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Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator
Katarzyna Łomnicka

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Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator
Katarzyna Łomnicka

The calls for the renewal of crafts which emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century reverberated quite strongly in early 20th century Polish art. The conception of close collaboration between the artist-designer and the contractor-craftsman, initiated by the British Arts & Crafts movement, was then taken up in the activities of such groups as Vienna Workshops and found its reflection in the agenda of Polish artistic societies. Already in 1901 the Polish Applied Arts Society was established in Krakow, which focused its attention on promoting crafts and raising the prestige of applied arts so that they would not lose their aesthetic value. Along with the person of the artist-designer, the role of the craftsman started to be noticed as the producer of the commissioned designs.

                                           Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator                   Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

In Krakow, the workshop of Józef Sperling operated from 1905, in which designed furniture of various kinds was made by renowned artists associated in the Society of Polish Applied Arts. Sperling kept abreast of current trends in design and tracked down the accomplishments of top designers. He imported furniture pattern books and ready products from Vienna, including the furniture of the Austrian company of Jacob & Josef Kohn, who closely cooperated with Vienna Workshops.

Activities of Józef Sperling

Józef Sperling came from the family who had traded in furniture for centuries. After the period of apprenticeship, he took over the family company in Rzeszów and nearly at the same time, in 1905, opened his first warehouse at Wrzesińska 7 in Kraków; a year later he settled in Kraków. The intensive development of the city was a factor which facilitated his activities, and he soon moved to the neo-Renaissance mansion at Dunajewskiego 7. Thanks to his contacts in the artistic circles of Krakow and cooperation with many designers, Sperling quickly gained the confidence of customers and the position of adviser in interior design, while the company he ran was entrusted with many important commissions. It is in his workshops that the furniture for the Doctor Kazimierz Dłuski Sanatorium in Zakopane was made, following the designs of Karol Frycz, Henryk Uziembło and Jan Rembowski. In 1910, the furniture designed by Stefan Filipkiewicz and Stanisław Kamocki and made by Sperling’s company was presented at the Universal Exhibition of Polish Art in Lvov in the room dedicated to the “Sztuka” Polish Artists’ Society. He also specialized in designing interiors of Kraków cafés, which at the turn of the 20th century became fashionable venues for meetings of artists and literati. Vienna style suits of furniture that he had produced have been preserved to this day at Jama Michalika café (designed by Karol Frycz) and Jan Noworolski pastry shop in the Cloth Hall of Kraków (designed by Eugeniusz Dąbrowa-Dąbrowski).

       Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator    Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

In 1913 Sperling moved to Sławkowska 12, where, on the ground floor, he opened a furniture warehouse. In 1924 he left for France and settled in Nice together with his wife Maria Silberberg, who was the sister of Aneri Irena Weiss. The company he left in Poland continued operating and the entrepreneur kept his contacts with local artists. After the boycott of the Society of the Friends of Fine Arts in Kraków had been declared by some artistic societies, Sperling hosted the Independent Exhibition, which opened in his house on 12 February 1927, announced by the poster designed by Wojciech Weiss. The rooms at Sławkowska 12 served as a temporary venue for exhibitions in subsequent years too.

The Exhibition “Architecture and Interiors in Garden Surroundings” in 1912

In the early 20th century Kraków was one of the densely populated European cities. Architects and urban designers quickly responded to the idealistic vision of garden cities developed by the British designer, Sir Ebenezer Howard. In 1912 the delegation of Polish architects and the Polish Applied Arts Society initiated the organization in Kraków of the exhibition of Architecture and Interiors in Garden Surroundings, which had no precedent either in Poland or in Europe. In the area situated between the Błonia meadow and Henryk Jordan park in Kraków, designs and scale models of residential houses for families of highly diverse material status as well as fully furnished life-size model houses were presented. Ebenezer Howard himself was among the visitors to the exhibition.

                            Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator       Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

What aroused greatest interest of visitors was the suburban residential house designed by Józef Czajkowski, which was a compromise between the tendency to search for the national style and the tenets of Modernism. Its interior design had been entrusted to artists of the Polish Applied Arts Society and the collaborating craftsmen. The suit of furniture designed by Edmund Bartłomiejczyk for the children’s room at the first floor of the house was made by Józef Sperling’s company, in whose workshops the upholstery work was also done on the furniture designed by Henryk Uziembło for the dining room at the ground floor of the house.

             Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator     Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

“Imitation of historical styles went hand in hand with references to folk art. The furniture was decorated with palmettes, highlander sun ornaments, decorative sequins (dining room), geometrically patterned spoon holders (sitting room and bedroom), or highly stylized highlander breastpins (the room of the lady of the house). The greatest influence of folk art is noticeable in the suit of furniture designed by Edmund Bartłomiejczyk for the children’s room. Folk style furniture was adorned with an ornament pattern drawn upon the embroidered Łowicz table runners. The wardrobe was decorated with the nativity crèche of fairy tale shapes and colours, which resembled Eastern rite churches of eastern Galicia.” (Maria Zientara, “Wystawa Architektury i Wnętrz w Otoczeniu Ogrodowym w Krakowie w 1912 r.” [in:] Zeszyty naukowe Muzeum Historycznego Miasta Krakowa, Kraków 1991, p. 107)

Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

The designer of the children’s room furniture was Edmund Bartłomiejczyk (1885-1950), prominent designer and illustrator as well as industrial designer. Initially, he studied at the School of Design at Warsaw’s Crafts Museum. In 1906-1909 he continued studying at the Fine Arts Academy in Kraków, and later in 1910-1913 at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw. At the same time, from 1912 on, he worked at the Warsaw architectural office of Józef Gałęzowski. In 1917-1930 he lectured at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw Polytechnic. He was Professor of the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw (since 1932 – Academy of Fine Arts). He belonged to many artistic groups: Ryt, Koło Artystów Grafików Reklamowych, Blok Zawodowych Artystów Plastyków; he also received many awards (gold medals at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925 and at the Universal National Exhibition in Poznań in 1929, as well as the Grand Prix at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris in 1937). He started his independent artistic activities in applied arts already when he was a student in Warsaw. His first significant work was the design of furniture for the children’s room which was then produced in the workshops of Józef Sperling and presented at Kraków’s exhibition of Architecture and Interiors in Garden Surroundings. The suit included the wardrobe decorated with a folk crèche, a low square cabinet, a bed, a night cabinet, a table with a double door cupboard placed under its top, two benches and chairs. The furnishings of the children’s room was complemented by patterned kilims placed on the walls and on the floor. The majority of the furniture from the exhibition room have been preserved. For years the furniture was stored and used in the house of Wojciech Weiss, where it ended up due to Sperling’s family relations.    

The furniture was made in Sperling’s workshop from specially selected straight-grained solid pine timber. It was uniquely varnished, and not veneered, except for the table top for which a rare, circumferentially cut pine veneer was used. The doors of the wardrobe, cabinets and chair backrests were inlaid in ebony, sycamore and walnut with national folk patterns. The furniture underwent full conservation in 2012 to mark the centenary of their creation and displayed by the Wojciech Weiss Museum Foundation at the Art Nouveau World Day 8-10 June 2013 in the interior reconstructed on the basis on archive photos from the original exhibition.

The suit of the original furniture now includes:

wardrobe [210 cm high, 104.3 cm wide, 41.5 cm deep]
low square cabinet [75 cm high, 64.3 cm wide, 61.1 cm deep]
table [top 179 x 84.7 cm, table 76.6 cm high]
double-door cupboard placed under the table [53.5 cm high, 74.2 cm wide, 23.9 cm deep]
two benches [210.8 cm long, 40 cm wide, 38.5 cm high]
chair [91 cm high, 37.4 cm wide, 36,8 cm deep, seat 36.7 cm high]
Apart from that, three additional chairs were made as replicas of the only surviving chair.

The furniture designed by Bartłomiejczyk for the exhibition in 1912 and made in the workshops of Józef Sperling demonstrate the influences of both the native folk art and the artistic conceptions originating from Vienna Workshops.

                Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator  Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator  Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

The style of Vienna Workshops, represented in the early period by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, preferred simplified forms, nearly radical in their expression, and abandoned excessive ornamentation, limiting it to purely geometrical shapes. The emergence of the style and its further development in the early 20th century created an alternative for fantastically elaborate, organic forms of Art Nouveau, and at the same time became an inspiration for later Modernist trends. What had a particular significance for the developing stylistics of Vienna Workshops was the interior design of the apartment of Doctor Hans and Gerta Eisler von Terramare, completed in 1903 by Koloman Moser. The idea of simple, functional, and at the same time elegant furniture was reflected in the designs of Polish artists too. In the suit under discussion austere forms of the wardrobe, cabinets and backrests were supplemented with the geometrical ornament of folk origin, which formed an exceptionally light, elaborate decorative element. This had given a special flavour to the small cabinet and the table with the double-door cupboard, which in their sturdy form virtually predated the furniture of the 1920s.

The suit of children’s furniture designed for the 1912 exhibition, thanks to its combination of functionalism and simple form with the aesthetics of workmanship, has harmoniously matched interior furnishings for almost one hundred years without interruption, constantly discovering new contexts and new possibilities of arranging space.

copyright© Fundacja Muzeum Wojciecha Weissa

The project Partage Plus, in which Wojciech Weiss Museum Foundation takes part, aims at popularizing the European cultural heritage of the Art Nouveau period by establishing digital resources and making them available online. Thanks to the project some 75 thousand items dating back to ca 1900 have been digitized. More than 20 partners from all over Europe are involved in the project and have supplied to the Europeana portal the material they have assembled. The website makes it possible to access information concerning the items which constitute European cultural heritage. It provides brief information about archive materials, artworks, crafts and architecture, all accompanied by miniature photographs and references to the websites of the promoting institutions. The brief data available from the Europeana portal are designed to encourage users to search more detailed information directly from the websites of specific museums, libraries, etc. Europeana is a platform of the exchange of expertise between curators, librarians, archivists and scholars. Europeana is a prestige initiative co-financed by the European Commission as part of the European Union CIP-ICT-PSP programme, which at present allows access to several million cultural items.

Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator

 Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator 
Józef Sperling (1884-1949) - Entrepreneur and Innovator









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