Discovering Poland's Design, Innovation and History


As one of the countries in Central Europe, Poland has shown its amazing progress in the last 30 years since the end of the communist era. In this period, the Polish have emerged to be one of the most progressive countries in terms of economic growth. Their policy of economic liberalisation has helped them become the sixth largest in the European Union with the GDP per capita at purchasing power parity growing on average by 6 per cent over the last 20 years.

The country that was once known for its grim historical background stemming from second world war is now becoming one of the leaders in the continent. Last September, Indonesia Design was invited by the Embassy of the Republic of Poland to visit the country to experience its latest innovation through design and technology.

Although the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Poland was officially established in 1955, the historical links between Poland and Indonesia have existed since the colonial era of the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century where many Polish people began to migrate to East Indies. Did you know that Medan’s airport Polonia was named after Poland? The airport was built on a tobacco plantation that was once owned by Baron Michalsky in 1872, a polish immigrant that named his estate “Polonia”, a Latin name for Poland.

From 1955 until now, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has been strengthened through trade and investment. Poland mainly sells machinery, military equipment and weapons, and chemicals to Indonesia, and buys coal, textiles, wooden furniture, crude palm oil and agricultural products from Indonesia. On November 2018, this great bilateral relationship was further strengthened by the opening of the Polish Investment and Trade Agency (PAIH) in Indonesia with a mission to enhance the commercial ties between the two countries. In this current time, the relationship has increased to other sectors such as cosmetic, R&D, education, culture, energy and tourism. With a population reaching more than 37 million people, Poland is Indonesia’s largest trading partner from Central Europe,
with a bilateral trade value reaching US$640 million.

In terms of design, Poland has an extensive list of designers and artisans known worldwide. Big names from furniture designer Jozef Chierowski (366 Armchair and founder of 366 Concept), architect Daniel Liebskin (master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan) and Andrzej M. Choldzynski (designer of Plac Wilsona of the Warsaw Metro), to design brands such as 366 Concept (retro furniture), Reserved (a retail fashion brand founded by Marek Piechocki and Jerzy Lubianiec), and YES (a jewellery company founded by Magda Kwiatkiewicz) are just a few examples of Poland’s design power. Another big Polish company, INGLOT, founded by Wojciech Inglot in 1983 has even been established in Indonesia. This cosmetic company has been known to create makeup design through their extensive colour collection and 400 shades of nail polish.

During this one-week journey, Indonesia Design was taken to Warsaw and Gdansk where we met with many great practitioners of various industries and experienced their future innovation in technology and design. We also visited great museums with award-winning architecture design to have a better understanding of the history of Poland.

Based on this short trip to Poland, we were impressed by the tenacity of the Polish as a nation as well as their great achievement in developing advanced technology for the future. The country continues to produce great talents in this field that keeps the spirit of Marie Curie alive through many breakthroughs. During our meeting with the representative of the Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Technology, we learned that Poland is using their advanced technology to develop the space program through their institution called Polish Space Agency that was established on 26 September 2014.

There are so many great things about Poland from historical sites to the new creations that we have discovered on this trip. It is also interesting to learn the similarity between Indonesians and the Polish. Both nations are filled with warm and hospitable people. We smile after hearing “Apa Kabar?” in the same manner that “Dzien Dobry!” will put a smile to every Polish who hears it.

Warsaw: The Metropolis of Vistula River

Founded in the 13th century, Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland with over 3.1 million inhabitants. As an alpha global city, Warsaw is a city that has survived the past grim and has emerged to be one of Europe’s most dynamic metropolitan cities and one of the most liveable cities in Central and Eastern Europe. As we drove downtown from Warsaw Chopin Airport, we saw a various mix of architecture styles from the socialist realism to the modern contemporary in between the Vistula River.

On the way to Hotel Warszawa (read: my hotel essay on page 76), we saw various buildings including the iconic 237-metre Palace of Culture and Science designed by Russian architect Lev Rudnev in 1955, Warsaw’s Old Town that was reconstructed in the post-war period and is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the eco-design concept of University of Warsaw Library designed by Polish architect Marek Budzynski, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, and the famous and award-winning commercial, office, and entertainment complex called Zlote Tarasy. This mix-used building was designed by The Jerde Partnership and is known for its abstract and transparent roof covers made of glass.

As the capital of Poland, Warsaw is filled with various companies and great practitioners. The first one that we visited on this trip is a Polish company called Platige Image that specialises in computer graphics, 3D animation, and digital special effects. The company that was founded in 1997 by Jaroslav Sawko and Piotr Sikora has been receiving over 200 awards and honours including Best of Show awards at the SIGGRAPH festival and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. One of their short animations called “The Cathedral” was also nominated in the category of a short film (animated) in the 75th Academy Awards.

Platige Image is one of the most renowned Polish brands in film production, VFX, animation and post-production. They have created an impressive body of work from commercials, music videos, short films, cinematics, 3D live theatre sets, to special projects such as museum installations.

