As part of a residency held under the auspices of the East Art Mags (EAM) group of Eastern European magazines, Klára Peloušková spent ten days in Warsaw, where she explored the development of institutions and design theory in the Polish context. One of the main topics of this year’s EAM critics’ residencies is the transformation of the institutional map of visual art in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. This essay, which also serves as the output of her residency, compares the Czech and Polish situations, with a particular focus on the question of a “standard” in design and on how our ideas about high quality and available goods changed after 1989.
I travelled to Warsaw with the vague idea of comparing, or perhaps confirming, the tentative conclusions I reached in my master’s thesis about the post-socialist transformation in Czechoslovak design. Ten days is insufficient time for serious research, but at the same time it was not difficult to notice certain similarities and differences. Returning to the topic also brought me to more general considerations that hopefully have some relevance for contemporary society.
Among other issues, I was interested in the institutional foundations of design and the post-revolutionary transformation of organisations created to support its development and production. While Czechoslovak institutions such as the Institute of Apartment and Fashion Culture (Ústav pro bytovou a oděvní kulturu) or the Centre for Folk Art Production (Ústředí lidové umělecké výroby) soon perished, and the Institute of Industrial Design (Institut průmyslového designu) reincarnated into the Design Centre of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Design Centre – the latter of which still survives – the Polish Instytut Wzornictwa Przemyslowego (Institute of Industrial Design) still exists, though I encountered significant doubts about its current relevance and contribution.
The Adam Mickiewicz Institute has indisputable importance for the promotion of Polish design abroad; among other things, it sponsored this year’s Polish presentation at the Triennale di Milano. There is no institutional support of this kind in the Czech Republic, but, unlike in Poland, there is an organisation that mediates contact between designers and industry and other clients: Czechdesign, which is independent of the state authorities.
The situation in both countries is similar regarding museum exhibits of design. The National Museum in Warsaw exhibits a small fragment of its rich archives of 20th-century design in a spatially and conceptually limited “gallery of Polish design”. However, a transformation of the museum is in the works, in the form of the renovation of a late modernist hotel in Krakow, which today – perhaps as a teaser for the future exhibit – houses a shop selling Polish “designer” goods.
The situation in the Czech Republic is similar: the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has a limited design section; the Retromuzeum, in the city of Cheb, presents a particular segment of Czechoslovak production from the second half of the 20th century; and as yet we can only guess how the Moravian Gallery will approach its exhibits of applied art and design in the soon-to-be-renovated spaces of the Museum of Applied Arts. However, there is no design exhibition in either country that is complex, critical, and relevant for the present or the future, which perhaps also reflects what is understood by “design” in both countries.
However, an important contribution was the exhibition Z drugiej strony rzeczy. Polski dizajn po roku 1989 (The Other Side of Things. Polish Design After 1989) by curator Czesława Frejlich, which was held at the National Museum in Krakow in 2018 and whose equivalent in terms of ambition and scale has not yet materialised in the Czech context. The exhibition – and the publication that accompanies it – assesses the situation of Polish design from 1989 to the present. In addition to developments in “traditional” industrial design, it also captures contemporary tendencies in the field, whether these be projects reflecting the climate crisis and social issues, the decline of historical traditions or crafts, or speculative fantasies on possible futures. Interestingly, as soon as somewhat unusual forms of design are discussed, the word “designer” is often replaced with the word “artist”.
In both countries, however, design is still prevailingly perceived as something fundamentally linked to the market or the fulfilment of human needs. In relation to the post-revolutionary transformation of the economic and political system, it is commonly assumed that as soon as the economy was no longer controlled by central authorities and the laws of the free market took over, design – seen as an instrument for increasing competition – could finally flourish.
However, this is certainly not true universally: even before 1989, market mechanisms were discussed endlessly in debates about consumer goods, and even then design was seen as one of the decisive aspects of commercial (though primarily export) success. That intelligent and innovative design usually didn’t make it into production (whether due to the inflexibility of the entire system or the inability of industry to respond to high demand) is another issue. However, the post-revolutionary period also demonstrated that not even a fully free market is self-regulating and doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in the design quality of everyday goods and thus of general quality of life.
