Research in Progress in Response to Designblok 2013
Zdenek Pešánek, Torsos 1937. Veletržní palác, Prague.
Historian Verena Wasmuth coined the phrase, “attempts at structuring transparent mass”.* Wasmuth was using it to describe the work of prophetic Czech artist Zdenek Pešánek who created kinetic light sculpture as well as light, colour and music projections from the 1920s-1960s. His work ranged from architectural collaborations to signage and smaller-scale sculpture, evocatively captured in films such as Svetlo Proniká Tmou from 1930.
Pešánek’s work is truly incredible and has influenced a great deal of Czech art and design, in particular anticipating the glass of Czech artists in the 1950s to the 1970s. Wasmuth’s idea of “structuring transparent mass”, particularly in relation to the ongoing influence and questioning of artistic and design legacies in Czech practice, is a relevant starting point for this analysis of contemporary Czech glass.
Designblok, an annual festival of contemporary design, offers a rich insight into Czech and international practice. Situated in spaces ranging from a disused station, Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, a series of open studios in Kafkuv dum near the central Old Town Square, and the ‘Art House’ in the Baroque section of the Renaissance Colloredo-Mansfeldský Palace on Karlova Street; Designblok echoes the rich architectural and visual layering of Prague itself.
My fascination with twentieth-century Czech design meant I could not help but see the Designblok ’13 exhibits by Czech practitioners in connection to their predecessors, either implicitly or explicitly offering commentary on the cannon of Czech design. Amongst the multitude of displays at Designblok ‘13, so many objects were striking and thrilling, but to refine this article I am focusing on a medium which has a pivotal role in Czech design history, namely glass.
Lyricism, subtle narrative and a whimsical humour are elements that run through Czech design. Czech scientist and expert on glass-making, Dr B. Wolf, wrote in 1958 that “as a rule we conceive of glass as a composition of ‘light music’, as light makes the boundaries of shape and emphasises the plasticity of colour.” In turn this has an effect on our emotions, similar to the play of light and shade, which are substantiated through the medium of glass. He uses this as a reason for the fact that glass is rarely connected with epic subject matter, but is concerned with the lyrical or decorative. Subject matter and meaning are loaded areas for the Communist period in which Wolf was writing; this article does not have time to go further into what he intended or the official rhetoric to which he was bound, but suffice to say Czech glass has a history spanning centuries and as such has been commandeered by political movements. From embodying aspects of the national identity of the new Czechoslovak Republic, founded in 1918, to becoming propaganda under the Communist Regime in international exhibitions to demonstrate the alleged artistic success and high-quality production of the new Socialist society, glass has been made a platform for narratives whether intentional or not within Czech design history.
Jan Plechac and Henry Wielgus, Neverending Glory at Designblok ’13
Whilst the official theme of the festival was ‘Icons’ the objects shown in Designblok ’13 often seemed to address temporality, placing references to past, present and future over one another. One example of this was lighting design, in particular the chandelier, that triumphant and traditional celebration of light and glass denoting wealth and splendour. This form was explored by designers Jan Plechac and Henry Wielgus in their Neverending Glory collection, translating historic chandeliers from five of the world’s eminent concert halls into contemporary design. Their aim is to transplant the chandeliers to your living room via their outline, their silhouette, evoking the memory of a particular chandelier from La Scala in Milan to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to Prague’s Estates Theatre. They are immensely pleasing forms, hanging clear and bright. They played an intriguing role in the festival, where they became a consolidation of chandeliers echoed and repeated in different forms across the city. Most poignant were the shadows of older Czech chandeliers, such as one in the crumbling Baroque hall of Colloredo-Mansfeldský Palace. Its silhouette hung on the wall above an installation by French industrial designer Matali Crasset entitled Voyage to Uchronia, which explores a utopian vision of design beyond time and space, with furniture for imaginary people. Solitary objects filled the space, cocoons that can surround the invisible sitting or sleeping body. Future and past came together in a multiplicity of form and its possibilities, both for the Baroque and contemporary maker.
Baroque hall of Colloredo-Mansfeldský Palace, Prague, with Matali Crasset Voyage to Uchronia, Designblok ’13
To continue with light and the chandelier, Preciosa Lighting played a lead role in Designblok ’13. The Preciosa brand was first registered in Bohemia in 1915 (three years before the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic) then became a state-run organisation as part of the nationalisation of firms under the new Communist Government in 1948, until privatised in the 1990s. Preciosa therefore offers a story of connections between design history and key political transitions in twentieth-century Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, a narrative in which glass has often played the role of national protagonist, a symbol of historic Czech production. Throughout the festival one saw designers who work with Preciosa, including Jiri Pelcl, a leading figure in Czech design. Pelcl is an internationally-renowned designer of furniture, products, interiors and architecture design. In 1987 he founded Atika, a design group that reacted against state-led design in socialist Czechoslovakia. Pelcl’s Garden collection, designed for Preciosa and shown at Designblok ’13, was a series of hanging balls composed of glass flowers, white spheres glowing against dark backdrops.
