Monika Unger’s apartment is like a continuously changing landscape of contemporary and modern curiosities.

THE COLLECTOR

INTERVIEWER: EWA TRZCIONKA

MILAN 14.2.2015

ARCHITECTURE ART DESIGN LIFESTYLE PEOPLE

Monika Unger spent her first years of life in Warsaw, a culturally and politically demanding city at that time. A forced escape from the home country led her through Belgium and the USA to Italy. How was one of the most interesting modernism collections in Europe created? What her father Leopold was like? In what language does she think? – Monika answers all these questions in her Milan apartment in a conversation with Ewa Trzcionka.
I do not know in what language I think. I went from Poland to Belgium with my whole family when I was 12. In essence, I am Belgian. That was the time when the Jews were leaving for Israel, but we landed in Brussels, where my mother’s family lived. We did not have passports, so the return to our home country was impossible. We all learned life anew. Father (editor’s note: Leopold Unger) was a journalist, so he had to start writing in French. That was not easy because he was 45 at the moment of leaving Poland. He was a tough and determined person, so he took up that language, but, like the majority of Poles from that emigration wave, he spoke French with a horrible accent. Actually he had a specific accent while speaking any language, be it Spanish or English. Still, he started writing; they helped him with translations at the beginning, but then he began to flourish incredibly. Nonetheless, he could not go to Poland for 20 years. He wrote for “Kultura” [Culture] in Paris and signed his texts as a citizen of Brussels.

And yet your way did not end in Belgium.
- In 1980, I went to USA for two years and I returned to Italy, not Belgium. After many years, when things changed in Poland, so that father could come back to Poland and write for “Gazeta Wyborcza”, I was already a permanent resident in Italy. I went to Poland in the 1990s with my father, when he published his first book there: its title was “Intruz” [Intruder]. That was my first visit to the home country after my departure, so I found it hard to speak Polish then. While my father could read Polish, I could not. My French was fluent and I finished school in that language. Then there was the USA, and it turns out that the language which should be the most important one – Polish – is not the language I speak best. I also have an older brother, who lives in Hong Kong. It seems we got scattered all over the world...

About

How would you explain your strong interest in design of the modernist period?
- My love for all that, for modernism, for modernity, originated in Poland. In our house in Warsaw there was furniture by “Ład” (a cooperative designing and producing furniture in communist Poland); actually, almost everyone had them. We did not know classical furniture at all: we had no grandparents or houses to leave it for us. We did not have so-called legacy, either, so it was normal for me that we had small, simple pieces of furniture made of pale wood, with a bit of folk spirit. The objects by “Ład” were precisely like that. When I came to Belgium, I realized that people had no modern furniture there: they had furniture from specific periods, in Louis XV or Louis XVI style. Those flats were full of history, then; some objects could be as much as 150 years old. I experienced some sort of cultural shock because I realized that not everyone had new furniture. Since we left Poland with our own furniture, the flat in Brussels still looks like the one in Warsaw at Koszykowa street.

While creating your collections, did you introduce geographical limitations on purpose?
- I was interested in the common denominator for that “home style” of ours. In the 1980s I started searching for similarity in thinking of the future, for creators looking at things the way I looked at them. I became interested in Scandinavia and began to buy furniture from there; quite a large collection was created as a result. Then I started examining Italian furniture more carefully, though I liked it less and it was always expensive. I was also in touch with an acquaintance who was a collector and showed me Brazilian modernist furniture. I grew very interested in that, too. A funny thing is that Jorge Zalszupin, a very important Brazilian designer, was in Romania during WWII, just like my father and they knew each other. What is more, my father had some affair with his sister. Father was never interested in visual arts – painting, graphics or architecture. He was involved in music and literature. One day I showed him a list of designers which I had created for the purpose of an exhibition and he exclaimed, “I know Zalszupin! But he is Jerzy [Polish for George], not Jorge!”. Father was still in touch with his sister, but I have not managed to contact Jerzy’s daughter, who now takes care of his collection. I must say that Zalszupin has become very fashionable and respected; sadly, I do not own anything designed by him.

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I guess that there are more European-Brazilian stories like that.
- The connections of Europeans with Brazil after WWII were very intense. Many Poles, Germans and Italians left in search for asylum; numerous great creators landed and worked there. That is why the influence of European culture in the Americas was so strong. Those “tropical modernism” works are very popular e.g. in the USA; shops with those objects open every now and then, for instance in New York. It does not concern design only because Brazil is full of culture: it has excellent painters and sculptors, too.

Tell us something about your collection.
- My Brazilian collection includes about 60 objects: by Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues or Giuseppe Scapinelli. One can compare this with Art Twenty Century, a New York gallery which has the largest collection of Brazilian design: they have gathered 500 objects. However, their prices are absurdly high. My Scandinavian collection consists of nearly 200 showpieces, including those by Hans J. Wagner, Arne Vodder, Grete Jalk, Verner Panton or Finn Juhl. Scandinavian vintage objects are what I mainly sell; these are often cheaper than new furniture by, say, Minotti. Italian vintage furniture is expensive because it is rare: few people bought modern objects in the 1950s and 1960s. Still, I have quite a few of these showpieces.

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How do you obtain your showpieces?
- The market is quite large, though it is harder to get Brazilian objects because they are less known and more expensive. Brazilians did not have furniture industry: they had pre-industrial plants. That is why these objects are relatively few and hard to buy. I was wondering whether I should sell my Brazilian collection, but I am still hesitating because it includes rare pieces. When I sell Danish objects, I know I will be able to buy them again somewhere, even the next day. It would not be that easy with the Brazilian ones.

Where can we see your collections?
- I have a showroom just next to this place. It houses Scandinavian objects. “Be Modern” does not have a gallery: we organize exhibitions where we show, for instance, designs coming from Brazil. I work a lot via the Internet – it has a global market for everything.

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To you, what does it mean to “be modern”?
- It is a form of a mixture of things, a life style. I do not excessive extravagance. I reckon that objects should be pretty and functional, so I agree with the whole modernist philosophy, especially with the Scandinavian one. While Brazilians did modernist objects for the rich, in Scandinavia one can feel that democratic sense of design. The objects are small, but comfortable, industrial and well-designed. They also think of what a given object may “do” with other objects, how they can coexist and complement one another, and that is visible, too.

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I guess it is not just a job for you...
- Objects in my collection must have their own history: I need to know where they come from. This is how various anecdotes are born, like the one about Zalszupin or Sergio Rodrigues, whom I met and visited in Rio de Janeiro. I have also been to Finn Juhl’s marvellous home in Copenhagen. He used to live there and today it is a museum. I am interested in people who do it all with passion and with the society in mind. Maybe the reason for this is that I was brought up in a communist country and something from communism has remained within me.

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Monika Unger. Interior designer, architect and collector of modernist design objects. She moved to Brussels with her family in 1968, where she graduated in architecture in La Cambre post-Bauhaus school established by Henry van De Velde. She also graduated from the Environmental Design Department of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the USA. Moving to Italy was another big experience for her: she had a traineeship with Giancarlo De Carlo and then worked for Olivetti in the corporate image department in Milan. She is a permanent resident of Milan. In 1994 she established Creative Communications. She is also a co-founder of Creative Project foundation, which promotes Polish design abroad. She develops Be Modern project together with Cinzia Ferrara: they are creating a unique collection of 20th-century design, especially the Scandinavian and Brazilian one. She organizes and arranges exhibitions, furnishes interiors, conducts research and works as an advisor. www.monikaunger.it

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