We could say that while during the period of state socialism, “good design” was primarily a matter of export or unrealised drafts, today it is a matter of luxury lifestyles. And this is despite the fact that since the economy shook off the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and people’s purchasing power began to increase again, companies have increasingly collaborated with designers, with the result that articles bearing a “design” label enjoy unprecedented popularity in both Poland and the Czech Republic.
Nevertheless, high-quality design is still a kind of added value, something exceptional and non-standard. The term “standard” seems particularly relevant in this context. Although we cannot avoid a certain measure of simplification, we could perhaps say that neither economic-political system of organisation was able to ensure a high standard of local goods that would be available to all segments of the population.
Capitalism goes hand in hand with consumerism, creating a never-ending desire that we try to extinguish by purchasing further and further variations on one and the same thing. A timeless standard for a price that isn’t driven sky-high by extravagant marketing is simply not in the interest of any of the participants – except the customers themselves. Nevertheless, back in 1972, curator and design theorist Milena Lamarová examined the meaning of consumption in the context of Czechoslovak society and its socialist economy. She saw the rise of a kind of “inverted” consumerism, and introduced the idea that it is precisely the imperfect system of the centrally planned economy that is incapable of ensuring sufficient goods and a truly high-quality and individually modifiable standard that can lead to an uncritical and hasty consumption of anything the market offers up.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the issue of the standard had considerable resonance in the vigorous – though ultimately relatively unfruitful – debates on the quality of Czechoslovak industry, particularly in relation to the eternal dilemma on the “differentiation” of production and the introduction of “fashionable novelties”. A “demanding” and complex standard that would not pay attention to short-lived trends and superficial stylings was certainly at the forefront of the debate, but even in the environment of state institutions engaged in design development (such as the Institute of Apartment and Fashion Culture), the opinion was often heard that applying fashionable elements in design is essentially inevitable, particularly with regard to foreign markets.
We also encounter efforts to achieve high standards for essential consumer goods in 1980s Poland, which at the time was in the grip of a deep economic crisis. “Standard” was the name of a research project led by the Institute of Industrial Design, which included the participation of leading Polish designers. A series of textile pattern designs for various apartment accessories was successful both at trade expos and in the specialised press, but, like many similar projects, it did not reach regular production and distribution. In Poland, just as in Czechoslovakia, the commercial divisions argued that it was unnecessary to introduce any novelties since the time-tested selection was still selling like hot cakes.
In the 1990s, the notion of a high-quality standard receded into the background, and debates about design and consumer industry gave much more prominence to topics related to the individualisation of production and advertising, which was now to aim at specific target groups with various desires and needs. The word “standard” suddenly reeked of the infamous living-room suite and unsuccessful attempts at modular furniture. The market was flooded with imported products, often of poor quality, and many factories began producing generic goods following models from abroad. Design became a means of differentiating products from the offering of the competition, wherein the defence of expert treatment, high applied value, and aesthetic form was taken up by marketing experts, who promised that good design would pay off despite its considerable expense. Product development expenses are naturally reflected in the final price, so collaborations with designers quickly became synonymous with refinement and exceptionality. They turned to something that by its nature has to be expensive and that the middle classes will perhaps one day attain (or rather the more “cultivated” segments who are willing to pay more for quality).
And not much has changed since the 1990s, apart from the fact that more people can afford to spend more and companies that consciously use design as part of their commercial strategies are prospering. A glance at a recent issue of the liberal business magazine E15 Premium only confirms this: companies such as TON or Lasvit, which in the Czech environment are considered synonymous with “good design”, are undoubtedly successful, but few people can afford their products. In the magazine, design historian Dagmar Koudelková sums up the situation in the furniture industry: “We have creative makers, good producers, and excellent products, which receive numerous awards both at home and abroad. The problem of today’s furniture market remains insufficient access to high-quality economically available furniture for the middle classes.”
