Folk art is not a museum – a conversation with Marta Wróbel, the owner of Folkstar company


Folkstar Company, the leader of the Polish ethno-market celebrates its 5th birthday anniversary this year. How did you come up with the idea of such a business?

Marta Wróbel: During the preparations for the panel about the instances of successful cooperation between design and folk art, I was looking through the pictures which could be used in my presentation. I started with the photographs of my family. One of the photographs taken in 1934 shows my grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, all three dressed in traditional folk clothes. This archive photo points to the first reason – my family roots. All of my grandmothers wore woollens, sang in folk bands and had traditional decorations in their houses.
When I was a child we were taught to make cut-outs, danced, and we took trips to the folk art cooperative where they made Łowicz dolls, cut-outs, and wove on a loom. We weren’t giving it much thought. We treated it in a similar way to geography lessons or maths. It was much later that I realized how Polish folk art is marginalized. In Łowicz things were different, but folk art was not promoted nationwide nevertheless. When I was establishing Folkstar, I wanted to present our rich heritage in a modern way.
I noticed this gap thanks to the various journeys around the world. Before I went to Texas, where I lived for a year, I assumed that the Wild West is something similar to our folk culture, something bygone, historical, reproduced in a museum. When I arrived at the airport in Dallas, I saw gentlemen wearing hats, checked shirts and cowboy boots with spurs, chewing tobacco. Insofar as during the week most Texans wear casual clothes, on Sundays whole families, children, mothers, and fathers put on cowboy boots, jeans, checked shirts and hats – it’s their celebratory apparel. I was impressed because in Poland it is common to believe that Americans do not have a culture. Suddenly, it turned out that they are much more attached to tradition than us and they cultivate it.

I encountered similar situations in other places I visited – it turned out that the local element of “folklore” is not only a tourist product, but it functions in everyday life. Honolulu is a curious example. The city’s business dress code is surprising. Businessmen and officials wear flowered shirts. If they want to look ceremoniously, instead of a tie they put on a lei – a garland of flowers and nutshells.
I don’t need to mention Japan or China – it is commonly known how important tradition in everyday lives of the inhabitants of these modern countries is.

I wish that Polish folk art were treated as every-day reality, as something that exists in our lives and makes them more enchanting.
The first aim of Folkstar was to debunk the myth that folk art is a museum. I wanted traditional products and designs to start functioning in our lives again, and folk artists to have opportunities to present their beautiful handicrafts to a larger public. That’s how it started.
Later on, somewhat additionally, we designed our first products inspired by cut-outs and folk patterns. They were supposed to introduce some fun and contemporaneity to the product range. These motives, which were put on mugs, magnets and lanyards, turned out to be very attractive for customers. This way, we started to combine two totally different things, since folk art and design inspired by folk art are two separate domains.

You come from Łowicz, but are all persons linked to Folkstar from Łowicz?

MW: Yes. I extremely appreciate that people with whom I work possess that rare intuition of folk art. Without it, it’s impossible to work in Folkstar. Sometimes in Łowicz it’s difficult to find professionals with adequate expertise for particular positions, but we prefer that our workers acquire skills in the company, and understand what Folkstar is trying to communicate to our clients. All the company employees have typically Łowicz-related traditions – they danced in folk bands, or had embroiderer and cut-out makers grandmothers or they still walk in promenades in folk clothes. At work we talk about new e-commerce solutions, promotional campaigns, and when Corpus Christi arrives our workers put on woollens. They are the perfect example of the merging of the two worlds.

Do folk artists with whom you cooperate represent only Łowicz and the neighboring regions?

