Many of us in may remember them as the unlikely heroes of our grandmas’ dressers. They would stand modestly between vases, potted plants, and framed family photos. Today, they are prized collector’s items whose auction prices can easily reach four-digit numbers.
We’re talking, of course, about the minimalist, porcelain animal figurines, which in the 1950s and 1960s used to be both a popular birthday or wedding gift and the pride of Polish design. Dogs, roe deer, turkeys, gibbons, panthers, giraffes, or even camels – these are just a few specimens that could be found in that unique zoo.
Dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the porcelain factory in the Polish town of Ćmielów quickly gained a reputation in Europe, making unique collections of tableware and coffee sets, and later also ornaments in the form of various figurines. Unfortunately, the times of prosperity were soon interrupted by World War II, after which the factory was nationalized. Recovering from the turmoil of the war, the factory stood out even more, becoming one of the main hubs of Polish design in Communist Poland.
This enormous success was owed to the cooperation between the factory and the Warsaw Institute of Industrial Design. The local young and talented designers went on to produce designs worthy of Western craftsmanship and which to this day are reproduced by the manufacturer as a tribute to that unique style Henryk Jędrasiak, Hanna Orthwein, Mieczysław Naruszewicz and Lubomir Tomaszewski are some of the protagonists responsible for the boom of small-scale sculpture in Poland. In addition to the unique animal figurines, famous porcelain representations of people were also made, such as the collections of girls, Sudanese women, singers, strongmen and snake charmers.
Even though each of the designers had their own individual style, the common denominator in their work was minimalism and lightness, which stood in sharp contrast with the rough times from before the Khrushchev Thaw of 1956. Despite a certain convention in the development of forms, the animal figurines give the impression of being very dynamic, thanks to their smooth lines, openwork design and small fulcrums. Meanwhile, the exceptionally charming, hand-painted details (which may come in several colors) emphasize the characteristics of a given species.
In 2000, after more than thirty years, the old templates were retrieved from the archives and the production of the porcelain zoo resumed. The existing projects have been supplemented with new ones upon the initiative of the current owner, Adam Spała, and that of former artists such as Lubomir Tomaszewski who have been re-invited to join the project.
Today, you can buy the figurines made according to original designs in the manufacturer’s retail store. The original designs from almost seven decades ago can be found not only in the homes of our grandparents or at local flea markets, but also in the catalogs of auction houses such as Rempex, Sopot Auction House or Desa Unicum. This is the mini zoo of our dreams!
transl. Jakub Majchrzak