WARSAW -- The design concept, supposedly, was to impose classless uniformity on urban Poland. From Bydgoszcz to Zamosc, every state-owned grocery, shoe shop and restaurant was built to look alike.
In execution, of course, socialist design rendered the Polish cityscape uniformly hideous. Hulking blocks of concrete were erected on the rubble of World War II. They were divided into colorless, ill-lighted stores. This faceless design, as it moldered on through 45 years of Communist rule, was a suitably bilious setting for sullen service and shabby goods.
Now, with communism stone dead for more than a year, the design of Polish commercial life has had a chance to ascend from its concrete crypt. Take a stroll, for instance, through Fides, a fur shop in the heart of Warsaw. It came to life two months ago.
Note the cool violet fabric on the walls and how it accents the warmth of the furs that hang with capitalist hauteur from a series of suspended chromium-wire beams. Note, too, the pearly Italian floor tile and the floor-length mirrors that shimmer in halogen, fluorescent and incandescent lights -- all blended to make fur look luscious. Finally, note the attractive and smiling sales staff eager to take your money.
"We want to make a statement with the look of this shop that says the most important thing for a customer is to experience the space and appreciate the fur," said Marek Eibel, one of the two designers of the Fides shop.
That is the way architects and designers talk nowadays in Poland.
To cut more quickly to the bottom line, it is better to speak with Marek Mikuskiewicz, a businessman who is pioneering post-communist commercial design in Poland.
"Profits go up after remodeling. It means money. That is the basic reason to do it. If you don't remodel these days, you will go bankrupt. You simply cannot sell expensive things in an ugly shop," said Mikuskiewicz, chairman of the board of the MarcPol chain of clothing stores.
Mikuskiewicz, a co-founder and vice president of the Polish Capitalist Club, says the redesign of his clothing stores helped boost sales by 200 percent.
In the past year, more than half of Poland's 130,000 state-owned shops have been sold or leased to private individuals. Most of these new proprietors, thanks to a stable Polish currency and laws allowing easy access to imported goods, have been able to stock their shops with an abundance of decent-quality goods.
But as competition builds, these neophyte capitalists have been forced to realize that there is more to marketing than good merchandise. Tens of thousands of them are suddenly racing against each other to sell the sizzle along with the steak.
Accordingly, the look of Warsaw and most Polish cities is metamorphosing at a breakneck pace. Nearly every morning somewhere in this city of 1.7 million people, there are several new storefronts with brilliantly colored awnings or neon signs or beckoning picture windows. At the very least, the ubiquitous gray concrete has been slathered with a fresh coat of paint.
"I am astounded at how quickly it is happening," said Mikuskiewicz, whose store on Marszalkowska Street in central Warsaw was one of the first to undergo a Western-style face lift.
That was 18 months ago. At the time, Mikuskiewicz could not find a single private remodeling firm in Poland. Nor could he find any established design firm willing to implement his ideas, one of which was to install glass shelves to make his clothing store look less dark.
Since nobody in Poland was making glass shelves, Mikuskiewicz decided to approach a small company making aquariums. He inquired as to the management's willingness to make a radical change in design philosophy. Management, as it turned out, was more than willing.
"We were peacefully producing aquariums for our bread and butter when this guy from MarcPol came to us," recalled Mariusz Glebowski, 33. "We decided to make the glass shelves for him, and then he asked us for plastic design components, and then lighting, and every time he asked us if we knew how to do something, we said yes. Then we figured out how to do it."
From such can-do beginnings, Glebowski and five partners founded the Vitrum remodeling company, now the largest such firm in Poland. It employs 100 craftspeople and is looking for 200 more.
At the moment the company is working on 15 remodeling contracts. It has 900 more outstanding orders that it is trying frantically to get to. The average bill for remodeling a shop is $15,000.
Employees at Vitrum, who tend to be young and eager, often sleep in the shops they remodel. This allows them an earlier start in the morning, so they can finish sooner and move on to the next job. Vitrum pays workers significantly more if they work fast. It also provides cots and blankets.
"The huge wave of remodeling is just beginning in Warsaw. It is not an exaggeration to say that all shops are waiting to be redesigned," said Glebowski. "This is really a good business, and it will get better."
While Warsaw looks less and less grim with each passing week, Polish designers say most of the changes are restricted to the upscale retail sector.
"If you look at shops, it is true that 90 percent of them have been repainted and maybe have new lights. All this happened in less than a year," said Eibel, the designer who helped create the Fides fur shop. "But if you look above the shop level, to the upper floors of Warsaw buildings where there are apartments or offices, then nothing has changed."
For the most part, it is all concrete and rusted iron, and it is dirty. Designers here say it will take decades before Warsaw acquires the high-gloss finish of, say, Vienna.
This winter, even at the high end of Polish commercial redesign, there is little that can be done about dirt.
At Fides, even the very rich customers walk into the fur shop in shoes smeared with Warsaw grime. On the pearly Italian tile, it looks revolting.
"We wanted artificial grass out on the sidewalk to absorb some of this mud," said Eibel.
The Warsaw government, however, has yet to embrace the idea of sidewalk modification in order to keep floors clean and sell more fur. No such changes have been allowed.
On a recent wet winter morning, the floor of Fides fur was partially oiled with muck just 30 minutes after the shop opened. Eibel saw it and he was not pleased.
"Look at that!" Eibel said. "In Poland we have a big design improvisation. Sometimes it works, sometimes not."