Gnome City: How Garden Kitsch Saved a Polish Town

PHOTO: Adam Zakrzewskis company, Bezet, has been making garden gnomes in the Polish town of Nowa Sol for three decades.Getty Images
Adam Zakrzewski's company, Bezet, has been making garden gnomes in the Polish town of Nowa Sol for three decades.

A flourishing garden gnome industry spared an entire region around the town of Nowa Sól in western Poland from economic ruin. With the decorations now out of style, the industry is branching out to plastic tigers, dinosaurs and even churros.

Pope John Paul II smiles down at dozens of red-capped, wheelbarrow-pushing gnomes at his feet. His arms are outstretched, as if he were preaching, but there is dust on his shoulders. This nearly-lifesize pope is made out of white plastic.

As a practicing Catholic, Adam Zakrzewski is a little embarrassed by the scene in his warehouse. "After we made the pope statue, we decided not to put it into serial production," he says. Zakrzewski's company, Bezet, has been making garden gnomes in the Polish town of Nowa Sól near the German border for the past three decades.

First, they adorned garden plots in communist East Germany. After the Wall came down, they were primarily bought by visiting western Germans exploring their family roots in the area. However, garden gnomes have gone out of style again in Germany, and they were never popular in Poland.

"Garden gnomes don't suit us," Zakrzewski says. Polish buyers apparently favor decorating their front gardens with statuettes of angels, their hands piously clasped in prayer. Zakrzewski is sad that the heyday of the garden gnome has passed. After all, they were what started his family business. These days he mainly casts figures of tigers, horses, dinosaurs, decorative fountains, Egyptian sarcophagi, Elvis and the Blues Brothers.

His company may be the oldest of its kind in Nowa Sól, but it is by no means the only one. Some 30 manufacturers in the town supply fantasy figures to fairs and amusement parks across Europe. Many of the colorful cows used in the international "CowParade" art project were produced in Nowa Sól. The world's largest statue of Pope John Paul II in Czstochowa, southern Poland, which is almost 14 meters (45 feet) tall, was also made by a company from Nowa Sól. The garden gnomes and their successors have become the most important factor in the region's economy.

Adam Zakrzewski's father Bogdan, the man who founded the family business, turned Nowa Sól into Europe's gnome capital. As a result, the locals all refer to him as the "Father of the Gnomes."

Bogdan Zakrzewski worked as a mechanic, but yearned for another, more colorful life. When he came upon a garden gnome by chance, he knew he'd found his calling. Bogdan spent weeks experimenting with plaster figures. He fashioned his first casts from melted down car tires, and finally developed a way to produce gnomes in bulk.

"When the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, business took off," his son recalls. At a time when state-run metallurgical combines went bust, and half of the adult population of Nowa Sól found itself out of work, the Zakrzewskis could hardly fill their orders quickly enough.

Eventually, Bogdan Zakrzewski sold his patented procedure to friends and neighbors, thus spawning an entire industry. For a while after the Wall came down, the town that had once produced munitions for the Soviet army was home to up to 300 companies making the epitome of West German bourgeois kitsch. "You could say that gnome-making saved Nowa Sól from economic ruin after the fall of communism," the mayor says.

Gnomes were such a boon to the local economy that a park was set up in their honor in the town's center. There the most popular models are on display, including the hunting gnome complete with dachshund and rifle, the lantern gnome, and, of course, the wheelbarrow-pushing gnome. For a long time, Bogdan Zakrzewski's best-selling model was a very German gnome, one with its index finger held in the air, as if it were giving a lecture.

But the Father of the Gnomes wasn't content to sell his creations at the side of the road to western Germans passing through. Soon he was supplying wholesalers and home improvement stores in Germany and Switzerland. But when the financial crisis hit five years ago, the gnomes of Nowa Sól turned from saviors of the town to the victims of globalization. After all, Chinese-made garden gnomes are even cheaper than their Polish rivals.

Since then Adam Zakrzewski has branched out, making different figures and hiring a sculptor to come up with new models in a dusty studio. In the room next to the sculptor's studio, molds are made out of fiberglass mats and polyester resin. The exact recipe is a closely-guarded company secret. The firm's 16 employees process 2 metric tons of plastic per week.

Today, Adam Zakrzewski the gnome manufacturer is the boss of a mid-sized business. He says things like: "We've transformed the boom into sustainable growth." His latest order is for human-sized cones filled with plastic churros (deep-fried dough) as long as arms, which was commissioned by a chain of bakeries in Spain.

Meanwhile, the last gnomes in his warehouse were destined for a new home: a fairytale-themed amusement park in Romania.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt.