Czech Furniture, Accessories, Glass, and Porcelain Design, 1990-2012: From Postmodernismto Pluralism / Adam Štech
When Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, chose Borek Šipek as the designer for the Prague Castle, the presidential residence, this choice was symbolic of the changes taking place in the world of Czech design in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Šםpek, a successful Czech architect and glass artist, had fled communist Czechoslovakia to Germany and later moved to the Netherlands, where he became a promoter of late postmodernism alongside a new generation of progressive designers such as Philippe Starck, Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, and several others, whose formal language defined contemporary design in the first half of the 1990s. Following Havel's presidential commission, Šipek's take on postmodernism had a decisive impact on interior design projects in the Czech Republic, which came to be characterized by a new sense of postmodern freedom and by glamorous renditions of high-tech design, which came to symbolize the new free society. During this period, the interior design of banks, offices, showrooms, and public buildings whose quality was questionable in many cases) glorified postmodernism while detaching it from the dark, critical, and Romantic strain of postmodern design associated with the group Atika, which had stunned the local art world before the Velvet Revolution.
Šipek himself had a direct impact on this new generation of Czech designers when he lectured at the AAAD (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague from 1990 to 1996, and this influence was decisive for the development of Czech furniture design, as well as of several other design fields. He was both a pedagogue and a designer who taught students how to communicate with manufacturers, endowing them with a sense of professional self-confidence. Among his students were Jan Nemecek and Michal Fronek, who founded the Olgoj Chorchoj studio in Vitra in 1990, and Bara Škorpilova, who established the Mimolimit studio together with Jan Nedved. The members of this highly creative generation, who soon began receiving recognition for their work, managed to shift contemporary Czech design from its initial infatuation with postmodernism towards a new pluralism that came to the fore during the second half of the 1990s, laying the foundations for future developments. The architects Rudolf Netםk and Ivan Kroupa, who became known for their minimalist style, may also be affiliated with this new design trend. The first post-revolution generation of designers was thus characterized by a highly innovative approach, which it successfully presented both at home and abroad.
Nemecek and Fronek, who founded Olgoj Chorchoj - the most notable design studio to win acclaim in the 1990s - work at present on projects ranging from large residential complexes to interior design and furniture, glass, and industrial design. The studio's portfolio from the 1990s includes several unique furniture items that were widely acknowledged abroad. Carbon 01 (1998, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), for instance, is a highly sophisticated work that makes use of an innovative material to create a sculpture reminiscent of Tom Dixon and Marc Newson's organic designs. This new approach to design differed significantly from the one represented by former Atika members such as Bohuslav Horak, Jaroslav Šusta, and Vaclav Jaroš, as well as from the historicizingpostmodernism of Matteo Bonetti and Elizabeth Garouste, which had risen to the fore only a few years earlier. The only former member of Atica whose design style developed to include new, more minimalist and topical forms is Jiri Pelcl, the group's leader. Pelcl later became a professor at the AAAD in Prague and served as its president. He went on to design unique gallery pieces (such as the 1998 Strip series for the Neoto gallery in Paris), as well as porcelain and glass products for lot production (such as the Bohemia White and Cobalt porcelain sets designed for the Ceský porcelan brand in 2004, or the Vicenza beverage set designed for Crystalex in 2005). His design language, which was initially shaped by radical thinking, is now characterized by sound, simple forms, yet he regularly goesback to revisit his early sources of inspiration - as evidenced, most recently, by his 2011 LuxuryDwelling collection.The intensive activity of Jan Nemecek, Michal Fronek, and Jirí Pelcl, who all taught at the AAAD, started to bear fruit after 2000, when their first generation of students started to assert itself professionally. Pioneering figures during this period included Jan Capek, Filip Streit, Radim Babak, Ondrej Tobola, Jan Ctvrtník, Petr Mikošek, Rene Šulc, and Jerry Koza, all of whom had studied architecture before joining the new wave of designers. Industrial designer Jan Capek, who created several interesting products in the fields of furniture and accessory design during his student years, soon started to specialize in designing PET bottles