Over recent years friends and design fiends Harriet Williams and Sylwia Newman have been keeping their eyes peeled for coveted pieces of graphic design history from Poland. Collated together in their joint venture of Projekt 26, a shop and collection of original mid-century posters, the pair’s efforts provide insight into an area of graphic design rich in history and undoubtable creative flair.
Harriet and Sylwia’s introduction to this relatively niche area of graphic design began both jointly and separately. Growing up in rural Poland it was Sylwia who first started the collection, ironically discovering Polish posters upon moving to London in her early twenties. Spotting a poster by Romauld Socha from 1977, Sylwia “fell for the design instantly”. Drawn to the piece for its creative detail, it was also her own heritage with gave the poster a “special significance” with Sylwia further explaining: “Life in Communist Poland was tough, and to discover this incredible art heritage was unexpected, and meant a lot.”
For Harriet, a designer with “a passion for naive-style illustration and midcentury design”, it was during a chance cup of tea at Sylwia’s that she came into contact with this nugget of design. In particular it was a piece by Jodlowski she spied which garnered interest, noting how from “a design perspective it was also love at first sight!” Soon after, both were fully fascinated with Polish posters, particularly as they jointly learned “more and more about the historical circumstances in which they were produced, and the story behind them,” honing in on work created between 1945-1989, known as the Polish School of Posters.
This period of Polish graphic design not only offers a wealth of creative inspiration to learn from, but acts as a historical document from the time of their creation. Each piece has “depth and complexity” the pair point out, “because they reflect the soul of a nation who’d been suffering years of great loss and repression.” In turn, the aesthetic choices depicted on the majority of these posters “symbolise freedom, or the struggle for it,” and therefore signify “the defiance of the artistic community, and the Polish people,” the pair continues. “[The posters] are packed with subversive wit, hidden meaning, and social comment – just enough to get the message across, but to also get past censors. As Stalin famously said: ‘applying Communism to Poland is like trying saddle a cow!’”
The collection of posters also represents some of the only visual art accessible during this time. The Communist state “decried ‘fine art’ as bourgeois fluff and private art galleries weren’t allowed,” says the duo, placing the posters in the position of “the only permitted forms of artistic expression”. Despite these restrictions on creativity, the posters themselves were considered a “very useful, cheap propaganda tool for the government,” meaning the artists commissioned by the state were paid well, “and, surprisingly, in a country under strict rule, largely left free to let their imaginations run wild.” In turn, for over 30 years Poland’s greatest artists and designers “poured their creative talents into this one medium”. Their collective work pushed the possibilities of what a poster could be from a design perspective, elevating it to a “recognised artistic medium,” says Harriet and Sylwia. “These unique circumstances are unlikely to ever be repeated.”
As a result when looking at the posters in comparison to designs from other areas of Europe and beyond, the Polish artists’ visual tendencies appear wholly different to any trends of the time. This approach is distinctly described by a founding father of the Polish School of Posters, Professor Tomaszewski, as: “We weren’t allowed to do it the way we did it in the West, but also we didn’t want to.” Stylistically references are therefore vast, with Harriet and Sylwia describing the collection as having no shared visual style. Surrealism, Cubism and Pop Art inspirations can each be spotted, but the driving force was always concept.
This approach also reflects the role of creatives in Poland during this period. Unlike today, there were no defined divisions between alternate practitioners. The lines between graphic designers and fine artists were blurred, with “no snobbishness around the definitions,” Harriet and Sylwia point out. Consequently, the Polish poster artists developed a unique mix of “a painterly and illustrative approach with bold and striking type,” describe the pair. “Instead of using standard type-setting the Polish posters tend to feature hand drawn type, which is interpreted into the overall design – groundbreaking at the time.”
Reflecting on the collection they’ve gathered so far, as well as the historical knowledge they’ve gained from the pieces at hand, Harriet and Sylwia still “can’t believe how few people know about this incredible design legacy,” they tell us. The aim of their collection is therefore to simply help “tell the story of Poland’s art and design heritage, and celebrate the incredible artists and designers who created these posters.”
As a result, when in contact with the collection the pair encourage viewers to pause and think: “About history, about freedom, and not to take it for granted that our world’s a hopeful place. We’d like to blast away misconceptions about Eastern Europe and Polish people. Ultimately we’d like people to find joy in the art. The posters inspire us and we’d like other people to find magic and inspiration from them too."
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.