We recently took stock of a stunning book titled 'Karol Śliwka'. Designed to coincide with the fifth exhibition in the 'Polish Designs Polish Designers' series at Gdynia City Museum, it celebrates the work of Karol Śliwka (b. 1932), an outstanding graphic designer and the creator of over 400 logos that have been a part of Polish everyday life for the past sixty years.
We thought we'd catch up with its author and designer Patryk Hardziej to ask him a few questions about its inception.
How did the project come about? Where you approached by Gdynia City Museum or did you propose Karol Śliwka as a subject matter for the fifth exhibition in the Polish Designs Polish Designers series?
Each year, Gdynia City Museum holds a huge exhibition dedicated to one recognised Polish designer. In previous years, it was all about the designers of ceramics, furniture and design. This year, the Museum has decided to present the works of a graphic designer for the first time. Karol Śliwka, who was born in the 1932, was chosen as he is a legendary Polish logo designer. I was asked to co-curate the exhibition, because I personally know Śliwka and I have been researching the history of Polish graphic marks for a couple of years now.
How did you learn about Śliwka and what first attracted you to his work?
Even though you can find Śliwka’s works everywhere in Poland, I found out about him from Adrian Frutiger’s “Man and His Signs”, which I read when I was at university. Karol Śliwka’s logo designed for Polish Tailors Cooperative in 1964 is, according to Frutiger, one of the examples of a good trademark. Polish graphic designers from the older generations are not as popular as artists from the Polish School of Posters, so it’s harder to find information about them. Once I started digging, it soon turned out that when it comes to Polish logo design Karol Śliwka is just as important as Paul Rand is for Americans.
What was the experience like of viewing the Śliwka work archives. Was there much work to sort through and how did you decide on what to keep in and what to leave out?
Fortunately, Karol Śliwka has been archiving his works his whole life. In his tiny studio, there are hundreds of drawings, marks, graphics and packaging designs. Everything has been organised in special binders. I managed to get a lot of material during a couple of visits. Mainly, I focused on Karol’s graphic design, even though he also painted and sculpted. We’ve also borrowed some exhibition and catalogue objects from companies that Karol Śliwka designed for.
What did you learn from your time spent with Śliwka?
First of all, I quickly stopped looking at him as a designer. He’s just a very nice, modest and cordial man who talks about his life with amazing passion. At first, I treated him as my Master, but later I started seeing him as more of a grandpa.
How well known is the work of Śliwka within Poland?
To say that his work is common and to be found everywhere is simply not enough. The most popular mark by Śliwka is PKO, which is the acronym of Powszechna Kasa Oszczędności, (meaning “General Savings Bank”), from 1969. It’s the biggest Polish bank and it hasn’t changed its logo since 1960s. Apart from that, Śliwka created the logo for the General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways and you can find them on every highway in Poland. One of the largest pharmaceutical companies ADAMED has his logo on each drug packaging. He also designed the logo of Biblioteka Narodowa – National Library of Poland. Of course, many of his marks aren’t in use any more, because a lot of institutions changed their corporate identity after the collapse of communism in 1989. However, his works still live on in memories. This only shows how characteristic and easy to remember they were.
What keeps the work of Śliwka so fresh and relevant today?
In recent years, interest in postwar modernism has increased in Poland – both in architecture and in graphic design. Old school things from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s have started to be interesting for recipients and designers again. I think that Śliwka is the archetype of those times. His marks usually consist of several symbols that create a simple, coherent and smart graphic form in a metaphorical way. That’s something that is being forgotten a bit nowadays. Most brands have a logotype, and emblems are abstract, random forms meaning nothing (dots or lines).
Of course, it’s connected with the fact that logo and corporate identity works in a different way now.
Back in the PRL (Polish People’s Republic) period, everything was controlled centrally and all companies were state-owned. There was no competition, so the products’ graphic design didn’t have to attract clients or make the customers buy them. The designers simply created nice, small works of art that were later placed on the product, which was bought anyway, because there was no alternative.
Thanks to that, they could create with greater finesse and treat themselves more as artists than craftsmen.
Why did you focus primarily on logos for the content of the book?
Karol Śliwka designed over 400 logos, more than any other Polish designer from his time. And he’s mainly known for that. He even calls himself “a sign artist”. But I also wanted to show his versatility, which is why the book contains his posters, packagings and labels.
What do you hope young designers looking at Śliwka’s work will take away from the exhibition and book?
My favourite Karol Śliwka’s quote, which he meant for young designers, reads: “You must act honourably with people and institutions. Well, I was also always well-dressed when I was meeting my client.” I think that’s the best advice you can get :)
However, in a practical sense, the book and exhibition about Śliwka fill a very large educational gap in the history of Polish graphic design. I believe that such a book was missing, especially since it is translated into English and can reach people outside Poland. The interest in Śliwka’s works is also proved with essays in the introduction written by, among others, Jens Muller and Sean Wolcott.
Is Śliwka still actively working as a designer/artist?
He was working until last year. Unfortunately, he can’t do it due to his health problems.
This book follows 'Symbol to Logo: Polish Graphic Marks 1945 – 1969, 2000 – 2015', which we are big fans of here at Counter-Print. Do you see the two books as part of a wider body of work, by yourself, celebrating Polish graphic design? What can we expect next from you?
I’ve never expected that, as an illustrator, I would start to work on books about design, although I love to collect them myself. It all began with my master’s diploma in “Polish Graphic Signs” (2014) in which I placed 50 signs by 50 authors, completed over the course of 50 years. While working on this book, I came across information about the 1st Polish Exhibition of Graphic Marks from 1969. I got hooked on the subject and decided to recreate the event together with Rene Wawrzkiewicz. Since 2015, we have organised 15 editions in 5 countries. The 16th edition will take place in Vienna in September as part of the Vienna Design Week. Books that I design are connected with the events in which I was involved. “Symbol to Logo” was the English version of the catalogue for this exhibition.
The next publication on design that I’m working on is a book about the corporate identity of CPN – the only petrol station in the times of the PRL. It is also the first complex Polish visual identity (designed in 1969). Ryszard Bojar, its author, was a student of, among others, Jay Doblin (Unimark International) and the great Bucky Fuller.
Interview – Patryk Hardziej
Posted by Jon Dowling on