and glass beer mugs, and has created several original designs for Czech and international brands. Radim Babak and Ondrej Tobola established Hippos Studio, which specialized in furniture design, lighting, interior design, and small-scale architecture projects. Combining structural principles with a sense of conceptual detachment, their designs are both technical and poetical. Rene Šulc, who currently designs for the label Inveno, has proved to be an expert in the design of upholstered furniture, in collaboration with the brand MM Interier. His Chaise longue, Vazka chaise longue, and Swing chair build on the legacy of modernist elegance, while combining it with contemporary dynamism, modular principles, and wit. Designing under the label SAD Studio, Jerry Koza has become a notable presence. His designs during the first years of the current century centered on sculptural yet functional objects, which all have an unexpected quality to them. At present, he focuses on small-scale architecture projects and interior design.The glass and porcelain industries, in which Czech designers had traditionally excelled, suffered severe blows in the 1990s when they were hit by unregulated privatization, which resulted in a series of financial and sales crises. Companies specializing in porcelain and glass production consequently resorted to producing kitsch items for eastern markets. Two designers who were paradoxically able to exploit this crisis in a resourceful manner were the duo Maxim Velcovský and Jakub Berdych. In 2002, Velcovský and Berdych initiated what may be described as the most important and authentic chapter in the history of contemporary Czech design. After founding the small Qubus gallery, Berdych - a sculptor, restorer, and designer - came upon a series of ironic porcelain works by Velcovský, then a recent graduate from the AAAD. Over the following five years, the Qubus studio and brand became an international design phenomenon, and were celebrated on the pages of design magazines worldwide.Characterized by the translation of iconic consumer items into luxury porcelain or glass objects, Velcovský's Fast collection critiqued the social effects of the Czech Republic's post-revolutionarycommercial boom, and the related "fast-food" life style. Porcelain coke bottles, sausage platters, beercups, wellies, a Lenin bust featuring a traditional blue onion pattern and titled Ornament and Crime, and a rococo clock with a digital display critically comment on contemporary society, encourage reflection on the value of things, and draw attention to the crisis of the Czech porcelain and glass industries. Following the challenging process of creating prototypes, the Qubus studio managed to successfully produce its first collection in collaboration with porcelain factories in North Bohemia, attracting worldwide interest. Additional objects were gradually added to the collection, including the Saturn beverage set designed by Berdych, as well as the collection of porcelain animals with intentionally modified decorative motifs designed by Velcovský.Glass has continued to represent a highly attractive medium for designers and glassmakers from different generations. František Vizner, who created sculptures in the form of huge glass vessels, vases, and geometrical objects until his death in 2011, preserved the modernist glass design tradition established during the 1930s (and further developed in the 1960s and 1970s). Works by designers and artists such as the Belgian Anna Torfs (who has been living in the Czech Republic for several years), Jirí Šuhajek, and Rony Plesl, as well as several of the projects designed by the Olgoj Chorchoj studio, all build on the tradition of fine glass art. Apart from his fine-art works, which include unique vases and other objects, Plesl also works in the field of industrial design, and has created glasses for Pilsner, Urquell, and Staropramen; the Olgoj Chorchoj studio has also taken on similar commissions. In 2000, glass design took a new turn thanks to Jan Nemecek and Michal Fronek's collaboration with Kavalier glassworks, which specializes in the production of Simax thin-walled laboratory glass. The Thinwall collection of vases, as well as the 2001 beverage set and teapot, artfully used the double-wall structure of this type of glass to create items that are both visually striking and practical. The designers used the same material to create the Tubelight - inserting fluorescent lights into delicate glass tubes. The design exhibition Designblok, which was first organized by the Profil Media agency in 1998, has become the most important annual Czech design exhibition. Evolving from its "underground" beginnings into an international trade fair and a series of accompanying events, Designblok has become the driving force behind local design developments, and the venue for the presentation of most outstanding design products. Attracting many young and unknown designers whose works offer new visual and functional design solutions, Designblok has facilitated better media and public awareness of Czech design.
