In 2007 when businesses were closing down as a result of the global crisis, Leon Jakimič founded his lighting installations and glass artworks company Lasvit. Today it is one of the world leaders in its field, with offices in New York, London, Paris, Milan, Dubai and many other cities. Mr. Jakimič runs the company from Hong Kong but, on one of his many visits to the Czech Republic, he showed us around the Ajeto glassworks in Nový Bor where the company’s unique creations take shape.
“Now we are in a storage house for wooden moulds. These moulds are used for blowing glass. When the Campana brothers from Brazil, the famous avant-garde designers, were here and saw the mushrooms growing on these moulds they were inspired to create the chandelier design Fungo. So it was really an interesting ad hoc inspiration. This is a place where all the journalists from Forbes magazine and others come and take pictures of me or our designers and glassblowers. It is really an inspiring place. Some of these moulds go back hundreds of years.”
Who were they made by? The glassmakers of Novy Bor?
“We make these moulds here. Sometimes they bring the whole tree trunk –usually beech or oak -and then carpenters or people who work with wood make the moulds here. So it is completely vertically integrated – from raw glass, raw wood, that is the way it has been for a thousand of years.”
So you start working with basic materials?
“Not much has changed in the last one thousand years in the production of hand-blown artistic glass. Only now the glass furnace is powered by gas instead of charcoal and the cooling process now takes place in technically advanced cooling chambers, but other than that everything is the same, the blowing pipes are the same, with the wooden handles, the metal pipes….”
Why has so little changed – because this process guarantees quality?
“You can always tell when something is done in a different way and when people buy our products they are basically buying human labour, they are buying craftsmanship and craftsmanship cannot be replaced by robots or artificial intelligence. So the basic ingredients are human labour and the natural materials such as raw glass, wood, water, fire – fire is the key component, actually.”
Does that mean that most of the chandeliers and incredible art pieces –which are huge – are hand-made?
“People who buy or pieces are not just buying a product, they are buying a beautiful object which will add happiness to their homes and their lives.”
“Yes, definitely. Hand-made and hand-crafted is what defines Lasvit and the pieces that we make. I think by definition when something is hand-made it can never be obsolete. Now everybody talks about robots and artificial intelligence, a lot of companies are afraid they will lose business, a lot of professions like accountants are afraid they will lose their work because they will be replaced by artificial intelligence, but what we do can never be replaced by any of this, so in a way this is a very stable and long-term business.”
Is that the secret to your success, because you established the firm in 2007 which is not a long time ago and you are a wold leader now in this field?
“Well, it is definitely craftsmanship but in combination with great design and poetry, there is a certain story telling involved. The pieces are not just beautiful, it goes deeper than that, there is story-telling, there are emotions behind it. And I think that this is what the people who buy or pieces appreciate. They are not just buying a product, they are buying a beautiful object which will add happiness to their homes, their lives, through this beautiful glass which reacts amazingly with light and it tells a story – and it comes from a region with a thousand year tradition.”
“It refers to both experience as an emotion and experience as a tradition. And glass is a medium which translates light into something tangible, otherwise light is intangible. So glass, light, design, experience – these are the key ingredients defining what we do - plus the most important element are the people behind it.”
I noticed that many of the chandeliers placed around the world –in palaces, residences, casinos – are inspired by Nature. Is that right?
“Well, it is hard to call them chandeliers- in many ways they are glass art installation or objects inspired by Nature, different cultural elements –we like to basically always connect our installations to the given place, they are site-specific. We like to listen to the owner of the property, what message they would like to communicate through our pieces, what is the cultural background, what is the history of that space. Glass is an amazing medium, it is fluid, it is neither liquid, not solid, it is amorphic, it reacts beautifully with light and if you have imagination and great designers behind you amazing things can be done out of this material.”
“In practice it works in all the ways you mentioned. It depends, when you work with a Japanese client they often have a very exact idea of what they want – Japanese architects almost give you a shop drawing of what they want and you just manufacture it. When you work with French or American architects or interior designers they sometimes give you 100 percent freedom, they just tell you roughly what is the idea, what s the basic concept of the space and then it is up to our creative product designers what they come up with, and then of course, another 50 percent input comes from the craftsman, because the craftsman and our designers have to work in harmony and influence each other during the creative process.”
So the only limitation is what the glass allows as a material?
“I would say yes, it is the technical limits of what can be hand-blown out of one piece of glass but right now we are doing an installation which is 50 metres long, so obviously there is a strong metal frame underneath the piece, because nobody can make a 50 metre piece made of glass alone. So we also have engineers and we also own three metal studios that combine these two amazing materials – metal and glass.”
“One of our goals is to go into the retail market and open beautiful Lasvit ateliers.”
You have leading world designers working for you –how did you manage that in so short a time? Do they come to you or do you address them?
“It was a very natural process. In the beginning we had to beg them to work for us, now we have to beg them not to overwhelm us, so it is like when you start doing something right it is like a snowball –it keeps getting bigger and bigger. And now we are probably the most requested manufacturer in the world as far as designers wanting to collaborate with us goes.”
What is your main market? What countries are you selling to?
“Asia Pacific makes up about 30 percent of our business, which means China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, and those areas, second is the Middle East, so basically the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates and now the United States is picking up a lot –maybe twenty percent of our business is in North America, Europe maybe 10-15 percent.”
Why is that – why is there not greater demand in Europe?
“I think it is relevant to the number of construction projects. Asia, in the last twenty years, seems to be trying to catch up with Europe and the Western culture in unprecedented ways, there are so many new and modern buildings being built, skyscrapers, shopping malls, luxury hotels, palaces, homes, the number of projects is many, many times larger than in the rest of the world – so I guess that’s the main reason. And then, sometimes these owners in Asia, they are not limited by preconceived ideas and they often let us do really new things. They go for contemporary, modern things, in many ways.”
You are heavily dependent on the skills of glass-makers –do you support glass-makers in Nový Bor? Do you support the school and maybe hand-pick talents from the school?
“That is a good question. We are still blessed, in North Bohemia, in this part of the country, in that young people are still interested in studying at craft schools –not just glass-blowing, but fusing, malt-melting, sandcasting, etching, painting on glass and also engineering studies like how to build a furnace for blowing glass. So there are three secondary schools that the government supports and Lasvit supports one of those schools by providing scholarships and other forms of support for students. That is the key –without young people there is no creativity, or not enough creativity. When you go to Murano, Italy, which is the place with the longest tradition in glassmaking ( Bohemia is second by the way) it is like a museum. Everybody is over 60 years old and there are very few young people joining the craft so I do not think it will be a big leader in glass in the next ten, twenty years, whereas here in Bohemia it is peaking again, so many young people joining the craft either through schools or directly at the factories. And with young people coming in, creativity is assured.”
Your firm has achieved incredible success in less than a decade. What are your goals for the future?
“Well, I always have thousands of ideas and luckily my CFO always limits my ideas to a reasonable amount, but one of our big goals is to go into the retail market as well, opening beautiful Lasvit ateliers. We just opened one in New York two weeks ago at which Daniel Libeskind, the famous architect, gave a beautiful, emotional opening speech. We are not only showing chandeliers and lighting but also beautiful glassware and a champagne cooler by Jan Kaplický, who designed Selfridges in the UK and a lot of other beautiful projects around the world. We are introducing glassware, tableware and even planning some unique artistic jewellery based on glass, wood, stone, metal – the natural materials that we are passionate about.”
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