We Live in a Communicating Vessels System – A Conversation with Anna Kotowicz-Puszkarewicz and Artur Puszkarewicz from AZE Design Project Studio

Magdalena Wójtowicz: AZE design studio focuses on broadly understood design – from graphic, through small architectural and applied forms, as well as on fully-fledged architecture. How did you come up with the idea?

Anna Kotowicz-Puszkarewicz: I have graduated from graphic design at Strzemiński Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, and my husband from architecture at Bialystok University of Technology. Thanks to our education, we complement each other very well and we are also able to easily work in a team. The idea coincided with our moving from a big city to a village in Podlasie. We had to define ourselves not only as individuals, but also as professionals. We did not want to adopt an external model of life, to become a cog in a corporation wheel and, what comes with that, work from 8am till 10pm at full capacity. We thought that it would be fantastic to base our activities on local community – on its functioning and its potential. Podlasie is known for the Białowieża Forest and the bison walking around it, but the human resources in the area are undervalued. It concerns for instance craftsmen who still cultivate their crafts. We though that it was the last moment to capture their potential, use it, revaluate it, and adapt to the needs of a contemporary customer and the market, and at the same time do what we love best – design.

You call your design mind-made, what does it mean?

AKP: It is a transposition of the hand-made idea that is often encountered in the context of craft and ethno products. We want to show that we are interested mainly in how the brain processes given designs and technologies. We do not focus only on the product, but also on its creator, material, means of transport, and the amount of waste produced during the manufacturing of the product… We go beyond the folk inspiration and craft and we focus on the whole process of production of a given product instead.

Where do you look for inspiration? How do you come up with the ideas?

AKP: Our projects are the results of observation of the users’ and consumers’ behaviours. We analyse their lifestyles and try to pose some questions concerning their real needs. We usually start with technology – it defines the final shape of a product. Very rarely do we start with a given, defined form, we usually focus on the skills of the local craftsmen, material and technique. We also deal with conceptual projects, products created for industry or furniture producers. Then, we act like professional designers – we receive a brief or prepare it with the producer to find out about his/her needs and expectations. On the basis of that we build our first concepts that later evolve into a prototype of an item to be produced.

How do your products come into being?

AKP: The history of each product is unique, individual and specific. For instance our clay lamps “Bunia” were a fruit of the “Free the Project.” Their form is a result of the craftsman’s skills and the use of a given technology. The potter we have started cooperation with uses the patterns his grandfather and great-grandfather used for making of different pots on a traditional potter’s wheel. Nowadays, most of them do not serve their original function but are treated as decorations. We believe it was a perfect starting point for creating an object that was functional and more modern in its nature. The lamps are the transpositions of buńki – flask-like containers for storing liquids. To put it simply – we cut out the handle and the bottom, and we “cleared” the form of redundant decorative elements. That is how we created the lampshade. As far as AYU sofa is concerned, we started with the material – wicker – that was suggested by the client. The client defined also the functions of the object: the sofa was to be a comfortable chair to sit in, a chaise long – to stretch on, and a stool – to perch on. This is how the organic shape of the sofa came into being. Sofa was to be a piece of furniture placed in an old Dutch houseboat that was brought to and renovated in Cracow.

One of the issues discussed during the conference “Patterns of Europe – cultural heritage and modern design” was the elitist character of ethno design. The prices of such products are high, and the products are not widely available. Can this situation be changed?

AKP: I think the point is not for the products to be cheaper and widely available. Manual work is unique, time-consuming and therefore more expensive. The price is also the result of the high quality of the materials. We know that the mass production takes place far away, the labour force is cheaper, and the materials used are of low quality. Understanding this fundamental difference is crucial for understanding the price and availability. Therefore, we often emphasise the idea of “conscious design.” By choosing a given product we affect the reality and the life of people around us. If we decide to buy a hand-made tablecloth, we influence its maker, as the money goes directly to him/her, and does not dissolve somewhere in the universe.

During the conference someone came up with the idea that projects subsidised by the European Union should use products ordered from local craftsmen instead of cheap gadgets made in China.

