Polish graphic design, it would seem, is having something of a moment. From the stunning examples selected by Cooper Hewitt curator Ellen Lupton for the ongoing “How Posters Work” exhibition (on view through November 15, 2015), to the traveling show “Inside Out: Polish Graphic Design in the Making,” which recently made the rounds from Milan’s Salone del Mobile to the Wanted Design fair at NYCxDESIGN, and finally (and perhaps most notably), to Very Graphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century, a beautiful new book that takes a sweeping and comprehensive look at Poland’s rich history of communication design, a legacy that goes well beyond the country’s best known efforts—its posters—and spans major social and political movements to provide context for the work, from avant garde experiments, bold collages, and winsome illustration to sharp logos, clever wayfinding, and eye-catching packaging design.
Much more than a catalogue or a “best hits,” the range of work in Very Graphic was chosen to tell the broader story of 20th century Polish graphic design. Organized chronologically into three chapters: 1900–1945 (war time), 1945–1980 (to the beginning of solidarity movement, a moment of political transition), and 1980–2000, each section is further divided by designer, 64 in all. For readers accustomed to art and design history books that cut a wide swath but give the people profiled in its pages just a highlight—a mere paragraph and a picture—you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the full essay illustrated with several pieces of work, spanning six full pages. For each designer! Okay, it sounds a bit geeky to get this excited about longform essays and all, but given the book started as a series of articles published in 2 + 3D Quarterly, it’s noteworthy for being this heavy on visuals.
Read just a few of these essays and the first thing you’ll learn is that Poland’s design history really is so much more than just posters. Don’t get me wrong—the posters are phenomenal. But as the book’s editor Jacek Mrowczyk pointed out in a recent panel discussion, posters are to Polish design what “sushi is for Japanese cuisine.” There’s a whole lot more on the menu.
Before we get to those other offerings, let’s touch quickly on why Polish posters get all the attention. At the time they were produced, long before words like “design” or “graphic designer” existed, the economy was in such a sad state that the bar to sell products was extremely low, meaning there was little to no pressure on poster artists (their term) from marketers to actually sell anything. The country may have been cash poor, but designers enjoyed enormous freedom. For example, the typical brief for a film poster designed in the United States would stipulate that the designer had to show the leading actors’ faces; not so for Polish designers, which is why you see incredibly artistic interpretations of films. According to Mrowczyk, many Polish posters are more like “colorful birds” than what we typically think of as advertisements.
Whether it’s a movie poster, a magazine layout, an album cover, a book, or a bottle of aspirin, the work by the designers in Very Graphic is some of the most breathtakingly creative you’re likely to find. No wonder its established a design legacy in Poland that has inspired generation after generation over the course of the 20th century, and why we continue to see such incredibly strong illustrators and graphic designers emerge from the country.