After the special effects and animation world, we were brought to see the design of the future during our meeting at the headquarters of the Polish Investment and Trade Agency office. Here we met with Rafal Budweil, the CEO of Triggo whose creation is not only innovative but is a pioneer of an electricity-powered hybrid of car and motorbike. Based in Lomianki, Poland, Budweil surprised us by coming to the meeting in his latest Triggo prototype. Being the first of its kind, Triggo combines the features, mobility and speed of a motorbike with the safety and comfort of a car that includes air conditioning. With its compact size, Triggo only takes up one-fifth of the space of a traditional car, and it is perfect for a city that has massive traffic jams and lack of parking space.

Rafal Budweil told us that Sebastian Nowak who is the designer of Triggo got his inspiration from the face of an alien to create the form of this vehicle. Though it looks tiny, Triggo is quite spacious, even for a tall European person. During our encounter, Budweil told us that Triggo should be ready for the market by the end of next year. He hopes that Triggo can be the flagship for Polish export products.

In Warsaw, we also found out that Poland has a rich tradition of boatbuilding which started after the end of the second world war. Back then, the industry was ignited to supply the demand from the USSR (now Russia). We met with Michal Bak, the secretary-general of the Polish Chamber of Marine Industry and Water Sports (Polboat) who shared the information about Poland being the world’s second-largest producer of boats up to 9m in length, second only to the U.S. Their competitive elements derived from affordable manufacturing costs as well as the quality craftsmanship that attracts major brands such as Beneteau, Brunswick, Nimbus, Windy and Axopar, among others.

As we move to the global trend of startups, Poland has grown a comprehensive ecosystem that supports the growth of many startups in a range of sectors from health tech to recruitment, machine learning, space tech, facial recognition and digital authentication, just to name a few. We got an in-depth look of this industry during the meeting with the representatives of StartUp Hub Polska who talked about its dynamic growth. Through this meeting, we understood that many of the startups use design with technology to bring their vision into reality.

Indonesia is known as the country of artisans that has incredible craftsmanship skills. This unique ability attracted an organisation in Poland called International Welding Services that focuses on bringing welders and locksmiths from Indonesia to Poland. Founded by Piotr Talik, this organisation focuses on the demand for skilful talent in this particular field and they have discovered that Indonesians have amazing knowledge and skills as welders and locksmiths. According to Piotr Talik, the demand in Europe for this talent is very high and there are not a lot of Europeans doing it. This kind of artisan work is needed in many industries from infrastructure to design.

Notable Design Sites in Warsaw

The city of Warsaw has plenty of great design sites that will inspire your grey cells. Highlights here include the Gallery of Polish Design at the National Museum in Warsaw that features important design pieces of Poland from the early 20th century up to the present time. The design wing that opened on 15 December 2017 showcases Polish design from various decades and it is one of the best places in the country where you can understand Poland’s design zeitgeist.

Beyond the vibrant toys, gorgeous ceramics and glassworks on display, there are four best pieces that encapsulate the ideology-steeped forces at lay in Polish design: Roman Modzelewski’s RM58 chair (from 1958), the Kowalski wall unit (from 1963), Moho Design’s DIA carpet and Oskar Zieta’s Plopp stool (both from 2008).

In this design wing, you can also find the Indonesian - Polish connection in the form of batik. Back in the second half of the 19th century, the batikomania as it was called, swept Europe in a big way thanks to the Dutch who brought batik to this continent. The Polish, who already has an ancient tradition of decorating eggs with wax-resist dyeing, which is similar to Javanese batik, started transferring this technique to cloth after getting their inspiration from batik. Polish batik that was created around 1910 to 1925 had unmistakable Javanese characters. One of the pieces called Javanese Batik Krakow can be found in this gallery inside the National Museum.

During this trip, we also visited a historical site with an interesting design called Warsaw Water Filters or Filtry Lindleya. Designed using William Lindley’s design, this one of three Warsaw waterworks was completed in 1886 and consists of the river pump station and a filter station on the left bank of the Vistula. This filter station is one of the most complex waterworks projects of late 19th century in Europe and functioned with advanced technology at the time using waterproof bricks, granite and sandstone. The whole filter complex became one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments in 2012. It is amazing to know that Warsaw Water Filters have been functioning for the past 133 years and still supplies clean water to Warsaw households until today.

Another interesting design site to visit while in Warsaw is the Copernicus Science Centre that contains over 450 interactive exhibits that enable visitors to single-handedly carry out experiments and discover the laws of science. Located on the bank of the Vistula River, this science museum was designed by young Polish architects from the firm RAr-2 in Ruda Slaska, who won an architectural competition for the Copernicus Science Centre facility in December 2005, with engineers Buro Happold.

The centre complex comprises of a two-storey building for exhibitions, a multimedia planetarium and an observation deck, a garage and a workshop on a subterranean level, and a surround Discovery Park that includes open-air experimentation stations, an outdoor art gallery, and an amphitheatre.

Gdansk: The City of Freedom

As the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, Gdansk that is located on on the sea coast at the mouth of the Vistula River has existed since the 10th century. Due to its strategic position, the city has become an important port until now where ships from all over the world have moored at its waterfront. Gdansk has a complex history from the beginning due to its location and wealth. In 1923, Gdansk received a free city-state and was allowed to self-rule, though it wasn’t for long.