AKP: I can see that we are pioneers also of this matter. Podlaskie Voivodeship ordered projects of promotional products made by local craftsmen. Białystok’s promotional strategy is based on its multicultural past. Before the war, the city was inhabited by many ethnic groups: Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Jews, Germans… The melting pot of nationalities and cultures no longer exists, but it had influence on the city. Inspired by the idea of Białystok culinary trial, we have decided to focus on these two elements: multiculturalism and cuisine. We have focused on cultural symbols, and they are best associated with religion and iconic images of sacral objects. We turned them into pictograms, architectural shapes, and fragments of buildings that are associated with a given religion and belong to the landscape of Białystok and Podlasie. We have created spice holders, since the spices give a unique taste to food. We like best the taste of multiculturalism… The introduction of such a series is not easy, simply because the production process is not a standard one. The process is long, and the quantity depends on the capabilities of the craftsmen and the availability of the supplementary products (for instance packaging or finishing elements). The final price is considerably different from the price of a mass-produced product. It requires the client to be flexible and aware. However, thanks to such orders, the work of local craftsmen makes economic sense. It also leads to a creation of a unique product, which serves the promotional purposes better than any promotional gadget mass produced in China or found in a catalogue.

You often stress the importance of cooperation with local producers. How do you find appropriate craftsmen?

AKP: Finding a proper person that is open to cooperation and to new designs is not easy. In practice, it requires the craftsmen to get rid of old habits and to learn new things, look for new solutions, and not everybody wants to do it. A prospective co-worker should be a master in his/her craft. Only a person who knows a given craft and material very well can attempt to make something new and of the quality we expect it to be. The process of the introduction of a new product, even the tiniest one, in cooperation with the craftsman is strenuous and takes about a year. At first we looked for our collaborators on our own in our neighbourhood. We were aware of the technologies and techniques still in use in the everyday life and we followed this lead. We were interested in this topic, so we used the method of trial and error to find new contacts. We also observed others’ initiatives.

Do you have any recipe for successful cooperation with folk artists you could give to other designers and producers?

AKP: There is only one recipe – consistency. Efficient cooperation is based on consistency. A designer is not always interested in the sale and promotion of a given product, but this is the only way to achieve this “efficiency.” Maintaining a long-term cooperation is connected with factors affecting the durability of a product. There should exist some systemic solutions, such as scholarships for the selected craftsmen that would enable them to remain professionally active. This scholarship could be also connected with passing the knowledge to young people interested in a given craft. It would provide the designers with certain flexibility and they could commission the craftsmen to work on certain projects. Craftsmen work is subject to the rules of the market, therefore nowadays craftsmen are either made to look for a niche, or they treat they work as a hobby. From our point of view, craftsmen’s life lacks economic stability since they have to take up other jobs to make ends meet.

AP: Soon we will have a huge problem with finding a craftsman to work with. They exist on the margin of the market. They produce goods that can be found around the world, but aesthetically and methodologically are immersed in the reality of PPR and Cepelia (traditional art and craft shop). If the crafts are to survive, there needs to be a demand. This is the nature’s principle: redundant things disappear.

What steps should be taken for the crafts to survive? Nowadays, we witness a renaissance of folk and traditional art. Do you expect any solutions or regulations in this matter?

AP: In Japan, artisans are one of the links in the chain of the technology development. The goods created by artisans are present also on the retail market, next to mass-produced items, but everyone sees the difference between the two. This holistic approach is indispensable for keeping the balance. In Poland we need smart top-down decisions, but there also need to exist a demand for goods made in a traditional way. Also important are systemic solutions that would encourage education. Then, a client would know the difference between a mass-produced object inspired by folk art, and a hand-made product. I visited Germany with the project concerning the development of crafts. I think that our neighbours have introduced great systemic solutions. They have started educating children at a very early stage – kids meet different craftsmen already in the first grade. Consequently, from the early age, children learn respect for hand-made products and for craftsmen’s work. It produces numerous positive effects: goods, passion, money, culture, and material heritage. We took part in a pilot program whose aim was to gather a group of craftsmen and find a group of clients. The thing is that both sides have to understand each other and they have to maintain a dialogue. In Poland, the gap between these two groups is huge.

AKP: It is difficult to say how the things will evolve in Poland. In the Western Europe, traditional crafts and folk art had to die out so that people would start to appreciate it. On the other hand, they quickly understood the key role of education. In Poland, we still lack such approach.

AP: I think that the group of people thinking outside the box is growing. However, reaching for things that are not mass-produced still requires greater awareness, and sometimes even going against the tide. We do not get the impression, however, that we are tilting at windmills. Thanks to the Internet we are open to the world, not only to a small group of clients representing certain values living here, in Poland.