MW: Not anymore, although that’s how it started. When I was establishing Folkstar, I thought only about Łowicz, but now I see that the clients who seek us out want more. At this moment, we have a few suppliers from Podhale. We have taken interest to toy making – it’s an interesting subject because it includes a geographically small group of artists.
Currently, we are working on a new project which aims at incorporating into our offer folk artists from all over Poland. Slowly, we are implementing it into life – in Łowicz we sell ceramics from Boleslawiec and Opole. We also signed up for other products and soon we will include them in our offer.
We are also planning to enrich our offer with patterns from other regions, specifically I mean design and not folk art. Design from Łowicz is very popular in Poland at the moment, but I have a feeling that it would be equally attractive if every region found its own design. I hope that we will find something in Lublin Voivodeship – we have made a list of 10-12 regions and now it’s one of our priorities.

Do you gather information about your clients? Who are your most frequent customers, where do they come from?

MW: The most numerous group of our customers consists of retail clients from all over Poland who do shopping both in our stores and online. They often buy our products as gifts. Another category includes institutional clients, companies, ministries, embassies, governmental institutions which use our products for their own promotional aims, or as official gifts.

Do you have retail clients outside Poland?

MW: After five years, we have made a summary and it turned out that we have clients from Albany to United Arab Emirates, hence from A to Z. We send many packages to countries where there are large Polish communities: USA, Australia, Great Britain, and Brazil.

What about the issue of transferring folk patterns on designer products?

MW: The patterns are not “transferred” – they are designed. It’s a derivative, a design inspired by folklore. We endeavor to make styling important, since we don’t want our clients to confuse designer products with original handicrafts.
When we design our projects, we try to make the styling visible because we don’t want to imitate the original product. We started to strongly separate folk art and design because the two represent different categories of products and techniques of production. There are also two groups of clients. One group appreciates design, the other appreciates folk art. These products are distinguished by price. Gadgets which are inspired by folk art cost 10, 20, 30, or, in exceptional cases, 50 PLN. In the case of handicraft, the client understands why a broidered tablecloth costs 600 PLN and a sculpture is as expensive as 1000 PLN.

What products are most commonly to be found in your offer?

MW: When I was establishing the company, I intended to base it mainly on handicrafts, our projects were supposed to be an addition. It turned out that the attention of clients went beyond our expectations, and that the one cannot function without the other. Thanks to this small part which showed that we can make something modern and funny, traditional products gained more attention.
Nonetheless, I think that even though design based on folk art is now fashionable, true folk art will last throughout generations. Our cultural heritage is strong enough to last eternity, while the trend for design is only temporary. Even in a situation when, after five years, people will say that strong colors are passé and cut-out inspirations are not longer fashionable, folk art is forever. Designed products which are nowadays in demand are based on the canon of folk art. Folk art is what needs to be shown to clients, we only have to find an appropriate form to present it.

Could you say something more about the certificates that you provide?

MW: In 2010, with the cooperation of the Association of Folk Artists, we introduced the Certificate of Authenticity for folk art products. It certifies the original source of the products and that they were made in accordance with tradition and by traditional technique.
I personally know all of our suppliers from Łowicz. I visited their workshops and I know how they make their products.
By introducing the certificates, we wanted to ensure the clients that they buy authentic, Polish handicrafts. In the era of digital embroidery and Chinese import, this is very important.
Our certificates are signed by Ms Anna Staniszewska, the Secretary of the Management Board of the Association of Folk Artists, and the chairwoman of the Łowicz Folk Artists Society.
The other reason was the need to distinguish folk art and inspired products – we don’t want to mislead clients, we want the distinction to be clearly visible.

On the webpage other certificates are also to be found, namely the certificates of the National Artistic and Ethnographic Commission “Cepelia”. Could you describe how those certificates work?

MW: The certificate was valid until spring 2012. It was issued by The National Artistic and Ethnographic Commission “Cepelia”. The certificates were given to products which were assessed by the Commission with regard to design and manufacturing correctness. The commission was very strict in terms of their evaluation and for that reason the certificates were of great value. Additionally, such approval allowed to sell handicrafts with a 7 % lower VAT rate. Unfortunately, the government withdrew handicrafts from the group of products with the preferential rate and then the Cepelia certificates lost their validity and ceased to exist. We had a lot of certified products in stock.