Jiri Pelcl Garden, designed for Preciosa, Designblok ’13
Within their showroom, Preciosa also demonstrated their allegiance to Czech design history by displaying an Expo 58 tribute collection. The latter was created in response to the World Fair Expo in Brussels in 1958, where Czech glass triumphed. The collection apparently strives to continue this legacy with “reverence”, viewing it as a time that shaped new ways of thinking and introduced technological improvements to glass design. To emphasise this aim, alongside the chandeliers were an assortment of glass pieces first displayed at Expo 58, including an incredible amorphous piece by the “Employees of Borské Glassworks” alongside a red vase by Miluše Roubícková (wife of similarly important hero of Czech glass, René Roubícek) manufactured by Borské glass in the famous Bohemian glass town of Nový Bor.
Glass vase designed by employees of Borské Glassworks, 1958
Red Vase by Miluše Roubícková, 1958.
An example of a glass work by René Roubícek, Sklenená plastika c. 1964. Made in Nový Bor. Collection of Glass Museum Nový Bor.
DECHEM at Designblok ’13
Nový Bor is a town historically-known for its glass production, alongside places like Železný Brod and Jablonec nad Nisou in North Bohemia (a region in the North of the Czech Republic). These glass towns, celebrated in a myriad of texts, films and articles on the subject, could not help but enter my mind on viewing the work by DECHEM Studio exhibited at Designblok ’13. DECHEM created collections of clear, black and pastel-coloured glass forms, made by Czech company Moser in the traditional Moser glass colours, gathered to suggest shimmering abstracted towns, recalling a Czech propensity towards the miniature glass form. The two designers behind the work, Michaela Tomišková and Jakub Jandourek, aim to “tell stories in Bohemian glass”. They appear to continue a story told by Czech glass makers such as Jaroslav Brychta who created worlds of glass ‘figurky’ (or figurines) from the 1920s onwards, also contributing to the infamous Expo 58 display with works such as Glass Universe containing astrological and mythological figures. Whilst bold in shape and cleaner in line, DECHEM seem to nod to this history, taking a whimsical joy in glass and pushing its boundaries to explore both the abstract and figurative potential of the form to assemble imaginary places.
Jan Cerný, Ladislav Ouhrabka and Jaroslav Brychta, Universe, 1958. Left: detail.
Image from Czechoslovak Glass Review 1958, Issue 8
Capsula by Lucie Koldova for Brokis, Designblok ’13
Like a deconstructed chandelier, Capsula by Lucie Koldova for Brokis was another celebration of Czech glass heritage. Brokis works with designers like Koldova to produce glass lighting fixtures (often accompanied by other natural materials such as wood), producing pieces by hand in the Czech Republic using traditional craft techniques in combination with contemporary technology. The carefully placed pieces in Capsula was reminiscent of another area of prowess in the history of Czech glass: innovative and elegant exhibition design. The same goes for the striking display of Studio Olgoj Chorchoj’s Fireborn collection of lights made in collaboration with Brokis glassworks and the Stará Hut foundry. Founded in 1990 by Michal Fronek and Jan Nemecek, Olgoj Chorchoj collaborates with many key Czech manufacturers to create an exciting range of work including furniture, lighting and glass.
Studio Olgoj Chorchoj’s Fireborn with Brokis and the Stará Hut foundry, Designblok ’13
Exhibition design was pivotal to the success of the Expo 58 Czechoslovakian Pavillion. Indeed, the story goes that following Expo 58 Czechoslovak organisers were called upon with only a few months’ notice to create a glass exhibition in Moscow in 1959 to distract Soviet audiences from an American exhibition showing the American Way of Life, a piece of Cold War propaganda demonstrating the bountiful consumer goods of an average American family. Czechoslovakia responded with a multimedia exhibition using film, projections, lights and glass installations of a magnitude that effectively assisted the government in distracting home audiences from their comparative lack of material possessions and facilities. (Watch original film footage of the Moscow exhibition).
Czech exhibition design continues as a strength, Londoners might most recently have witnessed an example of its current form in the ICA’s Points of Departure exhibition curated by Rebecca Heald. A culmination of a year of collaboration with Delfina Foundation, ICA, ArtSchool Palestine and the British Council, the exhibition was also supported by the Czech Centre due to its design by Czech exhibition designer Jan Pfeiffer. It seemed to demonstrate the Czech exhibition design tradition of strong direction and clarity of form.
