Revolutionary Czech design movement remembered in new exhibition


Artěl was a turn-of-the-century collective of young Prague-based designers sometimes referred to as the ‘Czech Bauhaus’. The movement is nowadays most famous for its cubist ceramics, which are still much sought after, and for its colourful wooden boxes and toys. In this, Artěl’s centenary year, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has launched a major retrospective of the movement, whose impact is still felt on Czech design today. Museum director Helena Konigsmarková showed me around:

“This cooperative was founded by nine young people, all of them around about 20 years of age. They were all just finishing their studies at the Academy of Arts or the Academy of Fine Arts, there were also some history of art students and one who was financially rather well off worked to support them. They were thinking about what to name this cooperative and one of them found the word Artěl, which is the Russian for cooperative, in Czech ‘družstvo’. And this was their intended goal – to cooperate with artists from different fields to prepare a rich and new form and style for applied arts and lifestyle.”

Is it fair to say that like so many other things in this country, the golden age of Artěl was perhaps the interwar period? Is that when it really came into its own, or was it already a bit past its peak by then?

“After the war, a lot of artists, not only those linked to Artěl, were part of the new movement to create a new style for a new state, for Czechoslovakia. So, it was a very, very inspiring period and during the early 1920s all of them were involved in designing even national symbols. They were very interested in creating new interiors inside modern architecture. But Artěl managed only one big interior – it was a hotel in Slovakia. Because that was also a part of it, working with this new brother country. It was called Hotel Hviezdoslav in the High Tatras.”

So, it was quite short lived then, all in all, this period, but what is it that made it so important, because I know that Artěl is up-and-running again in a slightly different form today? What is important about this cooperative which is marking its centenary this year?

“First of all, it was the first modern movement undertaken and supported by Czech artists. It was really the first Czech national movement with international regard. And this attempt to do something new for society and for people’s lifestyles, that is still the idea in design now, after 100 years. So that is the importance of Artěl.”

The exhibition runs at Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts until March 1.