Our first encounter with Krystian was at his home—a brightly lit apartment in the Glass House, one of the most notable examples of Warsaw’s pre-war modernism, that he has just moved into with his wife and son. Though he avoids filling his home with furniture of his own design, the two pieces that did make it into his living room speak volumes about his approach to design.

    Both are one-off pieces that he made himself, one while still a student, and the other especially for his space. An RCA-educated designer and a self-taught carpenter, Krystian has a thing for tangibility—working hands-on with materials is fundamental to his design process. He reveals himself as a practitioner rather than a theorist right from the start. Born into a family of artists (sculptors, to be precise), he reconciles a genuine passion for design with a very professional approach. From the first sketches, through the prototypes made in his workshop, to finalizing the production process with the factory, he’s guided by the desire to bring to the market a product that is bullet-proof: functional, ergonomic, lasting and aesthetically pleasing.
Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog
Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog
    It’s in his workshop that this holistic approach to design is in full display. Located in Warsaw’s Old Town, it occupies the ground floor of one of the few buildings that survived the war. Acquired by his mother some 30 years ago, it now serves two generations of creators. While she still occupies the space in front, Krystian and his younger brother, currently a design student, work at the back. The space is filled with prototypes, drawings and material samples, and kept in surprising order given the scope of activities that happen here. It wasn’t, however, until we took the stairs down to the cellar, that the heart of the studio revealed itself.
    Downstairs is where Krystian works with wood, resin and whatever other material a project requires, to create prototypes of his designs – a practice that is, to his regret, a rare phenomenon in the industry. “I was surprised to discover that few designers make the prototypes themselves. For me, making a prototype is an essential part of the design process. If I made a model in 3D and had someone at the factory make it for me, I would feel that I missed a vital part of the process,” he says.
    After disappearing briefly in one of the cellar’s numerous nooks, he re-emerged carrying a self-made, polystyrene model of the Ripple chair, a testament to his love of prototyping. It was on this very model that he perfected the chair’s proportions and made a number of crucial design decisions, ones that could only be made while working with a tangible object. Back upstairs, the collection of prototypes continues, only these look like finished products, ready to be used anytime. One of the most impressive is the prototype of the Nordic chair that he made, without any precise sketches, using wood from a chopped beech shelf, to see whether the construction was sufficiently durable. “A manager from the company that commissioned the piece sat on this very prototype for a month to test it. That’s one of the reasons I show prototypes, not renderings,” he adds. Another one-off piece is his diploma project from the RCA, a bench that folds perfectly flat with just one graceful move.

For me, making a prototype is an essential part of the design process.

Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog
Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog
    His time at the RCA has undoubtedly influenced the way he works with materials. A graduate of 2010, he did his Master at the RCA at the time when the school still boasted a huge and well-equipped workshop, where the Product Design students worked alongside the ones from Vehicle Design and Industrial Design and Engineering. It was at the RCA that he learned to appreciate any material, no matter how humble. He recalls using an MDF board, thrown away by another student as worthless, to build a prototype of one of his designs. When asked if the reasons for his return from London to Poland were to any extent patriotic, he laughs at the idea at first but goes on to reveal a deep concern with the country’s image abroad, and a desire to contribute to building its image as a place where furniture is not only manufactured, but also designed. “Already when I was studying at the RCA in London, I knew that I would come back to Poland after I graduate. London may be the creative capital of the world, but it’s in Poland that the manufacturing takes place. Being based in Warsaw, I’m only a hundred kilometres away from a factory that has just acquired the newest, 5 axis CNC machine that opens up a whole new world of possibilities to me as a designer. London, on the other hand, is completely separated from the manufacturing. When I look at what my former classmates are doing, I see that a majority of them creates gallery pieces, objects that sell at auctions.” What he couldn’t predict when coming back to Warsaw in 2010, was that soon the city would become one of Europe’s most intriguing design destinations. 5 years later, Warsaw’s already a hub for product designers with a growing recognition worldwide, a proof that a decision made intuitively has paid off. “A few years ago, there was clearly a number of cities in Europe that offered more possibilities for designers—Berlin, London, Milan, just to name a few.

London may be the creative capital of the world, but it’s in Poland that the manufacturing takes place.

    Now, there are no more reasons to emigrate. I can be as successful working out of Warsaw, and I stress the fact that I’m Warsaw-based and show my work within the context of where I come from.” While Poland already has a very good reputation as a manufacturer for the furniture industry, Krystian and other internationally educated Polish designers of his generation are aiming to strengthen the country’s brand as a home of world-class designers. “My ambition is to create innovative pieces that will challenge the stereotypes. I have a vision of Poland 2.0, a country where the quality of manufacturing and design go hand in hand. In 10 years time, not only the companies but also the consumers will be aware of that. ”
    He cites Tylko’s presence at the London Design Week this autumn as one of the symptoms of change, which naturally brings us to the topic of his product that’s been in the pipeline for a few months already—the customizable salt and pepper mills, built from wooden solids in different shapes and colors, stocked on each other according to the user’s preference (an inspiration for which allegedly came from his son’s wooden blocks.)
Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog
  • I: Have you created any customizable products before?
  • K: Giving the final user the possibility to make choices was very important to me even before I started working with Tylko. The person using the product is the very reason why you make it, so I naturally started creating furniture that brought the user’s needs to the front. It led me to develop two products that could be easily adjusted to different contexts. The first was the Chair/Stool, which has a clever wooden construction that turns it from a bar stool to a chair, and also allows it to fold flat. So you can use it in the kitchen or in the dining room, depending on the occasion. Another was the Oyster chair, which comes in two versions: office and home. Both are based on the same construction, but have a very different cover. In both cases, the user makes the decisions about what function they want the piece to perform.

    My collaboration with Tylko takes this idea much further. It’s inviting the user to take part in the design process in a way that makes them co-authors of the piece.
  • I: How did you approach the challenge of designing a product that will be modified by the user?
  • K: This project was about designing a set of solids that can be combined in a logical way to create an effect that’s optimal from the user’s point of view. I’m intentionally using the word optimal, because I’m not an arbiter of ugly/beautiful here. The question of taste is very fluid and personal. My intention was to work on the proportions of the elements so that they’re coherent when put together, and even a person that doesn’t work in design on a daily basis can understand the visual consequence of combining two shapes.

My intention was to work on the proportions of the elements so that they’re coherent when put together, and even a person that doesn’t work in design on a daily basis can understand the visual consequence of combining two shapes.

  • I: How do you feel the users will interact with the process?
  • K: The best thing about this project is that it will evolve in unpredictable ways. This evolution will be twofold. First, based on the user's behaviour we will adjust the configurator, maybe add new solids or get rid of some. The users will probably create combinations I haven’t thought about. We’ll be discovering them step-by-step and I’m very looking forward to getting this feedback. It will be an equivalent of ethnographic research, only done without actually entering people’s homes.
  • I: What decisions did you reserve for yourself?
  • K: I made the decision about colours. There is a limited set that the users can choose from. But other than that I didn’t restrict the users’ freedom, because I believe that the human mind, educated in design or not, has the ability to recognize balanced proportions. Everyone can see the difference that comes from combining two scones, or from combining a soft shape with a pointy one. Our subconsciousness is very aware of geometry, and since all the solids are different from each other, I believe that using the configurator will be within everyone’s reach. The range of colours, shapes and sizes is determined in a way that leaves just the right amount of choice.
Designer Krystian Kowalski at work. Tylko Journal - interior design blog

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