One of the designers who first gained recognition in this framework is Lucie Koldova, who started out as a furniture and lighting designer. Her initially rough style gradually became more polished, as she came to create a new perspective on contemporary functionalism. The Treasury table she designed for Process and the Home Fitness furniture collection (her 2009 graduation project for the AAAD studio led by Jan Nemecek and Michal Fronek) are streamlined objects with unusual details and functions. Koldovב went on to work in Paris, where she met the designer Dan Yeffet while working in Arik Levy's studio. The two have been collaborating ever since, and their style has gradually become softer and more poetic, coming to bespeak the influence of French design. This duo has designed products for both Czech and international brands, such as Brokis, La Chance, and When Objects Work. In addition to Koldova, relatively new players in the field of Czech design include the former duo Whitefruits, whose members use porcelain manufacturing processes to create an intimate world of simple objects characterized by fragile beauty and understated wit. Their work, like that of several other designers - such as the Mikulov-based Daniel Piršc, who is known for his decadently decorative works - transforms the focus on a stern conceptual language championed by the Qubus studio into asofter, lyrical engagement with stories that are often based on personal memories and emotions. This style, which is complemented by a process-based, performative approach to design, has gained prominence in the last several years. One example of it are the designs produced by the Llev studio -somewhat decorative wooden furniture pieces and lights that evoke the designers' travels in the Czech forests. The Sad screen, which is patterned with geometric forest motifs, and the Origamstools are both characterized by high-quality craftsmanship, the use of raw materials, and a narrative dimension. The use of wood (which is a sign of a return to nature and an emphasis on craftsmanship) and the narrative dimension are both part of a recent global trend in contemporary design, which is evident in the work of several Czech designers. Klara Šumova, the most prominent figure among recently graduated Czech designers, first became known for transforming a tree trunk into a baroque-like baluster, while her Laska lamp is an example of process-based design that incorporates various stages of woodworking into a single product, from bark-covered wood to lathe work, mass produced elements. Following her sojourns in the Netherlands and in Vancouver, Šumova fell in love with creating objects made primarily from wood that refer to her personal memories, and offer a melancholic perspective on the forests of North Bohemia, her native region. Another member of thisgeneration, Michaela Tomiškova, similarly focuses on the legacy of her homeland, and her 2011graduate project at the AAAD attempted to assess the diversity of Czech glassmaking. Her Made by Breath collection combines two types of glass: decorative Moser crystal glass from Karlovy Vary, and Simax glass from Kavalier glassworks, which is characterized by its delicacy and structural qualities. The distinct qualities of these two types of glass are exploited to create innovative lighting forms.In recent years, a number of Czech manufacturers have become aware of the potential involved in collaborations with progressive designers. The brand Ton (founded in 1861), for instance, which manufactures bentwood furniture, underwent a renaissance during the last two years. Under the creative management of Jan Nemecek and Michal Fronek, Ton has created a special designer collection based on a series of collaborations between young Czech and international designers - including the 002 chair by Jaroslav Jurica, which is made from two identical pieces of bentwood. Theyoung brands Bomma and Lasvit are leading another renaissance in the Czech glass industry.Bomma focuses on manufacturing mechanically cut glass by means of robotic technologies. Imperfect manual products are transformed into perfect lot-produced consumer artifacts in the collections designed by the Olgoj Chorchoj studio, Maxim Velcovský, Koncern Design Studio, and František Vizner. Based in Nov Bor, the historical centre of glassmaking, the Lasvit company specializes in designing and producing unique chandeliers and other glass products for public and private interiors.
Thanks to large orders from around the world, this manufacturer can afford to collaborate with prestigious world designers on limited editions and unique collections. In 2011, the Japanese studio Nendo, Fabio Novembre, and Ross Lovegrove all designed works that combine their unique styles with the Czech glassmaking tradition. Thanks to Lasvit, Czech glass was exhibited in 2012 at the Salone del Mobile, receiving the most prestigious international recognition it has received in many years. This is great news both in terms of preserving the past legacy of Czech design, and of anticipating future developments.
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