Wondering what Cepelia was? Let me tell you, it was the end of October 2020 when Fundacja Cepelia Polska Sztuka i Rękodzieło ceased to exist after thirty years of operation. Born from the dissolution of what had been a monopoly, the Centrala Przemysłu Ludowego i Artystycznego (CPLiA, or more popularly known as Cepelia) had been operating in our country for over 70 years.
Creation of Cepelia in Poland
Cepelia came to life in 1949. Its task? To organize folk production and trade within the national planned economy. Allow me to explain: Zofia Szydłowska, the initiator of the Central, dreamed of reviving Polish folk art and creating a “tiny enclave, an island of aesthetics, culture, artistry, and refinement.”
Her goal was to change society’s taste, introducing folk crafts into homes. And so, it happened. Many homes saw relics on shelves, tapestries on walls, glass paintings, and painted plates. Items from Cepelia became attractive by contrast: a clay bowl, a colorful bird, a woolen runner on the table, and a furry bedspread colored the grayness of contemporary apartments.
The creation of Cepelia wasn’t a new idea, but a continuation of programs that existed in Poland since the 19th century. These included the English Arts and Crafts movement, which merged craftsmanship with art.
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The work of Stanisław Witkiewicz and Zofia Stryjeńska, who drew from the heritage of specific Polish regions, eventually led to the establishment of artist-designer groups like Polska Sztuka Stosowana, Warsztaty Krakowskie, Towarzystwo Popierania Przemysłu Ludowego, and Spółdzielnia „Ład”.
These organizations focused on discovering and learning about traditional crafts rooted in specific ethnographic regions, often through direct contact with the creators.
The Mission of Cepelia
I think it is worth to say, unlike the artistic actions of design groups, Cepelia’s task was to mass-produce crafts, manufacture them on a large scale, and supervise their diversified production.
The company incorporated both existing and newly formed craft and art cooperatives, and private factories, like Spółdzielnia „Ład”, or the famous carpet workshop of Wanda Kossecka in Czorsztyn.
Cepelia dictated production plans to cooperatives and supplied raw materials. However, top-down decisions were not always accurate, and the materials provided to the artists did not always have the appropriate quality.
The Charm of Folk Art of Cepelia
Regardless of political commands, I am convinced that folk art still fascinated. The creators at Cepelia were real people full of passion and commitment, offering traditional handicrafts.
Around these creators, a whole professional group developed: researchers, ethnographers, museum workers, anmators, who described, guided, and supported the phenomenon of folk culture. If you want to understand the legacy of Cepelia, you need to know about these individuals and the hard work they put into preserving and promoting our cultural heritage.
Let me take you back to the swinging 60s and 70s, a time when Cepelia was the place to be if you wanted genuine handicrafts. The beauty of colorful striped fabric used for spreads and cushions, homemade textiles, embroidery, wrought iron candlesticks, or toys made of straw and colored paper would simply bewitch anyone who entered.
However, the charm began to fade when these artifacts started to lose their authenticity. I think it’s worth saying, folk creators began crafting items on city-dweller’s requests, morphing their creations to fit the city people’s taste. This, my dear reader, led to the works dangerously starting to look alike, and gradually, they lost their authenticity.
The Role and Rewards of Cepelia
Now, if you want to grasp the vital role Cepelia played in preserving folk creativity in Poland, consider this: it received the Oskar Kolberg Award “for merits for folk culture” twice. First in 1974, the very year this award was instituted, and then again in 1999, the 60th anniversary of its existence. Delving into the catalog note from 1999, one can read,
Cepelia’s history is over sixty years of caring about the fading beauty, about regional and national identity, about protecting and enriching cultural heritage.
In the ever-changing conditions, Cepelia promoted art rooted in native traditions, always supporting folk creativity and artistic handicrafts. Being there, you need to know that since 1989, it has operated as the “Cepelia” Polish Art and Handicraft Foundation, bringing together units involved in the production and sale of folk art and handicraft products.
It is the owner or co-owner of a network of legal and commercial companies, owns nearly a hundred own and licensed stores, numerous galleries, and exhibition salons. I am convinced, it’s worth to say, that Cepelia employs a specialized staff of ethnographers, plastic artists, appraisers, and managers and coperates with over two thousand folk creators and craftsmen.
The Gradual Fall of Cepelia
However, Cepelia’s slow downfall began in the 90s. The opening of borders, the emergence of plastics, reprints, Scandinavian furniture all influenced the aesthetic changes of our compatriots, who wanted to surround themselves with completely different items.
But as Professor Piotr Korduba, director of the Institute of Art History UAM in Poznań, points out in the interview I read, the serious downfall started within Cepelia itself.
Changes in the company’s structure, the establishment of a foundation, the economic chamber, and the transition of stores to agencies led to the lack of artistic and design supervision that had controlled the quality of items produced there for years.
I believe it’s essential to remember that Cepelia was never intended to function in free market conditions. Its source was rooted in a completely different reality.
The End of an Era
Currently, we are witnessing the total disintegration of Cepelia. By the end of October 2020, the Cepelia Polish Art and Handicraft Foundation had ended its 30-year activity.
Now, when the fashion for folk motifs is returning, designers and artists are looking for inspiration in traditional art and culture, and we are beginning to appreciate the advantages of handicraft work. Still, Cepelia is vanishing.
As Anna Filipowicz-Mróz, an ethnologist who has worked in the Foundation for over 20 years, puts it:
This is the end of a certain stage, which is now ending irreversibly […] I think that the state should somehow react. It’s a very difficult situation, that in the middle of the city, in the very center, an institution that was a source of pride is dying. The intellectual potential of Cepelia is extraordinary […] What is appreciated in the world, in Poland is not welcome.
Looking at the “Liquidation” sign on the shop window at Chmielna 8, many people feel regret that instead of nurturing old traditions, we are looking for new trends. I know it’s tough to swallow.
Cepelia has entered dictionaries as a winged word, not always with a positive connotation. It was an aesthetic that unambiguously and universally marked Polish interiors – says Professor Piotr Korduba.
A multitude of memories have gathered around its objects. Something that has been with us forever is ending. The worst thing is that Cepelia has never had a professional archive, and its gigantic design and substantive wealth – studies, patterns, photographs of objects – is scattered – the professor adds.