According to you, what gives the best results in ethno-design? What is the key to success? Is it the proximity to the original?

MW: There is no one golden solution. The designers who succeeded in the filed have different ideas and sense of esthetics. The only requirement is that the product has to enrapture the clients. It often happens that an interesting interpretation of a design is more important than its proximity to the original. It’s also significant who is the target of the product – we must take into consideration clients, i.e., their needs, taste, favourite colour scheme, and the purpose of the product.
Folkstar has worked out its own style in ethno-design. The road is open – I believe that there are hundreds of possibilities to create something new and interesting in folklore.

How to avoid the frequent accusations of misrepresentation and simplification of tradition in ethno-design?

MW: It’s best not to think about it. There are various communities of folk artists, more or less conservative. I mean, folk artists crocheted g-strings, and this disunited the community in Koniaków. Something similar, though not that provocative occurred in Łowicz where some female folk artists transferred traditional embroidery onto mobile phone cases. They also embroidered on ties, purses, or teddy bears.
I have great respect for all folk artists, but I also know that the world is in constant progress and we can only go forward. For example – ceramic products are made by our potter in the same way as 200 years ago, one difference is that he uses electricity.
Perhaps what some people now call misrepresentation, in one 100 years from now will be placed in a museum. Future generations will decide.

What about support for the regional companies which are entering the market? Did you need help at the beginning of your business? Were there in your environment institutions or organizations which could support you with their know-how, contacts, finding manufacturers?

MW: I didn’t need support. Of course, everybody who starts a business is bound to feel insecure and needs some aid, but I’m not convinced whether such support can be organized by our system. I established Folkstar at the age of 30, when, after 10 years of business experience, I already had some knowledge about conducting business activity. I learned the rest during my work at Folkstar. It was very important for me to keep acquaintances with folk artists. I knew them from our previous projects, our relations were friendly. I wasn’t given any of that – I just cooperated charitably with artists for a few years at organizing fairs. It wasn’t related to business, or any initiatives , I just involved myself in social activity, which later on turned out very helpful.

What about the self-government?

MW: I have good relations with the self-government. At the beginning, two institutions, namely the Promotion Department of the City Council in Łowicz and the Help Centre of Łowicz County, were very sympathetic to me. They provided me with contacts to artists with whom we in turn organized different events. I gained a lot from this cooperation in terms of experience, meritorical knowledge of folk art in Łowicz, and self-knowledge.
When it comes to my business activities, self-government cannot be expected to act in this matter. I don’t know how other institutions operate, but I wasn’t looking for such support. I have liberal views and I think that we need to be responsible for our actions and we need to take care of our interests.

I’ve heard a part of a conversation today in which somebody expected to find manufacturers for their products. If I had such expectations, I wouldn’t be able to create any product until this day. Obviously, it’s not always easy – we spent a lot time looking for manufacturers of candles and lampshades, but in the end we gave up. In such cases we just put the product aside and we start working on another one. A few products didn’t work out because we couldn’t find manufacturers, but we made 500 others.
You can’t find everything at Polish manufacturers. In Poland, we wouldn’t be able to make metal cans in which we pack amazing, hand-made Polish cows. If we want to give our clients high-quality products, we cannot insist on making them in Poland, at least not in the case of design. Some ideas have to be sacrificed for quality, or attractiveness of products.
It is also not easy to find manufacturers of handicrafts. Folk artists are not businesspeople; instead, they are guided by different values and live in their own pace. The clients expect that they will get their high-quality products on time, while it often happens that our artists fail to deliver on time because they have some work to do in the household. Sometimes an artist can break an arm or hurt their thumb – as a company which deals with folk business, we are prepared for all situations.
It’s worse when manufacturers in big, professional companies fail to meet our standards – we have no control over that.
If someone thinks that some institution will find them an honest and adequate manufacturer, then they are wrong. You need to take matters in your own hands.
I know there are institutions which give support in such cases, but I never looked for their help, I try to organize everything by myself. I had a lot of luck in the sense that I met many right people. It’s important to have a good attitude – I have always believed that I can manage to organize what I planned and I succeeded.

Does Folkstar, after 5 years of business activity, possesses a fixed database of folk artists and manufacturers with whom it cooperates?

MW: The database is still growing. We invent new products and each of them has a different manufacturer. As far as folk artists are concerned, we have a steady group of people from Łowicz who cooperate with us. Steadily, the number of artists from other regions is rising.

Are there artists for whom art is the only source of income?

MW: If one doesn’t count the earnings of spouses, then yes. There are female folk artists who start to realize that they are “businesswomen”, which shows in their behaviour.

What observations do you have after 5 years of activity?

MW: It’s only a start, but these 5 years have taught us what is important and what we want to achieve. We learned a lot about folklore, clients, their expectations and the reality of business. I hope that this knowledge will pay off in the years to come.

You must be observing other countries in terms of ethno-design’s profitability. Which country is the field’s leader?

MW: This can’t be judged unequivocally. I can tell you about a few interesting observations, but I won’t rank them by importance.

Peru: designs known around the world. Traditional fabrics are used to produce collections of sneakers. A very interesting concept was created there, namely Peru Home – a modern , full house concept designed on the basis of Peruvian folklore and with lots of natural materials.
Hawaii: everybody knows the Hawaiian design, most of us possess some items which are adorned with it – towels, flip-flops, shirts, boxers, or mobile phone cases. Although it’s only one design, mono and non-groundbreaking, it has achieved a great success.
Russia: the Russian matrioshka dolls have their 5 minutes of fame in the world design at the moment.
Japan: one could write a master’s dissertation about it. Traditional Japanese motives inspire designers around the world, and their undertones can be found in interior design, kitchen ceramics, etc. The world-famous brand Kimmidoll fits into the trend of Japanese ethno-design, even though it was created in Australia.
Scotland: the Scottish tartan is often used by fashion designers, which has probably been initiated by Blueberry company. The tartan is nothing else but the Scottish ethno.
Scandinavia: Scandinavian traditions determine the rhythm of the world’s interior design. Additionally, we know Scandinavian patterns from winter sweaters which until recently have been considered “lame”, but now are once again fashionable. The Scandinavian sense of esthetics is the reason why even ethno-souvenirs sold there are considered high-end.

The subject of ethno-design around the world is so diverse that it would be difficult to adopt clear-cut criteria in deciding which country is the leader on the market.

Is there anything that distinguishes Poland against this background?

MW: We have such interesting, diverse and original folk art that we are capable of international success comparable to that of Japanese design. The question is whether we want to succeed, since such situations always have advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the whole world would know of Polish design, and in result Poland would become more popular and recognizable. On the other hand, we need to be prepared for a situation where other countries start “stealing” our designs, and use them, not necessarily with regard to copyrights. We can be very famous, but at the same time folk art would be exploited. I’m not sure whether folk artists would like that.

Do you think that students of arts and pupils at schools of fine art should be encouraged to take more interest in the regional cultural background?

MW: Of course, but I don’t think it should be done by force. Students of arts have a lot of ideas and there are many people who will find their way in this field. It’s a very good direction.

Is cooperation itself valuable for you and your company?

MW: Cooperation is the basis of establishing a company, and developing new ideas. No field exists without cooperation. Notably, nowadays even Noble Prize is usually awarded to research groups, and not individuals. It’s similar in art, or business. Folkstar doesn’t exist without folk artists, clients and manufacturers. We often participate in non-commercial projects: we cooperate with Mazowsze, we sponsored Orek Polski, and we get involved in various local activities.


Translated by Aleksandra Bubiło.