Lasvit, with its range of glass products, operates at even higher economic levels, with individuals only rarely figuring among its customers: “As for individuals, they’re those who don’t really think about a million or two. […] They have yachts and beautiful houses, and they want something unique for their entrance halls or dining rooms. And I feel like there are more and more of these people in the world, particularly in Asia. For those who can afford to spend twenty thousand crowns and more, we have the standard light collections. Our global bestseller, Neverending Glory, of which we make about three thousand pieces a year, costs about fifty thousand. This clientele is larger; I think around two per cent of the world’s population can afford it without any problems. But products by order are only affordable for perhaps a hundredth of a per cent,” says Lasvit founder Leon Jakimič in an interview titled “We Sell Stories”.
While we probably can’t expect the production of a “standard” available for all from a company like Lasvit, what we consider a “standard” of good Czech design today is symptomatic – products purchased by the select few primarily for their “story”, and only secondarily for the things themselves. Of course, part of the brand is also an emphasis on local production and the development of traditional crafts. However, in connection with processes of globalisation and the low costs of mass production, traditional crafts have become a luxury in themselves, graciously supported by the wealthiest few. Today, the local production of standard goods seems an improbable oxymoron.
In the same interview, Jakimič goes on to describe the largest and most expensive Lasvit project today: twenty-tonne dragons made of glass and aluminium, and incorporating electronic and luminous elements, for the Imperial Pacific casino on the island of Saipan. Both in terms of size and the use of technology, these are absolute rarities. In this context, craft becomes a kind of self-serving fetish and a spectacular curiosity, placing it in direct opposition to the sense of everything positive that local (hand-made) production, the preservation of traditional craft, and the development of culturally specific technologies can represent under the conditions of today’s global economy and climate change.
Absurdly monumental glass dragons in a tropical paradise can also be perceived as an expression of the poor taste of a section of the economic elite often ridiculed by those endowed with greater cultural capital. But, as design theorist Agata Szydłowska convincingly demonstrates, this critique is often led from the unreflected position of intellectual superiority among the new, post-transformation middle and upper classes, who have long risen above the exuberant expressivity and wild colours characteristic of the post-revolutionary visual revenge for the decades of “socialist greyness”.
Szydłowska further cites cultural theorist Magda Szczesníak, according to whom a notion of a certain Western “normality” has established itself, marked by a restrained and rational invisibility or transparency. Whoever wanted to fit in with the new, cosmopolitan style of victorious neoliberalism had to accept the new standard, characterised by neutral, discreet forms and muted colours: “Just like neoliberalism, which pretends not to be an ideology, the international style pretends it is not a style, which relates to the need to ensure a neutral and transparent visual setting for the middle class.” The formal regime of modernism, just like the economic-political regime of neoliberal capitalism, pretends to be something objective, something essentially “standard”.
We can consider IKEA’s temperate style a new standard in this sense, expressing an aspiration to return to (Western) “normality” and good taste. The company’s “democratic design”, i.e. a somehow universal, seemingly objectively correct register of shapes and colours available to all orderly individuals and families in the wealthy parts of the world, is simply a visual and partially spatial representation of the status quo.
From where else could we expect available consumer goods other than from multinational corporations, with their diversified networks of suppliers? Even so, high-quality design is still not a matter of course. Today, just as in the past, a solid “standard” is doubtless something desirable, particularly in relation to issues involved with industrial production, such as ecological threats and social justice. At the same time, however, this seems to be a utopia that not only goes against the grain of capitalism (after all, even IKEA, as a producer of the available standard, primarily aims to increase its sales and profits) but was also unattainable within the socialist system of planning and rationalisation of production, buffeted as it was by the dilemmas and paradoxes that arose from the necessity to at least partially satisfy market imperatives (both in Poland and Czechoslovakia).
Furthermore, today’s aesthetic standard, residing in a minimalist morphology, functions as an invisible cloak hiding the logic of a hegemonic ideology and a specific – seemingly the only possible – lifestyle. If a high standard of goods is something practically unattainable under present conditions, there is virtually no escape from an aesthetic standard: Nordic minimalism à la IKEA might be the product of historical sources located in the second half of the 20th century, but today it is reproduced again and again by famous and recognised designers whose products serve as flagships for the marketing of individual brands.
Both the Polish and the Czech middle class, or at least their wealthier members, can afford a comfortable standard of living that includes many pleasant and useless things. These make them solid supporters of the existing social order. Drowning in one’s average transparency is just as easy as nestling in a warm duvet. However, while there is no need to categorically reject the dominant aesthetic style – I really love my cheap grey sofa and dull, monochrome clothes – it is important not to lose sight of the deliberateness and dense meaning of what at first seems natural, innocent, and self-evident. This is the only way to avoid the uncritical acceptance of the seeming normality brought about by the post-socialist transformation and the new neoliberal order.
According to Agata Szydłowska, the monolith of symmetrical moderation can be disturbed by a slightly ironic eclecticism. I remember fondly our old flat, with its 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s furnishings; in the kitchen, we hung a red plastic clock shaped like a cat, which moves its head and rolls its eyes in the rhythm of the seconds ticking by. This souvenir from the US, apparently tasteless – according to the established norms – is remarked on by every one of our guests, particularly today, when it stands out from what is otherwise a very standard interior. In addition to reflecting on, or challenging, established aesthetic criteria, we should also not give up on discussions about high standards for local goods available to all layers of society, even though something of this nature might seem to be beyond the boundaries of the possible. After all, we probably have no other alternative today than to try and achieve the impossible.
Translation by Ian Mikyska
Cover image: Porcelain elements Plantacja (Plantation) designed by Alicja Patanowska, 2014 : photo by Bartosz Cygan – Photography Studio, NMK_The Other Side of Things. Polish Design After 1989
 The Design Centre of the Czech Republic was cancelled by order of the Ministry of Industry and Trade under minister Martin Říman on 31 December 2007.
 Czesława Frejlich, Design in Poland after 1989, in: Idem (ed.), The Other Side of Things. Polish Design after 1989 (exhibition catalogue), National Museum in Krakow, 2018, pp. 14–63.
 See also Klára Peloušková, Hospodářská politika, ideologie a průmyslový design, 1969–1998. Státní instituce a diskurs [Economic Policy, Ideology, and Industrial Design, 1969–1998. State Institutions and Discourse], master’s thesis, Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, 2018.
 Milena Lamarová, A konzumováním živ budeš … [And You Will Live By Consuming], Czechoslovak Industrial Design, April 1972, pp. 41–55. Cited in: Peloušková (footnote 3), p. 65.
 JB, K současné politice designerské tvorby [On the Current Politics of Designer Goods], Informační bulletin vedoucího pracoviště vědeckotechnického rozvoje pro průmyslový design – ÚBOK IV, 1982, č. 3, s. 6–10. Cited in: Peloušková (footnote 3), p. 66.
 See Frejlich (footnote 2), p. 19.
 Petra Jansová, Tradice ohýbání [Traditions of Bending], E15 Premium III, 2019, no. 4, pp. 20–21.
 Hana Filipová, Prodáváme příběhy [We Sell Stories], E15 Premium III, 2019, no. 4, p. 16.
 Agata Szydłowska, The Unfulfilled Promise of Modernism, in: Czesława Frejlich (ed.), The Other Side of Things: Polish Design after 1989 (exhibition catalogue), National Museum in Krakow 2018, p. 67.
 Magda Szcześniak – Mateusz Halawa, Realizm kapitalistyczny polskiej transformacji [The Capitalist Realism of the Polish Transformation], Widok. Teorie i praktyki kultury wizualnej [View. Theory and Practice of Visual Culture], 2015, no. 15. Cited in: Szydłowska (footnote 8), p. 68.
 Viz Szydłowska (footnote 8), p. 69.
 Ibid., pp. 70–73.
 Ibid, p. 74. What Szydłowska is referring to are primarily ironic reminders of the ethos of 1960s reformist socialism.
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.