René Roubícek Tree of the Czechoslovak Glass Industry, the Czechoslovak Glass Exhibition, 1959 Moscow
In the 1959 Moscow exhibition, examples of domestic glass objects were displayed to incredible effect in René Roubícek’s Tree of the Czechoslovak Glass Industry. The latter was an innovative display of traditional glass objects thrown out of context through their proximity to non-domestic forms made of contrasting materials. I could not help but see a parallel in the Designblok ’13 work of a student of UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague), Tadeáš Podracký, whose JAARS collection was created in collaboration with Moser glassworks. Though with different conceptual aims to Tree of the Czechoslovak Glass Industry in its state-sponsored trade fair context, JAARS also enables an entirely new formal encounter. Engraved glass vases are bound to wooden sledges with leather straps; a meeting point between Joseph Beuys and traditional Czech glass forms. The latter is an intentional conceptual hybrid, continuing the interests of Podracký who aims to explore philosophical and formal reinterpretations of the history of art and design, looked at technology in relation to natural systems and processes. Again, the layering of different temporal symbols was addressed in continuation of a core approach in the designers of Designblok ’13.
Tadeáš Podracký, JAARS created with Moser glassworks, Designblok ’13
Traditional technique is also something that Designblok ’13 reiterated. In contrast to Podracký and Moser’s collaborative pieces, this was central to the production of work designed for domestic use such as the work by Rony Plesl for BOMMA glassworks at Svetla nad Sazavou, where Plesl’s designs are implemented by local glass makers. They use new glass-moulding and shaping technologies to create bowls and plates entitled bubbles®, imitating the structure of bubble wrap.
Rony Plesl for BOMMA, bubbles®, Designblok ’13
Alongside Plesl, Jiri Pelcl and Olgoj Chorchoj also design glass collections for BOMMA. The latter two designers appear at the festival again amongst those represented by the Krehký Gallery. Led by the Directors of Designblok Jana Zielinski and Jirí Macek, the gallery was established on the basis of a successful exhibition that was part of Designblok ’07, in the form of an imaginary spherical landscape (designed by Maxim Velcovský).
Krehký aims support the development of unique experimental designers whilst utilising traditional Czech industry through collaboration with manufacturers. They go further than this and also cite beauty and emotion as requirements for contemporary design, elements they describe as “longed for” after several periods of “pure pragmatism”. The latter is taken from Zielinski and Macek’s Krehký catalogue entitled An Emotional Landscape of Contemporary Czech Design, published by Profil Media in 2008. The authors discuss the strong connection between design and politics in twentieth-century Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, describing the progression from “national decorativism” in the new First Republic of 1918 to the modernist aims of the interwar period, then of course the famous Brussels style, concluding with the “anonymous socialist look” of the post-58 period in which designs were made in isolation from the latest global developments, with limited production facilities. The authors cite designer Marcel Wanders who asserts that despite the re-entry of Czech design on the world stage post-1989, the challenges of creating objects that could be made simply whilst still meeting the desires of the consumers for beautifully made items became “stylistic dogmas” that still impact manufacture and so impede full use of industrial potential. Krehký appears to take up this challenge and support craftsmanship and freedom of expression whilst collaborating with Czech manufacturers in exploring technological possibilities. This aim was felt throughout the work represented by Designblok ’13.
New Biedermeier installation by Krehký at Festival Krehký Mikulov, June 2013. Photography by Bara Prasilova/www.krehky.cz
Krehký does indeed present beautiful and incredible design. The meaning of their name, Fragile, offers an insight into the nature of their collection and displays. They simultaneously seem to capture the intangible beauty and strength of Czech design. And they continue the tradition of whimsical yet structured exhibition design, as seem in their original Designblok ‘07 show and Designblok ’13 ‘s Nový Biedermeier – a collection “in the service of home, festiveness, joy and exceptional moments” (Designblock ’13 catalogue).
There are so many more designers that could be discussed: Eva Eisler’s mixed media installation and curation; the toys of Fatra, a Czech plastics company established in 1935 and bound to another great tradition within Czech manufacturing – that of toys, puppets and animation; a furniture collaboration between deFORM Studio and DuPont Corian that revisits design from the 1930s to the 1960s; cremation urns designed by students from VŠUP; not to mention ceramics and textiles. Designblok ’13 was an exploration of temporal, spatial and political context, resulting in objects that ask the viewer to question what design can mean.
The Emotional Landscape of Czech Design by Krehký, Designblok 2007. Set designed by Maxim Velcovský. Photography by Dusan Tomanek / www.krehky.cz
As a PhD student in Design History at the Royal College of Art and V&A, I was funded by the Czech Centre London to visit the Designblok ‘13 festival in Prague. My area of research is design within Czechoslovakia under Communism, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, a time in which multiple official design institutions were established to commission design for a new socialist era in the aftermath of the Second World War and Nazi occupation.
With enormous thanks to the Czech Centre for funding this research trip to Designblok ’13.
*Reference to Verena Wasmuth is cited from “Czech Glass in the Limelight: The Great Exhibitions Abroad”, Helmut Ricke (ed) Czech Glass 1945-1980: Design in an Age of Adversity, (2005, Stuttgart), p.86
Relevant links in order of reference in the article: