INTERVIEWS, ART FAIRS
14 - 16 May 2021
Harriet Williams and Sylwia Newman are passionate about posters. Specifically, the midcentury movement known as the Polish School of Posters that saw Poland’s top artists channelling their creativity into poster design – the only artistic outlet permitted under the Communist regime. Their faces light up with enormous smiles as they talk about their business, Projekt 26, a passion project that has since blossomed into a fully-fledged business. This weekend the pair are hosting the UK’s first Vintage Poster Market along with some other specialist poster dealers at Peckham’s Copeland Yard where you’ll be able to pick up original mid-century pieces from just £10. We meet Harriet and Sylwia to find out more.
How did you two meet?
We live close to one another and met through our children. We bonded over a love of mid-century art and design, and the Polish Cyrk (state circus) posters that Sylwia had up in her home. We had the idea for Projekt 26 and launched in May 2019.
Could you explain a bit about the Polish School of Posters?
The movement came about because the top artists and graphic designers of the day were working in the poster medium – it was the only thing they could do under Communism. The Ministry of Arts and Culture commissioned artists to promote all of the state-owned cultural output (films, theatre, exhibitions, circus etc). Incredibly in a time of great repression they gained complete creative freedom by not having to answer to commercial bosses. But the artists never stopped fighting for the positive values and freedoms they believed in. So what you have are these incredible posters that are not only aesthetically beautiful but that were also designed to leave people thinking. They often contained subtle hidden meanings and recognisable symbols to convey a subversive message.
Could you share an example?
Yes, the Cyrk (state circus) posters are wonderful examples of how a bright colourful design could include more subtle socio-political commentary about the totalitarian state.
Generic symbols such as the bear (Russian bear) represented the Soviet Union, and they were often depicted riding bikes and balls to signify Russia’s desire to conquer the world. In this poster, by Waldemar Swierzy, the big bear is all pompous and dressed up but ends up looking a bit ridiculous with his tiny bicycle.
Where would these posters have been displayed?
On walls around the different towns and cities. They would have been pinned up inside cinemas and theatres too. Warsaw was destroyed in the war so a lot of the city was rubble with building sites boarded up all over the place. Onto these ply-boards would come the posters; it made the street an art gallery. You can imagine the depression and bleakness after the war and then these colours coming out on the posters.
Could you share some of your film posters?
Yes, posters were designed for every film which passed through the Polish cinemas. The films came from all around the world – including Poland, Britain, America, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Italy. It’s fun to look at them compared to their contemporary counterparts, in many cases the designs are stronger.
Why did you want to set up Projekt 26?
Sylwia is Polish, and I (Harriet) am a graphic designer. We are both so passionate about these posters, and also want to promote the movement and continue the cultural legacy of these amazing artworks.
Why the name?
Projekt was an rebellious and inspirational Polish art and design magazine which was started by Roman Cieslewicz, one of the key artists from the Polish School of Posters, and gained a cult following around the world. All of the covers were designed by Polish poster artists and there was a poster included with every copy. 26 because it’s the age we wish we were!
How do you source the posters?
We have been to Warsaw together many times. It helps that Sylwia is Polish and can speak the language. We are getting to know surviving artists and their families, as well as the poster collectors there. They are so supportive and want to help us preserve the history and the story of these pictures. It feels collaborative.
What’s the idea behind the Vintage Poster Market?
We’ve done a lot of smaller fairs in Peckham but this is the first big market that we have organised. We’ve approached lots of other specialist dealers including Rock Paper Film, Travel on Paper, Chaleureuse, Cool Walls and Twentieth Century Prints as the space is huge! In Poland they had the first ever poster museum, and the International Poster Biennale. So we were a bit inspired by that, we decided to open it up for everyone. We’re super excited about it. It’s the first one of its kind.
Can we have a sneak peek at what will be on sale this weekend?
Of course. We will have a huge selection of posters from £10-£1000. A couple of new pieces include:
Where do you live in London and where are your favourite haunts?
We both live in Forest Hill. There’s a great community in south-east London. In ten minutes we can get to Peckham with its buzzy atmosphere and rooftop bars and then we can retreat back up the road to leafy Forest Hill. Plus we have the Horniman Museum on the doorstep.
What’s your working dynamic at Projekt 26?
We’ve become the best of friends. It’s great because working together we can exchange experiences and cultures. (Sylwia) – I moved here 16 years ago, but feel more encouraged to share my heritage since setting up the business. (Harriet) – I love learning about Polish culture and travelling to Warsaw. Sylwia introduced me and a whole bunch of our friends to Polish skiing in a beautiful old mountain town with ornate wooden chalets. It’s now our highlight of the year!
What are your favourite accounts to follow on Instagram?
@montagueprojects – for his graphic design aesthetic
@andthentheywentwild – for interiors
@davidshringley – always makes us smile
Who buys your posters?
Everyone! Collecting vintage posters is an affordable way of collecting art. Every print is slightly different, they are all a little bit imperfect and we love them all the more for it.