These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.
My name is Elżbieta Dworak I work at Komserwis, a family business, which was founded by my parents who have produced street furniture for more than 20 years now. We started as a very small company in the ’90s and now we are a recognized manufacturer of street furniture here in Poland. Now we produce many kinds of products: mostly benches, litter bins, bike racks, planters, etc. We are keeping with newer trends like the smart city. We use steel, aluminum, cast iron, concrete, and wood.
When I was younger I’ve never imagined working here with plans to be a boss one da; I am a lawyer, after all. I’ve thought that my career will lay in courtrooms. But I think I have never felt that law was 100% my “thing.” So when I had a break between graduating from university and passing my vocational exams I started to work here, in my parents’ company, it was supposed to be only for one year but now I can’t think about doing anything else.
How did you/your company get started in street furniture?
The ’90s was for sure a very interesting time in this part of the world. In Poland, after long years of communism, we finally could shape our environment – metaphorically and literally. It was possible to start your own company because the free economy was introduced. After some reforms, we created municipalities: we could choose our local authorities. People felt that they had influence.
In this climate, my parents founded Komserwis. And why street furniture? I have asked them about that a few times, “you can earn money in many other ways, why this one?” My dad worked for a while in a town hall and he saw the need for this kind of product. Back then there weren’t many producers of street furniture in the area so the opportunity was great. Maybe it didn’t start with one great thought behind it but lots of business started because someone had a good idea at the right time.
Street furniture creates and influences relations between people. Public space and street furniture are inextricably linked together. Artur Filip, a recognized Polish urbanist said that,
“The concept of ‘public space’ is eminently urban, not only open space, one where you can be and spend your time like in a forest, by a river or in a field. Rather, it means a meeting space. And not just any, because unlike home space, meeting strangers.”
Our products are tools to make these meetings possible. You put pieces together in different ways, arrange people in front of each other, or far apart. When I think about it, we as the manufactures of street furniture, have quite a lot of power in shaping interactions between people.
I have never thought about what my favorite piece of street furniture is, but I think a bench or a seat in general is my favorite. It is so versatile. Almost every rom-com has two people who meet for the first time on a park bench. In the real world it matters what kind of furniture you put on the spot, and how you arrange them in space. You can sit on it, alone or with other people, you can use it as a table or rest your bike against it. You can even assemble a solar panel and charge your phone. A bench can be functional, or look like a piece of contemporary art. There is no better tool to create human interactions than a seat.
Cities are lacking lots and lots of things; they are not perfect. From my experience, cities and towns are not exactly adapted to the world as we know it. I’m not just speaking about the pandemic, but rather about other changes: the aging of societies, climate changes, etc. Here in Poland a few years ago we had a trend to renovate city squares and remove trees and plants from them, change them into stone and concrete deserts. Now everybody says it was a great mistake because with the hot summers we have the squares behave like big radiators.
When we think about public space as meeting ground we cannot make this space useless to its purpose. It doesn’t matter how many benches you put in these concrete deserts, people will not use them. I think many cities are lacking in farsighted management. This isn’t true for all of them, and the situation is changing for the better. But some damage is very hard to repair, and when it’s done, it’s done. As the manufacturer of street furniture, we have some voice in the discussion of how our cities and towns should be managed, especially public space. We are the experts in this matter.
I do not think there is much difference between street furniture in Poland and the rest of the world. I follow some American companies and, as much as I can tell, our products are similar. The difference may be more classic or futuristic in design but these are differences you can expect in general, no matter from which country companies are. European and American companies sell their furniture in each other’s countries, so there must be something people from both sides of the Atlantic like. Our cities and towns may look different, but when we talk about street furniture, people have the same needs despite nationality.
I think street furniture is an integral part of cities and towns all over the world, and it is evolving with society. Who thought about recycling bins 50 years ago? Now, everybody thinks about it. Street furniture is an important part of city planning, and in the university design department, scholars are appreciating them more. In Poland, we have a design competition called Good Design (Dobry Wzór), which started in 1997. Last year we were a laureate in the “Public Sphere” category with the Flow collection and this year some of our products are nominated too.
I am so happy when I see people appreciate products I, my parents, and colleagues offer them. That they need our products in their day to day lives inspires me to keep working.