AKP: I think that in Poland the influence of people who consider folk art sacred, bound with tradition, is still enormous.

AP: Tradition – do not touch!

AKP: It is something untouchable and sacred and it cannot be changed. However, we believe that constant evolution, different influences, new applications in everyday reality are natural for tradition. I think that as long as those two ideas do not converge, we will not change anything and we will not be able to arrive at any reasonable ways to ensure continuity. I have the impression that the Czechs and Slovaks approach this in a completely different way, they separate it from emotions and squandering sacred terms.

What, in your opinion, produces the most interesting effects in ethno design?

AP: We have been enchanted by the fact that the essence of crafts is the lack of redundant elements. If you go through a museum collection based on folk culture, you will see that the ornament was present only when it meant money. It was an additional thing or a carrier of some symbols. If you see a group of women in traditional costumes, it is a product constructed just like a boys band. It has nothing to do with real folklore and the way people used to shape the space around them. Such costumes were very expensive. This is how this second face of culture came into being, the face that is very distant to us.

But it was a festive costume.

AP: That is right, but where is the other one – the everyday, the ordinary? The festive clothes were worn only few times a year and did not always resemble the rich costumes we know today. What we have now is a colourful and recognisable topping, but if it is not rooted in everyday life – it makes no sense. I have talked with the potter and asked why he makes such decorative pots. He said he did not know, but this is how the pots had been made for ages. I showed him a pot with no decorations and he said it was cheaper. It turns out that the potter does not know why he polishes the pots or makes the strokes. Each process made on the surface of pottery generates costs, just like in industry: the fewer stages in the process, the cheaper the production. Therefore, if a household needed thirty such containers and the resources were limited, the pots had no ornaments. Now, however, the potter makes only ornaments. We are more interested in the pure product without any ornaments. We are afraid that we lose the essence, since the media space welcomes the festive clothes more openly than the clothes used for haymaking. The everyday things tell us more about habits, lives and needs.

Is, then, functionality what you value most?

AP: Functionality of a product is always of crucial importance. Objects in a household have always served a given purpose. Of course there also existed objects related to ceremonies and religion, but they belong to quantitative “margins,” also of interest. In those unique situations, the everyday object gained new and unique importance that manifested itself in the ritual ornament. One of such examples may be the time of harvest – the beginning of the work was inseparably connected with the fate that the crop is given by the force majeure and that force should be thanked for. That is how some songs and ritual acts and rites came into being. The context of contemporary harvest is deprived of the rite and therefore completely different – everything boils down to gathering in the harvest with the use of machines; it has to be quick and efficient. Can these broken elements be reconnected? I don’t know.

How should we manage the products of rural origin then?

AP: By looking at the lives of contemporary people and suggesting solutions adequate to contemporary times. Double-pots are interesting, but sour milk with potatoes is no longer the main element of our diet. An embroidered iPhone case is not necessarily a good solution either, since the phone functions perfectly well without it. We need to analyse the consumers’ behaviours and look for the essence of a given object. One of the craftsmen we have been cooperating with makes objects that duplicate traditional patterns. They have very interesting forms, they are made with the use of old technique, they have all functional qualities they had in the past, but nowadays they are used only as decorations. And there is not a lot of demand for such objects. Therefore, we need to transpose the old pattern to make it functional. The question arises, however, whether the craftsman has necessary tools to make an efficient transformation, not a caricature? Craftsmen should be supported in their struggles.

How to avoid accusations concerning simplification and distortion of tradition?

AP: Do not move along the ornamental line, because it is purely imitative. Ornaments work in separation with the object; they can be applied and transformed. It is both their advantage and disadvantage. However, in this way we lose context and the folk motif quickly devaluates.

What kind of support do you look for now and what kind of support you were looking for at the beginning of your career?

AP: It is a very difficult question. Now, I think that the problem of insufficient support is very broad and is conditioned by various factors, including economic, legal and educational. Poland and Poles are now witnessing a very special moment in history. Yet, we do not mean economy. Poland and Poles have the potential and we should use it, but we need to include the designers. If we do not start looking to the future, a potter will not have a chance to find the followers. We have to remember that we are in the communicating vessels system and building the economy only on the basis of price is extremely dangerous. Therefore, we should support the establishment of “creative industries” that may become a key factor in the construction of the new image of our country’s economy.

Translated by Karolina Majkowska