also the young, aspiring ones, they suddenly start to speak the marketing language. Is there no room for a different conversation about design?
KŁ-S: I am a natural-born idealist and sometimes I come to regret it; I have been telling myself for a long time that I won’t save the world. Not that I don’t want to – I just don’t have such powers. When someone tells me that I should use my position of authority, it reminds me of times when I did, and then those who should be interested didn’t give a fig. Recently, after many years, we lived to see the creation of the Gallery of Polish Design in the National Museum. It was the first gallery of this kind in Poland, so I was looking forward to its opening. I went there with my students and couldn’t hide my disappointment and anger when I saw a plagiarised piece as part of the exhibition. I posted about it on Facebook, but only one of the contemporary designers whose works are at the exhibition expressed interest. So far nobody has done anything about it. That was the day I decided I wouldn’t play Don Quixote.
ZS: People in Poland are afraid of criticizing others, in particular their fellow professionals. We tend to take criticism personally, and we need to learn that it is addressed at projects or situations, not people. We live in a very polarised environment; if I dare to criticise something, I am as good as dead. Unfortunately, that is my impression of the Polish design scene; it is full of cases of turning people one against the other, there is plagiarism, but also, by way of contrast, paying mutual lip service to one another and awarding ‘Design Oscars’ to proverbial friends and relatives. Meanwhile, the house is on fire: our bus stops still give no shelter from wind and rain, public toilets are clogged, and trains remain smelly. There is no design at all where it is most needed.
In the design community there aren’t enough people who would like to be socially engaged. We are stuck trying to prove to ourselves that we have caught up with the West. The motto of the last Warsaw Home Expo was “I am”. The text read that the time had come to surround ourselves with pretty objects. In 2019, this is not enough. I have nothing against Warsaw Home, I just don’t understand why leading Polish designers would meet and, contrary to what we see around us, say that everything is all right.
KŁ-S: Another p-word in Polish is ‘praca’: “work”. It takes years of work to create anything. Sometimes you have to wait out the hard times and strive for your goals in spite of everything. In Poland we often feel like skipping this stage. I once heard that Warsaw is supposed to be the second Milan or Cologne. This won’t happen ‘just like that’.
ZS: European cities are a result of fifty-years of post-war tradition. When the seventh edition of Dutch Design Week was awarded more funds from the city and from the province, we sat down to rethink our strategy. The first sentence we wrote down on the board was: ‘We don’t want to be the second Milan’. We want to create our own identity, not copy someone else’s. If you want to do our own thing, you have to get rid of your inferiority complex, and this requires time. Traveling between the two countries, I noticed that Poles constantly compare the situation in Poland and abroad. Foreign celebrities are invited to fairs, and receive thousands of zlotys for their appearance, while the Polish panellists are expected to work for free. I once signed a contract for a speech and a few weeks before the event I was informed that the director decided that there would be no remuneration for the speakers, because prestige should be a reward enough. I replied that I will use my prestige to say no.
KŁ-S: A couple of years ago, three months before the kick-off of one of Polish trade fairs, I was offered the job of its programme director. I declined because there wasn’t enough time to make it work, but I said I could try in a year. After a year, two trade fairs asked me the same question. A couple of months into the talks, it turned out that they didn’t budget any money for my remuneration. They wanted me to volunteer. I said no.
However, these events still take place, which means there are still people out there, who agree to work for exposure or barter arrangements.
KŁ-S: I really have nothing against such trade fairs. This is business and it is supposed to bring profits, but the people involved should be treated fair. Meanwhile, everyone knows the reality on the ground and they still accept it. I think people can change, so if I am not happy about something, I always make it clear. The basic thing is mutual respect. If someone does their job well, I respect them regardless of the nature of their work. One must understand that we need each other. I also have no problem with someone saying that they don’t have the money and cannot pay – as long as they are honest.
The pandemic has put us in crisis but also gave us an opportunity for potential change. Do you see any hope for the future of Polish design?
KŁ-S: For many years we have been talking about the need to change the industry – not only to slow it down, but also to completely overhaul its values. We talk about environment protection, consumerism, I read Victor Papanka [a pioneer of responsible design, born in 1923 – editor’s note] with my students. Until now we have constantly been told that this is not possible. The virus showed us it is. We don’t know yet what the consequences of this situation will be, but I think that this is an opportunity to think about what really matters. I think we will gain a new perspective on design. Design is about responding to needs, so first we must understand what our needs are. Now is a good moment to focus on it. I always tell my students that it is important not only to look, but to see. I hope that maybe someone can use this situation to look in the mirror, take a look around, and change something. There is always hope – it all depends on us.
ZS: Our economy was running like a car on a highway and suddenly it smashed against a wall. It was a leased car. The coronavirus is a reality check for many companies, events, design magazines. The ones that were just empty shells won’t survive. This will be a very painful lesson, even more difficult than the 2008 crisis for the West. But we can change our approach to design, just like the West did after 2008. Maybe this will put an end to design that is just for show – all those celebrities endorsing chairs and lampshades, and real design will appear, design that solves problems or even saves lives. We need to ask ourselves how design can be helpful to all industries and society at the moment.