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Prague: Past Shaping Present
Prague is steeped in multiple histories of making.
At a recent exhibition in Prague of work that merges Czech folk art and craft traditions with contemporary design, a young product designer stressed the importance of history. "You always have to reflect on your roots," said Sergej Kuckir.
Kuckir could be speaking for many craft artists in his country. The Czech Republic has deep roots in the folk arts, as well as centuries-old traditions in glassmaking and porcelain. It breathes the legacy of Artl - a cooperative of artisans in the first part of the 20th century, whose contributions included Cubist ceramics and artistically designed wooden toys. On top of that, 40 years of austere Communist rule created a nation of DIYers who made home décor, clothing, and household items with their own two hands. A history of making permeates the country and its people.
Today, 22 years into a free-market economy, many Czech designers and artisans - including Kuckir and others in the Prague exhibition - are merging past with present, applying new approaches to create unique contemporary works, shown in venues throughout the capital city.
To trace the country's roots, you can start at Prague's Musaion (the ethnographic exhibition in the National Museum), which displays traditional handcrafts and folk art from the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. On the other side of the Vltava River, the Museum of Decorative Arts offers a rich assortment of craft through its permanent collection, which charts a path through Czech history and the development of glass and ceramics, textiles and fashion, toys and furniture, jewelry and metals. The museum's temporary exhibitions have commemorated the centennial of the Artl group, explored the history of Czech glass, and celebrated the 90th anniversary of one of the oldest glass schools in the country.
Many Czech designers and artists have attended specialized, applied-arts secondary schools and then studied at Prague's Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design, founded in 1885. Graduate Rony Plesl, one of the country's most notable contemporary glass designers, heads the academy's glass department, where traditional Czech glassmaking techniques - cutting, painting, engraving - are emphasized. "It is necessary to know the basics of all the techniques so [artists] can use all the possibilities that glass offers," Plesl says.
Plesl's designs, relying on traditional cutting methods and produced mainly in small lots, can be found in a handful of small specialty shops, collectives showcasing the work of emerging and established designers and artisans. Sister stores Kubista and Futurista present original and limited-edition glass and porcelain works, home accessories, furniture, and jewelry. Kubista focuses on handmade reproductions of ceramics from the 20th century, primarily in the Cubist style, an obvious influence on many contemporary works that incorporate the style's bold, geometric shapes and sharp points. Both shops carry handwoven wool blankets from young textile designer Kateina Soukupová, who works out of her studio and small shop just outside of the city center, where she weaves her blankets, tablecloths, bedspreads, and other one-of-a-kind pieces on a 200-year-old loom. Playing with color and subtle variations in style, Soukupová offers contemporary interpretations of traditional patterns.
In the same way, many of the handmade glass pieces from Studio Cave Canem entail a staining technique developed in the 19th century in the northern part of the country by Bedich Egermann of the Egermann company, which continues today. But Cave Canem has updated the old technique, using different chemicals and processes to create variations on the classic red stain and moving away from traditional floral patterns to a distinctive, modern aesthetic.
Studio LLEV, which works across a variety of disciplines - all revealing their earthy, clean style - also has a multidisciplinary production process. "[Creating some pieces by hand,] we have learned to handle slate, steel, and wood," says Marcel Mochal, one of the two designers who comprise LLEV. "We also cooperate with regional craftsmen, [including] carpenters, locksmiths, metal painters, glassblowers, and cutters."
Not far from Kubista is the shop of Studio Qubus, which has attracted attention both at home and abroad for its non-traditional approach to traditional Czech materials, mainly porcelain and glass. "On a path from Communism to Consumerism," reads a description on the website for their second shop in Prague's DOX Centre for Contemporary Arts; the studio presents "a variety of forms in new contexts, whether created by traditional techniques or the latest technologies."
One of Qubus' best-known pieces has the form of a pair of Wellington boots, but cast in porcelain and embellished with a traditional blue "onion" pattern. Waterproof Vase - Onion not only gives a new reading to an old pattern, but also reinterprets function. Ornament & Crime, a porcelain head of Lenin with the blue onion pattern scattered across the face, exemplifies the studio's tilt toward social and political commentary with a humorous bite.
In their shop at DOX are masterpieces by some of the Czech Republic's craft legends - glassworks by František Vízner, jewelry by the Belda family (whose handmade jewelry, dating back to 1915, can also be found in their own shop in Prague's center) - alongside work by established contemporary artisans, including wood pieces by René Šulc and porcelain by Daniel Pirš, another artisan known for offbeat material interpretations, such as porcelain wallpaper. Along with wood bowls and a collection of wooden toys and reproductions of vintage wooden toys by famous Czech designers, the shop carries work by acclaimed woodturner Antonín Hepnar, as well as lamps by emerging designer Klára Šumová.
It's this unique blend of past and present that characterizes Prague's craft world. It's no wonder that, given such a rich history, contemporary Czech artists are creating works of unusual depth.
Joann Plocková is a freelance journalist in Prague.