Czech Design’s Changing Fortunes

The Czech Republic’s recent past is littered with political extremes, a relationship evidenced in the country’s relationship with design. In the first part of the twentieth century, for example, the region was buzzing with cultural activity, but the World Wars and Communist rule stifled creative output. The winds of fortune—for designers and Czechs alike—only began to change after 1989’s Velvet Revolution, where demonstrations in the street, led by the poet Vaclav Havel, brought down the country’s government and ushered in democracy and free-market economics.

This social history of the Czech Republic is reflected in the exhibit 100 Design Icons. The traveling show, which was on display June 16-July 8 at the Techo and Konsepti showrooms in Bratislava, Slovakia, demonstrates the impact that politics and culture can have on design.

Structured chronologically, the exhibit starts on a high note, with decorative Cubist boxes and chairs by Pavel Janak, as well as Emil Kralicek’s extraordinary Cubist street lamp, which still illuminates a Prague thoroughfare. In the 1920s and 30s, a functional approach took hold, and show highlights from that time include a bulbous glass tea set from Ladislav Sutnar and Jindrich Halabala’s reclining armchair, neither of which would look out of place in a modern home today.

However, this spirit of innovation didn’t last. As Jirí Pelcl, Icon’s co-curator and director of Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design, explains: “The 1940s and 1950s were characterized by a quest for an aesthetic style for socialism,” a visual representation of what the regime stood for, mostly in the form of Brutalist buildings and statues.

To the frustration of many designers, the majority of businesses were nationalized and contact with the West was cut off. There were still flights of imagination—Stanislav Lachman’s vacuum cleaner, the first with an all-plastic body, and the easy-to-maintain Pragomix special mixer—but there was no guarantee that a clever or beautiful product, no matter how well-designed, would be manufactured to similarly high standards. And sometimes a classic design would assume all the wrong connotations, if it was adopted by the ruling elite. The Tatra 603 limousine was a splendid beast, but its beauty was marred by its popularity with the Communist party.

The unsavory cocktail of nationalization and unreliable production continued until 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which marked the end of Communism in the country. Yet before that time, while Western consumers were swamped by product choices, Czechs had slim pickings, often just one or two local models and perhaps a few imports from other like-minded nations. (As the show’s organizer, Tomas Zykan, muses, the only export the Czechs were known for at this time was guns.)

Despite the obvious drawbacks, this lack of choice strengthened the Czech people’s collective sense of nostalgia. If there’s only one iron or phone on the market—the ETA 211 iron or the T65H phone—it’s going to make a massive visual impact. The same goes for the Botas Classic Trainers of the 1970s, which were pretty much the only sporty footwear option at the time. The fact that the designers also got through some genuine styling is a bonus.

With the arrival of democracy, many uncompetitive, state-owned businesses were forced to close. A lucky few, like car company Skoda and a handful of spirit manufacturers, were taken into foreign hands and are doing well. But as a result of the free market, the country’s manufacturing base drastically shrunk, much to the chagrin of local designers, while the marketplace has been flooded with international brands.

So the locally generated items that make it, like the style magazine Blok, tend to be strong pieces that once again make the Czechs proud. Whether these items are elevated to the status of Czech design icons for future generations remains to be seen.

The 100 Design Icons exhibit will be on view September 15-30 at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm; October 7-30 at the National Museum in Prague; and November 25-December 30 at a still-to-be-confirmed location in Brighton, England. The exhibit will continue to travel in 2006.

Categories: Cities