A Fairy Tale of Good Cooperation – How to Successfully Combine the Traditional and the Modern in Design – a panel discussion summary

Ewa Gołębiowska


“A Fairy Tale of Good Cooperation” panel was dominated by the themes of the openness of folk culture, limits of its use, protection of both the resources and the folk artists. The discussion was held by the four panellists: Ivana Tinesová (Ústredie ľudovej umeleckej výroby – ÚĽUV, Slovakia), Marta Wróbel (Folkstar), Anna Staniszewska (Folk Artists Association), Anna Kotowicz-Puszkarewicz (AZE design – design company). The discussion was chaired by Ewa Gołębiowska (Zamek Cieszyn).
The summary will start with the introduction of the panellists and the organisations they represent.

Anna Staniszewska – an acknowledged folk artists from Łowicz who specialises in embroidery. He has been the secretary of Folk Artists Association for several years. She has been closely cooperating with folk artists, schools, museums and companies that help to protect and promote folk art. Her involvement and knowledge of folk culture make her a keeper of tradition, as she often says a folk artist cannot cross the borders and syncretise what is his/her own and what belongs to others. At the beginning she reminds the audience that one should keep to what is one’s own, and “one’s own” is not only the costume, but also what is at home, and what comes out of your mouth. Anna is wearing a traditional Łowicz folk costume and she speaks the dialect.

Anna Kotowicz–Puszkarewicz – a member of the AZE design company, a Varsovian living in the countryside. Their company specialises in various design disciplines: graphic design, architecture, set design, and small applied art forms. Moving out to a village in Podlasie made the designers create a model based on corporate social responsibility and cooperation with real craftsmen form the neighbourhood. AZE uses design and local craft on all levels of cooperation. This cooperation results in original and hand made products that have already found their place in the history of Polish design. MESSY – a tablecloth (hand embroidery), NODUS – a rug (crochet), linen straw lamp, a rug (cross stitch embroidery), or a woven sofa AYU attract the attention through the innovative use of traditional material and technique. The designers’ growing interest in design as a process of creating possibilities, also in its literal sense, is proven by their latest undertaking – “Free the Project” – developed with the State Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.

Ivana Tinesová – a representative of the Slovakian ÚĽUV – the Centre for Folk Art Production established in 1945 that nowadays focuses mostly on bringing closer the traditional folk culture and craftsmen, designers and artists. In 2000, they started publishing a quarterly entitled Craft, Art, Design and they also organised “Rings in Water” competition for the first time. The centre has its regional offices in Košice, Banská Bystrica and Tatranská Lomnica. The centre organises exhibitions and crafting classes, and issues publications.

Marta Wróbel – the owner of Folkstar, a company that uses traditional Łowicz folk motives in gadgets and functional objects. Folkstar uses folk art through attractive graphic motifs that are transferred by designers to contemporary objects. The company was established five years ago and it combines business activities with protection and promotion of folk culture (workshops, exhibitions, market stalls, and even graphic decorations on a bus in Łowicz).

Ewa Gołębiowska – the moderator of the panel, a representative of Zamek Cieszyn, the first regional design centre in Poland. The institution not only promotes design, but also protects and promotes crafts and professions that are becoming extinct. Cieszyn is the capital of Cieszyn Silesia and is mainly associated with Koniakow lace and cross-stitch embroidery. No one in this region is surprised that traditional folk culture serves as an inspiration for designers (for instance in such projects as “Opolski etno-dizajn” [“Ethno-design from Opole”], “Old for New” or “Wool design. Carpathian”).

“Opolski etno-dizajn” was developed for the association The Land of St Anne and Brzeska Wieś Historyczna (Brzeg Historical Village). The project’s aim was to rediscover cultural resources of the region, and it succeeded because not only has the knowledge of traditional craft of the Opole region developed, but also a few ideas (and prototypes) of successful products have been created. The next project – “Old for New” was conducted for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute on the 600th anniversary of the Polish-Turkish relations. Designers and craftsmen from Turkey and Poland have established cooperation. As a result of the meeting of the two cultures (Europe and Asia) and the two worlds (tradition and innovation), new innovative objects transgressing the traditional approach to material, technique, and function have been created. The next, very fresh project is “Wool design. Carpathian” (Vysehrad Fund). The project’s aim is to invite several young designers from Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to get to know the traditional, but sometimes underappreciated, material – that is wool made from local sheep. The ideas prove that such processes introduce completely new values to culture as well as economy.

The debate opened with the following question: “How far one could go in using folk culture – where are the borders that cannot be crossed?” The panellist pointed to different aspects of this problem. According to Anna Staniszewska, the borders are drawn by the artists’ conscience. The artist cannot syncretise what is his/her one’s own and what is foreign. Tradition is changing and one may (consciously or not) modify it, but one has to be careful so as not to upset the foundations. Each country should take care of its tradition. And this idea should be handed down naturally in a family that equips the child with wings but also with roots.
Anna Puszkarewicz, on the other hand, believes that the danger lies in the creation of purely decorative objects that serve no function. She warns that such goods may become less and less popular, and the lack of interest translates into lack of continuation. Unfortunately, the designers are usually not interested in the practical application of a given object, but in ensuring the continuation of folk art. However, the products meeting the needs of a contemporary consumer simply sell better.
Another issue discussed during the debate was the permeability of the borders of folk culture. Ivana Tinesová reminded everyone that the pace of life has dramatically increased and the access to knowledge (the Internet!) is almost unrestricted. As a result, everything is changing dynamically. It can be observed also on the example of the competition “Rings on Water” organised by ÚĽUV – the objects that are presented are no longer folk, but contemporary. Since 2000, this biennale competition is held to grant awards, to present and to sell new designs inspired by traditional culture. The participants include both professionals and high school students. The jury focuses on the mastery, accuracy of inspiration, and originality. The best participants are granted financial awards and a possibility to promote their products on the exhibition that is also presented abroad. Also important are the chance for professional consultation, and ensuring the sales of the awarded works in ULUV chain stores. According to Tinesova, there are no limits where there are people and their creations.
As a response, Marta Wróbel emphasised the necessity to distinguish real folk art from industrial design. A dynamically increasing sale of products inspired by folk art but manufactured with the use of industrial methods, caused the introduction of certificates protecting real, hand made products. In this way, with no harm for original folk products, Folkstar introduces contemporary design and methods of production. According to Marta Wróbel, the changes in the shape of Łowicz region paper cut-outs support the opinion of Anna Staniszewska who claimed that the evolution of the folk art depends on the artists. The changes however are slow. Although the changes in folk art are slow, the production of souvenirs has changed (after the establishment of Folkstar). New products are constantly being introduced, the demand is growing, and the innovative forms have some practical applications.
Another dilemma appears when one attempts to define a folk artist. Is it enough, as it used to be in the past, to live in the countryside? According to Anna Staniszewska, a folk artist should have his/her roots in rural culture, should know and understand the tradition, technique and material even if he/she uses it for new or completely different purposes. Closing oneself in an open-air museum is not a solution, especially since folk artists want to (and oftentimes have to) use their skills to earn a living. Just like in the case of the controversial Koniaków lace thongs, the artist makes the decision concerning the type of created goods. Isn’t disco polo the authentic folk music? In the past, things were made when they were needed, but now there is no need to make a given good on one’s own – nearly everything can be bought in Biedronka…
The audience replied to the issue of the appropriateness of using folk elements, and they said that not all elements should be freely used (for instance using sacral forms, such as Jewish headstones, for making ceramic salt shakers may be treated as a misuse). It should be added, and I also emphasised it as the panel’s moderator, that the appropriateness concerns also the means of production, the selection of proper material, the object’s function and even interpersonal relations, although with the reservation that we might be idealising the past and … the contemporaneity.
The creators of the controversial salt shakers – AZE design added that the headstones were enthusiastically received by a group from Israel. They also discussed the problem of dying out of folk culture. They stated that in order to live, folk culture should be internalized, natural and one’s own. … The sense of ownership is another interesting issue discussed by the ethnographers and museologists – they pointed out that some people confuse the old industrial production with folk culture. They claimed that inspiration should lead to further research on the sources, and to verification of history and originality. The panellists and the audience were not unanimous as far as the evaluation of the phenomena occurring within folk culture and its innovative applications are concerned.
The meeting was concluded with the issue of protection of resources and cooperation between the designers and craftsmen. Do we face a threat that soon we will have nothing to be inspired by? How can we deal with the growing trivialisation of folk culture in the gadgets stylised as folk? A rescue, although a difficult one, may be found in a deeper understanding of culture, traditional craft, old techniques and natural materials. According to Anna Staniszewska, tradition has to live within a person, but what can we do to make sure that children will carry on the tradition, if the parents do not care about it? What is more, regional education at schools usually has a form of one-off projects and this does not foster the shaping of long-term attitudes. Another important problem is the instrumental treatment of folk art and folk artists; in the past it was the approach of the state, nowadays – of dishonest companies, including the designers. It is further complicated by the lack of even rudimentary knowledge of Polish folk art, regional costumes and style. This should become the main aim of many organisations. Anna Kotowicz-Puszkarewicz claims that for her the continuity of tradition is not enough. Tradition should translate into economy, because all talents need support, it cannot be only a hobby. She points to the conclusions drawn from the cooperation between the AZE design and a German guild that teach respect for manual work. Hand made products have to be more expensive, but also people should want to pay more for a good that was hand made. In order to change Polish consumers’ attitude, we need to restore the respect for manual work.


The title of the panel encouraged the focus on positive experiences, but the reality proved to be more complicated. The summary should include some recommendations concerning the verified models of cooperation.

1. We should ensure the continuity in sharing the unique knowledge through personal contact of the student with the master of old crafts. Many good programs are held on folk universities and local cultural centres. We should support especially longer courses that provide the craftsmen with a more stable financial situation. Unfortunately, the majority of such initiatives are short-term projects subsidised by the EU, while what we need is a diligent, patient work over many years. Simultaneously we should take care of documentation (by interviews and movies) of the old masters’ skills (although we should be aware that it may not be enough to recreate the techniques and professions that are becoming extinct).
2. Folk culture cannot be tinned. At the age of the Internet and cheap travels and with the fashion for locality and folk art, we should not focus on the protection of old designs or place limits on human creativity and imagination. Paradoxically, the changes may be favourable to folk artists if they are willing to open to the needs of the new clients. In this respect one should use the experiences of ÚĽUV that apart from organising craft courses also runs a design gallery. It enables the artists to use the richness of Slovakian folk culture. One of the most interesting projects may be the incubator that connects the creative sphere with the traditional craftsmen. ÚĽUV will probably open it in 2016. Also Folkstar is an example of a responsible, locally rooted enterprise that is able to protect and promote the values of local culture and create new workplaces.
3. We should make sure that Poland introduces a competition inspired by the “Rings on Water.” In the long-term perspective it will be beneficial to both parties: craftsmen will be commissioned new orders, and the designers will gain new experience; but it will also work the other way round: the designers will create new products, and the craftsmen will gain new skills. The market for contemporary hand made products made by masters is developing in Poland. The process is accompanied by a growing awareness of fair trade, responsible production and distribution. This new market for contemporary craft is a long-term goal that should take into account contemporary folk culture. It will be possible provided that folk culture will not be only a colourful background but a living inspiration.

Translated by Karolina Majkowska