10 December 2022
Text: Katarzyna Jagodzińska
December is informally dedicated to toys. The city dons its festive decorations, and stalls at Christmas markets abound with trinkets, enchanting with their designs, patterns and colours. We are seeing growing numbers of toys crafted by local artisans using natural materials.
Natural vs. synthetic
“Manmade materials were first introduced at the turn of the 20th century, and even though they were cheap and easy to manufacture, they were less child-friendly,” says Marek Sosenko, founder of Poland’s largest private collection of classic toys (almost 50,000 items!) which will form the basis of the Kraków Toy Museum (yet to find a site). “I’m sure kids appreciated the huge range of dazzling colours, but the new materials weren’t as tactile as natural. To begin with, plastic and celluloid toys were a rarity, and now we’ve reached the point that manufacturers of toys made of natural materials such as wood and fabrics including linen, cotton and wool are a proud minority.” These high-quality, detailed and frequently hand-finished toys (with the highest safety certificates) enchant young users and collectors and fans of good design. However, a collection documenting the history of production trends must cover the full spectrum. “There are countless cheap, colourful plastic toys out there. We cannot ignore them when assembling our collection, but we generally try to focus on toys made of natural materials,” adds Sosenko.
Mend, don’t replace
By presenting classic and contemporary toys side by side, the Kraków Toy Museum strives to build an awareness of consumerism. The first major Toy Clinic exhibition (2021/2022) highlighted the issues of overproduction – the out-of-control deluge of cheap, mass-produced tat made of shoddy materials in poor conditions and with no respect for the environment which has taken over the world by clever marketing. The presented toys have been repaired by professionals or amateurs at the clinics, or they were awaiting treatment, all to show that you don’t have to throw away broken or damaged toys, but that you can try to fix or repurpose them. The idea of a toy clinic will be continued once the museum finds a venue.
Old toys amassed in a museum collection are a vast source of inspiration. This was one of the foundations of the South Kensington Museum in London, the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, and later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum. Since its foundation in 1852, it was intended to be an educational resource for all and to help improve the standards of the British industry by instructing designers, producers and consumers in art and science. Providing standards for replication and development is also an important activity of the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków. This was the aim of the Małopolska Thing. Ethnographic Pattern Book published in 2010 (second edition in 2016), exploring myriad colours, motifs, materials and formats and presented as a colour chart. Toys are one of the elements telling the story of our region’s non-material heritage. The museum collection includes folk toys from the late 19th century until the present day. “They encapsulate the magic of old Kraków, its residents and visitors from the countryside. They recall former traditions, customs and rites (…) and resound with echoes of ancient legends and fairytales,” write Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz and Grażyna Pyla, authors of the album Charm of Cracovian Toys accompanying the exhibition. The album is also a collection of ideas, while the museum stores holding two thousand toys are being used as inspiration for contemporary artists and craftspeople.
Kraków Workshops 2.0
The colourful and inventive yet simple designs of toys made by the Kraków Workshops have been enchanting and inspiring artists for over a century. Operating between 1913 and 1926 at the Museum of Technology and Industry, the cooperative brought together acclaimed artists, architects and craftspeople who designed everyday objects, including toys. The Ethnographic Museum is reaching for this tradition by running something of the Kraków Workshops 2.0. “We are trying to recreate this process of joining forces and working together in an interdisciplinary way. We are hoping to bring together artists, designers and craftspeople to join this informal creative coalition. Together we look at our collections to find inspiration for new designs,” explains Katarzyna Piszczkiewicz, co-ordinator of activities in the public sphere.
The Ethnographic Museum has a long tradition of using an interdisciplinary approach. One of the results has been three exhibitions of huge wooden figures and forms at the Wolnica Square and wooden playgrounds inspired by the museum’s collections. In September, a flock of Wawel Dragons was created following the original design by Zofia Stryjeńska – one of the most popular toys made by the original Kraków Workshops – commissioned by the City of Kraków in limited numbers for promotional purposes. The dragon is an extraordinary animated toy: small wooden elements are joined along a strip of fabric such that it serves as “spine” and brings the creature to life. The designer of the shape and colour is Olaf Cirut. “We were tempted to evolve the original prototype,” says Piszczkiewicz. “For us it’s another way of playing with heritage and of using past narratives to talk about the city as it is today.”
What are the best toys and decorations for Christmas? Who better to ask than Marek Sosenko? “Gifts included any toys you could buy, while the tree was mainly decorated with homemade trinkets. It was cheaper, but more than anything getting the whole family involved in preparing Christmas decorations was an inclusive bonding exercise, bringing joy and happy lifelong memories. Making decorations out of straw, paper, twigs, blown eggs, conkers, acorns, cones and various fruit was a fundamental festive activity and one of the most important elements of the Christmas atmosphere.”
Decorations inspired by the Kraków Workshops can easily be made at home. Prof. Anna Myczkowska-Szczerska has been recreating paper Christmas decorations as part of a research project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. She is preparing a book telling the story of these designs and providing instructions on making decorations out of coloured paper. The Toy Museum has reached for this collection while preparing the latest instalment of their flagship mobile project “Toy Showcase”. A team of social curators, guided by Prof. Myczkowska-Szczerska, made a collection of paper fish and crayfish following the designs of Zdzisław Gedliczka (1888–1957). The intricate patterns, recreated using precise bookbinding tools, will adorn Christmas trees in many Cracovian homes, maintaining this beautiful heritage.
Making your own toys and decorations brings enormous satisfaction and not just during the festive period. Amy Perkis, one of the curators of the fourth, English-language edition of the “Toy Showcase”, shared her experience of participating in workshops in making wooden carriages with toymakers Piotr and Anna Mentel from Stryszawa: “It might seem that a toy-making workshop is just for kids, but we were joking that the adults were having more fun than the kids because this is something we’re not normally ‘allowed’ to do.” Karolina Grzegorska who took part in the workshop with her three daughters adds: “For kids these toys are really special because they made them themselves.” The “Toy Showcase” project featuring a curated selection of dozens of classic toys from the Sosenko family collection will appear in a festive setting at the Szołayskich Tenement House (branch of the National Museum in Krakow) and the Podgórze Museum (branch of the Museum of Krakow) from 3 December.
A souvenir from Kraków
What should be the ultimate Cracovian toy (and a souvenir from Kraków) be for 2022 and the coming years? Maybe one of you will be tempted to design it? There have been a few competitions in the past, but none brought the desired results. Let’s rummage through museum collections in search of inspiration – submit your entries to the Toy Museum (email@example.com). Or perhaps it’s time for Kraków Workshops 3.0?
Assistant Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University, programme director at the Toy Museum in Kraków and director of the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub in Kraków. She specialises in museum studies and cultural heritage.
Photo by Marcin Wąsik
Original Wawel Dragon designed by Zofia Stryjeńska in 1918 from the collection of the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków
The text was published in the 4/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly