Iron Curtain era classics coming back into vogue
Poland's design culture is blossoming with classic furniture coming back in to fashion
Afew years ago, a young man in Poland reupholstered his grandmother's chair.
"Why are you bothering with that old thing?" asked his mother-in-law.
"It's retro," the young man replied.
The chair in question was the 366 easy chair, designed by Józef Chierowski in 1962. It was small and compact, with distinctively scissor-shaped legs, joined to the seat by visible screws. In Eastern Bloc Poland, those chairs were ubiquitous.
The story began in the early 1960s, when a large furniture factory in Swiebodzice was destroyed by fire. This created an urgent demand for furniture that could be quickly produced, using as few materials as possible. Józef Chierowski's design for the 366 easy chair ticked all the boxes. It went into mass production immediately.
The chairs were made in bulk, upholstered in grey and absolutely everybody had one. Over the 20-year period of its production, more than 500,000 of the 366 easy chairs were sold throughout the Eastern Bloc. That's why Maciej Cypryk's mother-in-law dismissed the chair. It reminded her of poverty and a time when there wasn't any choice.
But Cypryk was young enough to see that the 366 easy chair had classic qualities. For the older generation, the chair was an unwelcome reminder of times of hardship; for the younger, it was an "abandoned icon of Polish design". He also found that his grandmother's chair looked a lot better when it was upholstered in a fresh contemporary fabric. His friends admired what he had done. They all wanted one too, but Cypryk soon realised that re-upholstering vintage chairs wasn't going to keep bread on the table. He and his wife, Agata Górka, began to look into reissuing the design, which had been out of production for 30 years.
Eventually, they purchased the license from Józef Chierowski's daughter. By 2014, the 366 easy chair was back in production. The design was slightly modified. The characteristic visible screws didn't make it into the contemporary version. Neither did the cheap upholstery in battleship grey. The classic 366 easy chair (from €595) now comes in fabric of pretty much any colour that takes your fancy and has been reinvented as a rocking chair (from €678), a children's chair (from €395), and a double seater (from €995). The Bunny chair (from €646), another of Chierowski's designs, has been brought back into production. From some angles the arms resemble a rabbit's ears. The range also includes several chairs by up-and-coming Polish designers, which is why the brand is known as 366 Concept.
The Irish supplier for the 366 range is Moodlii, a furniture retailer that launched in Ireland this April. Neal Bailey, one of Moodlii's directors, lives in Poland where several of their suppliers are based. Bailey reports that their furniture has had a good reaction from Ireland's substantial Polish community, many of whom are drawn to the designs before they realise their origins. "Polish people are proud of their homes," he says. "They're more willing to spend on furniture than the Irish and they complain less about the price! They understand that they're buying something of value."
But given their social and economic background, relatively speaking Polish designs tend to be moderately priced. They are also well suited to people who don't have a lot of space. The size of the 366 easy chair (72 cm high x 62 cm wide) is one of its selling points.
Furniture from Moodlii is not Ikea-cheap, but Bailey feels that it works for people who want something that looks iconic, but that doesn't cost thousands of euro. Polish furniture has a similar aesthetic to Scandinavian design, but tends to be cheaper. Some Scandinavian classics are through the roof. Arne Jacobsen's Egg chair (1958), for example, costs €7,011 from Reside, another new Irish furniture retailer (it's also available from Lost Weekend). The Egg chair is meticulously made - much of the value is in the craftsmanship - but relatively few people have that much money to spend on a chair.
Polish designs are also much less well-known than their Western equivalent. Once again, politics played its part. The Egg chair, which comes from the Danish company Fritz Hansen, has been in continuous production since the 1950s but many Polish designs of the same period never made it beyond the Iron Curtain. The RM58 armchair (1958) was designed in Poland by Roman Modzelewski, who intended for it to be made in an innovative synthetic material that was not easily available under Communism. The project foundered and the chair did not make it past the prototype stage until 2012 when it was produced by Vzór, a company dedicated to bringing mid-century Polish designs back to life. It's available from Moodlii either as the designer intended (€895) or in a matt finish (€482).
In the last five years, Poland's design culture has blossomed, with the revival of old furniture designs and award-winning work from emerging designers. The Tulli armchair, designed by Tomek Rygalik, was awarded a Red Dot Award in 2016 (that's the design equivalent of winning an Oscar). With subtly curving armrests, it's inspired by a Cold War classic, the Tulipan armchair designed by Teresa Kruszewska in 1973. It's produced by the Polish furniture brand, Noti.
Another Polish design, the Callipers table from Swallow's Tail Studio in Wroclaw, received an iF Design Award in 2016 (that's another prestigious international prize). The name comes from the legs, which are shaped like a pair of compasses. This, too, is available from Moodlii where it costs from €1,195 to €1,295, depending on the size.
If this trajectory continues, Polish design will soon become a thing. Just now, it's fairly niche. Those with the money to invest in serious design icons tend to play it safe with mid-century and contemporary classics without that Eastern Bloc heritage. If you've got the budget, there's plenty in this category at Reside, a new furniture retailer based in Dublin. This is an offshoot of the workplace interiors company, Walls To Workstations, with redesigned showrooms by the interior designer Suzie McAdam. "She helped us transition the showroom from office furniture to homeware," says Deirdre McAuliffe of Reside. The offering includes some mid-century pieces, like Eero Saarinen's 1946 Womb hair (€5,252), produced by Knoll, and the Gubi Grasshoppa Floor Lamp (€460), designed by the Swedish architect, Greta Grossman in 1947. Reside also has some classics-in-the-making, including Fritz Hansen's new Lune Sofa (€4,800), designed by Jamie Hayon, and Moroso's Take A Line For A Walk Chair (€2,496) designed by Alfredo Häberli in 2002. The chair is named for the artist Paul Klee, who famously described drawing as "taking a line for a walk."
You'll find Moodlii in the CHQ building in Dublin's IFSC until 23 July and at moodlii.com; furniture from Reside is on view at Walls to Workstations in Baldonnell (by appointment only), see residebyw2w.ie. See also lostweekend.ie, vzor.com, noti.pl, and 366concept.com.