The city was also the scene of the first battle of the Second World War and has suffered large-scale destruction. It is astonishing to see the meticulous reconstruction work that was done in Gdansk during the 1950s and 1960s. Flemish/Dutch, Italian and French styles of architecture were used in the reconstruction of the city, similar to the 17th century. Any traces of Germanic architecture that existed during the pre-war appearance were ignored and suppressed as it was regarded as “Prussian barbarism” and only worth of demolition.

Ulica Dluga (Long Street) and Dlugi Targ (Long Market) are now known as Gdansk Old Town with a long pedestrian thoroughfare surrounded by reconstructed buildings in a historical style and guarded on both ends by elaborate city gates. This road is often referred to as the Royal Route, since it was the former path of processions for visiting Kings of Poland and it is the most scenic place in Gdansk. Highlighted in this area is Neptune’s Fountain that is located in the centre of the Long Market. This beautiful fountain in Flemish rococo style is a masterpiece designed by architect Abraham van den Blocke that was completed in 1633. Furthermore, the Old Town is also known for Artus Court which used to be the meeting place of merchants and a centre of social life, as well as St. Mary’s Church that is known as the second-largest brick church in the world.

The status of Gdansk as the major shipping and industrial centre happened during the communist era from 1970 to 1980, when the city was the scene of anti-regime demonstrations, which led to the downfall of Poland’s communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka and Gdansk Shipyard become the birthplace of the Solidarity Trade Union movement. This solidarity movement brought the communist regime in Poland to an end in 1989 and gave Gdansk the legitimation as the city of freedom.

In this area now stands a building with walls that evoke the hulls of ships built at the Gdansk Shipyard known as the European Solidarity Centre. It is a museum and a library devoted to the history of solidarity, the Polish trade union and civil resistance movement, and the other opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe. This museum’s great design was done by Polish firm FORT Architects who won the international competition in 2007 to create this establishment. The museum has received the Council of Europe Museum Prize in 2016 for its unique design.

After learning about freedom history in Gdansk, we also visited the Museum of the Second World War that has an unusual building shape. Established in 2008, this state cultural institution and museum in Gdansk tells us all the historical stories about the Second World War that are presented in a contemporary exhibition concept that combines lighting and sound systems, with photos, memorabilia, videos to even war artillery such as bombs and tanks.

The museum that covers the area of 2,5 acres consists of three major spheres, which symbolically represent the connection between the past, present and future. The most distinctive part of the building is the 40-metre tall leaning tower with a glass façade, which houses a library, reading and conference rooms as well as cafes and restaurants with a view of Gdansk. The winning design was created by Gdynia-based Kwadrat Architectural Studio

Aside from being the city of freedom, Gdansk is also known as the true capital of amber. Coming in various colours from shades of yellow and orange, to dark, almost cherry-like red, amber is a precious fossilised tree resin that has been appreciated for its beauty as a gemstone since the Neolithic times. While in Gdansk, we met with Michal Kosior, the general manager of the International Amber Association who told us that the city lies on the crossroads of both ancient and contemporary amber routes.

Amber in Gdansk has become the source of luxury goods that come in various forms from jewellery, vas, amulets, to even figurines since the10th century with the existence of many artisan workshops. However, the two world wars wiped out all of these workshops. Fortunately, after the war, many artists attempted to restore the city’s great tradition and today, Gdansk amber masters and their art enjoy world-wide appreciation. In the Old Town of Gdansk lies many great jewellery designer boutiques that feature amber stone as well as an Amber Museum that has an impressive collection.

One of the greatest spots in the city for amber is St Bridget’s Church where we can see the amazing feature of the “amber altar”, a collaborative piece between Father Henryk Jankowski (Solidarity Chaplain), Professors Stanislaw Radwanski (rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk) and Mariusz Drapikowski. The stunning piece of this altar is an amber monstrance or ostensorium, containing the relics of the heart and blood of Saint Pope John Paul II and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, and is the piece-de-resistance of the overall design. This is, without a doubt, the most stunning church altar we have witnessed by far.

Notable Design Sites in Gdansk

While in Poland, the program also took us to visit one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that are located outside Gdansk near the town of Malbork. There, lies the largest castle in the world (measured by land area) called Marlbork Castle that was originally constructed in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights in a form of an Ordensburg fortress.

The castle is a classic example of a medieval fortress and, upon its completion in 1406, was the world’s largest brick castle. Set on an almost 21-hectare site, the castle once housed approximately 3,000 “brothers in arms” and it was from this castle that the rulers controlled the monopoly on the trade of amber. In 1945 during the Second World War, combat in the area destroyed more than half of the castle. There is an ongoing restoration since 1962 followed by another restoration that was completed in April 2016.

During our visit there, we were impressed not only on the grand design of this castle but also by the genius mindset that creates this epic construction.

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Erza S.T.
Erza has pursued his great passion for opera and classical music for over a decade. His brainchild, the Indonesia Opera Society, has produced many classical music concerts and operas, and recently marked its 10th anniversary with a gala production. He is also a journalism lover focusing on luxury, lifestyle and travel stories, which he files from datelines around the globe.

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