David Crowley, design historian
“My decision to study in Brighton led me to an expected place … communist Poland.
“I joined the History of Design BA programme in 1984. In academic terms, this was a new subject that set out to explore the meanings and role of things in the modern world. On the pages of glossy design magazines, this meant chic objects by stars, but my tutors were very keen to expand the ‘canon’. So, in my second year they arranged a two-week study tour of Poland.
“In an age of the instant communication and cheap flights, it is hard to explain how distant and strange the Eastern Bloc seemed in 1986. The Cold War was in its final phases: Reagan in the White House was plotting an alarming acceleration of the arms race, and perestroika had only just been announced by the Kremlin. Anti-communist dissent in Poland was front-page news.
“When we arrived, it was very clear that the country was in crisis but the designers, curators and academics who were our guides revealed another Poland. They showed us ‘unknown’ art nouveau furniture, modern movement villas from the 1920s and prototypes from the late 1950s created to launch consumerism in socialist Poland. These objects were as strikingly original as anything in western Europe.
“I returned to Poland as a research student in the late 1980s. This, in turn, led to an MA and then a book in 1992 on the tensions between nationalism and internationalism in Polish design and architecture before 1939. In my teaching at the University of Brighton, and then at the Royal College of Art, I have maintained a strong interest in Eastern Europe.
“Twenty years after our trip to Poland, the circle turned. Some of the objects which I first saw in Warsaw came to London in 2008 to feature in an exhibition that I curated with Jane Pavitt for the V&A, entitled Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970. The Cold War was not only fought in the arms and space races but, as we set out to show, in the fields of architecture, graphic and product design too. When eastern bloc governments promised – with a good dose of hubris – to overtake the West, they turned to design to materialise their declarations. Some designers accepted the task: others resisted. Looking at these exhibits in the V&A’s spotlights, I could hear echoes of conversations I’d first had in 1986.”
David Crowley, 2009