The ‘language’ of things: new publication highlights century of Czech design

09-12-2016

In the first half of the 20th century Czechoslovakia was at the forefront of design, from architecture to furniture production. But a new publication by Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts (UPM) together with Academia, makes the case that good design survived in pockets even under socialism. The book, entitled Design in the Czech Lands 1900 – 2000, featuring hundreds of reproductions was co-edited by UPM’s Iva Knoblochová. She told me how plans for the ambitious book came together.

Photo: AcademiaPhoto: Academia “It was 10 years ago that we first got the idea to publish a book about one century of graphic design. At the time, the situation in the field of design was a bit different. There was a lack of a comprehensive volume about Czech design in the 20th century and there was pressure from the public for such a history to be compiled and be made available. To a degree, this was covered by new or growing festivals, events, web portals and happenings, but the consensus overall was that a serious history about Czech design was missing.”

“Part of the project was also to examine, to take issue with the opinion, that 40 years of communism had destroyed Czech design - that nothing good was produced over the period that in the socialist era only ugly or strange things were produced. We wanted to show that even during a period which was generally unfavourable, good design could be found and that there were very interesting personalities, institutions, and others who still cared about design.”

That second aspect sounds fascinating indeed and we will discuss it in just a moment; but what different aspects of design are looked at in the book? How did you break it up?

“Well, first of all, it should be said that the book is based on the museum’s expertise. So this is a book about ‘things’. About things which document and which reflect our cultural and civilizational level. The book is based on the ‘language’ of things and what for us was important was to map the roles played by these different institutions and we were totally surprised by how rich, how versatile, how interesting and complex that net of existing institutions was from 1900 - 2000.

“The book is based on the ‘language’ of things and we wanted to map the roles played by different institutions.”

“These include factories, associations, schools, different groups of designers, architects… so the net was really very rich. We followed those threads which are connected all the way to the situation in design here today. A time when design is an area of fantastic creativity, vivid showrooms, newly founded projects studios, and firms, all kinds of activity pushing the market forward. The foundation or the roots were all laid in the 20th century when industrial production was expanded.”

If we look at the strong middle class that there was in Czechoslovakia: was there a strong appreciation for things that were not only well made but well designed? Did people long for nice objects or nice homes and what were some dominant trends?

“One thing that was very special about this country was that the middle class really liked and got used to a high standard of modern living. It took time to cultivate the approach, of course. In the 1920s, began what was a bit slow at first process of education of the middle class that modern design had an, you could say, even ‘ethical’ component. There was a kind of morality in design which was linked with young architects and designers who were also very good and prolific writers.

“You also had fantastic photographers at the time, such as Josef Sudek, who worked in advertising photographer for these modernist designers. For them, good quality material and good quality execution were linked with modernist design linked with purist geometric shape.

Botas sneakers, photo: archive of BotasBotas sneakers, photo: archive of Botas “This was a long process, nonetheless, before it spread wider within the middle class, but the ideas won over many in the 1930s when the concepts were fused with existing or emerging factories and incorporated in production.”

If we talk about socialism, it’s a huge era of 40 years, but you already indicated that there were many positive points…

“It is difficult to judge. Central planning under the former regime of course had an impact as did the orientation on the Soviet and eastern European market.”

So did that skew what could or couldn’t be done and impact the look of products?

“It did, yes. First, there was isolation from things from the West and that left us far behind, for example, in areas of technology. We were totally lost in many of those areas. That said, that were institutes which still had a stake in good design and there were factories, especially in something like glassmaking, where strong design was still upheld and pursued. These were all items for export of course. Many of the best products were never seen here but good design prevailed. It is fascinating - the story was not so clear-cut.

“There was an ‘ethical’ component in design in the First Republic. There was a kind of morality.”

“For example, if you take the sports shoe company Botas, central planning landed production of this first sports shoe to Botana. But the foundation of this company were private shoemakers, artisans of the first order who had produced luxury footwear in the First Republic under the brand name Popper. Those craftsmen made the first sports shoes under communism and the quality was so high that they were exported especially to Canada but under a Canadian brand name. All this at the time of the Iron Curtain.”

That know-how, you are saying survived and I am sure that was the case not just in shoe design but many other areas as well…

“Yes.”

Ultimately, good design makes a huge difference in our lives. More than we realize: aesthetic appreciation or visual pleasure, ease of use, a general improvement in the quality of life. Where are we today? After 1989, the floodgates opened and there was room to return openly to this strong foundation… but there was also damage done by socialism and a flood of cheap and poor design onto the market in the 1990s. So where are we now?

“Right now there is a very good energy: young people who have ambition and have a desire to produce something which makes sense in our lives. Over the last decade, you have seen the establishment and popularity of events like DesignBlok and there are many schools where good design is taught. The energy right now is excellent. I think that there is a chance that Prague 1 could become a central point: every year there are newer boutiques, showrooms, galleries opening which elevate Czech design and I think the ambition for this part of the city to become a high-density design district.”

“Under communism, design was of course affected by central planning and a focus on the Soviet market.”

In many ways, it must be very exciting to be studying or breaking into the field today, with the many tools available: online sources, all kinds of programs and software to work with, all kinds of information. In that sense, too, that makes a book like this one especially valuable and it must have been intriguing for you, as one of the editors, to go through these nooks and crannies of Czech design history…

“It was. The book is the result of work by maybe 500 people - people at UPM, at museums from all over the country, private collectors, designers and many others. That brings us back to the many stories. The first designer of the Botas shoe we discussed was Marcel Scheinpflug, who is 85 today. We were able to track stories such as his down. It was fascinating to track down the fascinating history about past design and the life of things.”

09-12-2016