A favourite stop on my strolls through the New York neighbourhood of DUMBO is in front of the colourful window display of Prague Kolektiv.
Prague Kolektiv is the only store specializing in design from the Czech Republic in North America. A few weeks back, I was showing the neighbourhood to some very excited cousins of mine from London. We ended up oohing and aahing over the immaculate collection of Czech furniture, glassware and lighting from the 1920s through to the 1960s in the industrial storefront space.
We got a crash course from co-owner Barton Quillen on the history of Czech design, which was fascinating. Very little is known about the Czechs’ contribution to midcentury modernism because the country was so isolated under Communist rule.
Barton lived for many years in Prague, where he ran an art center and worked as a teacher. He was struck by the Czech ‘take’ on modern design. “I could see that this was part of a larger modernist family but there were all these motifs and details that struck me as original, Czech inflections,” he said. “There were recognisable mid-century elements like organic design and bent plywood, but with details that I hadnâ€™t seen before, a playful subversivness.”
Barton traces this Czech sense of whimsy back to the earlier designs that were influenced by the Bauhaus and Art Deco in the 1930s. His store carries a lot of chrome-plated tubular steel frame furniture and lighting typical of that era.
On his many shopping trips to the Czech Republic, he tries to stick to pieces that donâ€™t require a lot of refurbishment. “There is greater authenticity in finding pieces that look as close as possible to how they will look when people eventually buy them â€“ that motivates me very much,” Barton said.
Interestingly, he attributes the good condition of these pieces to the fact that after Communism, there was no labor mobility. “People didnâ€™t change jobs much, so once they settled down and got furniture, they kept the same furniture for the rest of their lives. These days in America, we toss something out because it doesnâ€™t capture our imagination anymore. These things were designed to last during the lifetimes of the people who owned them and they passed the test.”
Prague Kolektiv also accepts orders for reproductions, such as this handbuilt 1930s Functionalist desk. If I had a desk like this, I would hold onto it for the rest of my life.
Some of the beautiful silhouettes come from the way the designers played with the planes or levels of the piece. There’s a transparency and lightness that comes from the open negative spaces, the simple elegance and linearity of designs like this desk, below, made of formica and ash and beech woods.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the desktop is slightly assymetrical. It widens out towards the righthand edge. “This is as great an example of mid-century Czech design as I can think of,” said Barton. “There’s a minimalism of design without being self-conscious about it.”
Self-conscious it may not be, but Czech modernist design certainly gives its Danish and Italian counterparts a run for their money.