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Once overlooked for buzzier European cities, Warsaw has transformed into a must-visit destination for design and dining

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Warsaw’s postcard-perfect views include the entrance to Koszyki, a historic market and food hallZuzanna Kozerska/The Globe and Mail

For decades, Warsaw has sat in the shadow of buzzier European neighbours such as Prague, Berlin and fairy-tale Krakow to the south. These days, however, the Polish capital’s industrial districts, such as Praga, are filled with start-ups and studios, while its restaurant scene is among the most dynamic in Europe.

“I grew up in Warsaw and remember taking the train every month for weekend getaways in Berlin,” says Pawel Walicki, founder and CEO of Warsaw Creatives, a communications agency that promotes local design brands. “About 15 or 20 years ago, nothing was going on in Warsaw from a cultural or entertainment point of view, but the past five to 10 years have changed it tremendously.”

Walicki says Warsaw is flourishing because an unsaturated market allows its artists and entrepreneurs to succeed creatively. “The costs of living, creating and doing business are much lower than in Western Europe,” he says. As a result, a creative flowering has begun, with designers, architects and restaurateurs creating new spins on Polish traditions.

Fashion with an eastern edge

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Warsaw fashion star Magda Butrym creates sharply tailored pieces and bold knits.Handout

Of the emerging Warsaw-based fashion brands making waves today – Msbhv, Non and Belle among them – perhaps the most notable is Magda Butrym. It’s difficult to remain under the radar when the Kardashians and Beyoncé are fans.

As exuberantly accoutered as Butrym’s work is, it’s more than just red-carpet flash. To create her suits, coats and dresses, the Silesia-born 36-year-old collaborates with artisans from all over Poland, enriching fabrics such as jersey, silk and leather with pleated, hand-knit and embroidered details. The look, she says, is meant to reflect the history and romanticism of her homeland, not the needs of style capitals such as Paris or New York.

In Warsaw, her clothes are available exclusively at Redford & Grant, a luxury fashion store on Pilsudski Square.

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3-D printing goes pop

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UAUProject co-founders Justyna Faldzinska, pictured here, and Milosz Dabrowski find unique reference points for their vibrant pieces.Zuzanna Kozerska/The Globe and Mail

“The whole creative part of our lives is exactly parallel to the changes happening in Warsaw,” says Justyna Faldzinska, who co-foundeed UAUProject, a multidisciplinary design firm specializing in 3-D-printed homewares, with Milosz Dabrowski. “We started our industrial-design studies at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts shortly after Poland joined the E.U. in 2004. Since then, people have become much more open to new ideas.”

Among those ideas is their studio’s raison d’être: showing how 3-D printing using PLA filaments derived from renewable resources is the future of consumer production, even if the whimsicality of their wares (think Seussian thermoplastic candleholders and colourful interlocking pendant lights) belies the earnestness of their mission. “It’s the best way to make good design accessible,” Faldzinska says.

Although the duo frequently showcase their work at international design shows, they have no plans to take their studio, which is in Warsaw’s laid-back Ochota district, abroad. “We just really like our hometown,” Faldzinska says. “We know our way around. We know where to go to chill.” A favourite spot for a midday escape is Pole Mokotowskie, one of the biggest parks in the city.

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Polish design for all

In addition to being one of Poland’s leading product and furniture designers, Maja Ganszyniec is perhaps its most versatile, turning out collections both small-scale (see her exquisite Otok line of brass-and-fieldstone tabletop accessories for Nurt) and mass-market (Ikea is a long-time client). For Ganszyniec, who spent the beginning of her career in Milan and London, moving to Warsaw has been a powerful creative catalyst, even though it took her a while to really understand her country’s capital.

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Maja Ganszyniec’s work for her in-house brand, Nurt.Nurthome/Handout

“The best way to explain this place is to compare it to a scar – a place so touched by war, literally flattened and rebuilt from scratch,” she says. “And yet this giant loss created – continues to create – a space for the new.”

Being based in Warsaw gives Ganszyniec access to high-quality manufacturers and raw materials (as one of Europe’s most forested country, Poland is a rich source of timber). “I hadn’t really planned to live in Warsaw, but life, luckily, isn’t predictable.”

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A diversity of spaces

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The House for W by MFRMGR ARCHITEKCI’s Marta Frejda and Michał Gratkowski.Maciej JeZyk/Handout

Elegant and clean-lined single-family homes; an eye-popping restaurant interior animated by powder-coated steel framework “the colour of ketchup and cheese”; an ugly commercial unit turned airy vegan eatery, complete with floating plywood shelves evocative of a bamboo forest: As wildly varying as the projects of MFRMGR Architekci have been there is a common denominator. The 12-year-old practice led by married couple Marta Frejda and Michal Gratkowski has an unabashed commitment to context and client needs, even if it comes at the expense of a recognizable company style.

“We like diversity in our work,” Frejda says. “Both interesting customers and conditions such as location mean that virtually all of our projects are different.” One of MFRMGR’s newest large-scale projects is a proposed apartment house in Praga, where the boxy multi-unit design is intended to evoke “the heritage of building wooden objects” in the still gritty district. It’s a suitably evolving setting for the idiosyncratic firm’s oeuvre.

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Personal Brands

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Magda Pilaczynska finds inspiration in tattoo art for her bold collection of porcelain.Zuzanna Kozerska/The Globe and Mail

Prison tattoos may not be the most obvious inspiration for tableware, but Magda Pilaczynska isn’t your average porcelain artist.

A graphic designer as well as a ceramicist, the onetime illustrator for Poland’s 190-year-old Porcelain Kristoff puts as much thought into her products’ often shocking visual symbolism as she does into the firing process. The results are cups, plates and platters sporting snakes and bloody daggers.

Pilaczynska’s edgiest collection by far is TatooTaboo, where penitentiary markings including pierced hearts and skulls have been “tattooed” onto the porcelain’s surface.

Pilaczynska has also released less provocative designs, including colourful renderings of waiters balancing trays and pseudo-modernist squiggles. Her brand, appropriately enough, is called Look at Me Plates.

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The meat of the matter

For such a meat-loving city, Warsaw has a surprising wealth of plant-forward restaurants and consistently ranks among the world’s top destinations for vegans. But don’t expect any strictly veggie menus from Jurek Sobieniak, the chef, restaurateur, TV personality and cookbook author whose aim, as he said recently, is to “make meat sexy again.”

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Chef Jurek Sobieniak recently opened the meat forward Deska i Kreska.Zuzanna Kozerska/The Globe and Mail

Sobieniak serves up Poland’s beloved trifecta of pork, poultry and beef in new and innovative ways, often with global flavours. At the latest in his string of Warsaw restaurants – called Deska i Kreska and located in the Grzybowska Park area – he offers “Mediterranean cuisine with a Polish twist.” That translates to tagliatelle with braised local lamb and roasted beef rib with spicy salsa verde. The fare also includes meatless dishes such as a polenta-like roasted-corn puree topped with roasted red peppers and a sweet tomato sauce. The mix illustrates how fluid both the chef and the city’s new food scene can be.

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Style Advisor travelled to Poland as a guest of UPEMI and the European Union. The organizations did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

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