Collectors searching for untapped sectors of modern design are looking behind the Iron Curtain.
Over the past 15 years dealers and collectors have mined just about every major design development of the 20th century, from Mission style to Marc Newson (whose 1983 Lockheed Lounge prototype was recently offered for a staggering $2.5 million). But savvy buyers looking for segments of the market that haven't been completely picked over and priced out of reach have discovered the rich history of modern decorative arts from the former Czechoslovakia.
As in the rest of Europe, modernism in Czechoslovakia encompassed a range of styles, from the sharp-angled Cubism that flourished before World War I to pieces influenced by Bauhaus Functionalism in the twenties and thirties and even the pared-down designs of the Communist era. While borrowing heavily from better- known German and Austrian exports, Czech designers tended to put a distinctive spin on prevailing trends.
"Czechs weren't just imitators of what was going on around them," says Barton Quillen, a partner in the Brooklyn gallery Prague Kolektiv, the largest U.S. dealer of Czech furniture, lighting, and glass. "They were very switched on to new materials and ideas and had a sophisticated manufacturing base that was a locus of innovation."
The country's first great designer of the 20th century was Pavel Janák, who trained under Otto Wagner at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He made a name for himself as a leader of Czech Cubism, which thrived between 1910 and the start of World War I. Janák's article "The Prism and the Pyramid," in the magazine Art Monthly, became a manifesto for the fascinating but short-lived movement. The wooden chair he created in 1911 with a chevron-shaped back and gently bowed legs is an icon of the era. So are his ceramic containers suggesting stylized crystals or miniature pagoda roofs, which he painted with bold lightning-striped patterns.
Prague was second only to Paris as a center of Cubist art and design, and for a time many of the city's well-heeled citizens lived in Cubist apartments, where they sipped coffee from angular cups and saucers while sitting on zigzag furniture. Janák's Cubist colleagues Josef Gocár, Vlastislav Hofman, and Josef Chochol created groundbreaking designs for manufacturers such as Prague Art Workshops and the Czechoslovak Design Union. The Artel cooperative had no production facilities but commissioned and sold pieces by top designers. The work of the period shared a fondness for sharp angles, graphic ornamentation, and crystalline shapes, all inspired by the pioneering principles of Picasso and Braque.
Later, in the twenties and thirties, Czech design drew heavily on the Bauhaus and the earlier Wiener Werkstätte. It's hard to miss the influence of Marcel Breuer's tubular-steel chairs. But whereas Breuer and his Bauhaus colleagues kept to natural wood and basic black, the Czechs opted for more cheerful red and orange lacquer. Janek Jaros, owner of the Prague shop Modernista, notes that Czech design "always has a bit of a twist." That twist might be an offbeat color choice or a tweaking of, say, the shape of a leg or the proportions of a console—touches that give an original look to furniture that's familiar at first blush.
"There's always some whimsy and a sense of playfulness," says Quillen. "Czech design is practical but never dour." Just scan his Brooklyn shop and you'll see what he means. A group of thirties Functionalist desks, tables, and stools embellish Bauhaus straightforwardness with punches of color. A sleek bentwood recliner and a tubular-chrome armchair, both created in the thirties by Jindrich Halabala, have an eye-opening lightness and energy. Vitrines display boldly hued Czecho Deco carafes and vases and Ladislav Sutnar's thoroughly modern 1931 tea service. Sutnar's vessels were crafted from heat-resistant laboratory glass—a Pyrex predecessor—making them one of the first commercial applications of the material. In form and in function, the Czechs were ahead of their time.
But the Communist takeover of the country in 1948 and the subsequent centralized economy put a damper on the innovation that had flourished before World War II. Designers feared being cast as pro-Western or counterrevolutionary. Material shortages and inefficient production hurt nonessential luxuries, including decorative arts. Yet there were some high points in the postwar era, including glassmaking (see "The Glass Bloc") and the 1958 Brussels Expo, where Czechoslovakia received 27 design gold medals. That success gave rise to the so-called Brussels Style in Czech decorative arts, typified by Jaroslav Ježek's streamlined porcelain Elka coffee service. Marked by swooping spouts and aerodynamic handles, Ježek's design took home the Grand Prix at the Expo.
Under communism design collectives were favored over individual artists, so it's hard to single out stars of the era. But the loss of authorship and identity was far from the only inconvenience. "Czechs couldn't travel as easily, and they couldn't raise capital," explains Quillen.
These days, with prices for modern design appreciating at a dizzying pace, most Czech pieces seem a relative bargain. "They can only go up," says Karen Feldman, an American expat who owns the Prague-based glass company Artel, named after the early-20th-century collective. Quillen agrees. "It's a very nascent market, but things are definitely trading up," he says. Works by Halabala are now sold at Von Zezschwitz Auctions in Munich, Auction House Sýpka in Prague, and, occasionally, American houses.
For opportunistic hunters it's still possible to find quality pieces in Prague markets and antiques shops. "The design is right on par with the Wiener Werkstätte furniture you'd get in Vienna, but in Prague it's easily found and affordable," says Feldman. "In the Czech Republic most people would rather go to Ikea. You're just now seeing thirtysomethings starting to gain an appreciation for the vintage pieces."
One segment of the market that offers no bargains is Czech Cubism. The high prices are due partly to scarcity. "Cubism is definitely chic in the Czech Republic, and there's not a lot out there," Feldman says. It's easier to find small Cubist works, such as the ceramic containers by Pavel Janák available at the Prague shop Kubista for around $2,700 (reproductions start at $45).
Janák's boxes are a prime example of the good looks, first-rate craftsmanship, and forward-thinking spirit that pervade a century of Czech creative output. As Quillen says, "Design is in their DNA."
Where to Find It
The Prague outpost of the venerable Viennese auction house boasts a retail gallery selling glassware, porcelain, jewelry, and decorative objects. 2 Ovocný market; 420-2/2422-2001; dorotheum.cz
Located in the 1912 landmark House of the Black Madonna, the gallery sells original and reissued designs, including Cubist ceramic boxes and porcelain tea services. 19 Ovocný market, Prague; 420-2/2423-6378; kubista.cz
This prime stop for Deco, Bauhaus, and Cubist pieces also offers repro furniture and decorative objects by Jindrich Halabala, Pavel Janák, Vlastislav Hofman, Rudolf Stockar, and Josef Gocár. (Ceramics are available through its U.S. distributor, Ameico, at ameico.com.) 12 Celetná, Prague; 420-2/2424-1300; modernista.cz
The best U.S. source for 20th-century Czech design sells glass, lighting, and furniture. 143B Front St., Brooklyn; 718-260-8013; praguekolektiv.com
The Glass Bloc
Czech glass (or Bohemian glass, as it was once known) has been prized since the Middle Ages. In the 20th century styles included Artel's Cubist creations, Ladislav Sutnar's Functionalist tea services, and the graphic, colorful Czecho Deco of the thirties. Even communism couldn't kill the tradition, and the country produced some of the top postwar glass artists—Vladimír Kopecký, René Roubícek, the husband-and-wife duo Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová. Fortunately, the avant-garde styles banned in other arts were tolerated in glassmaking. These artists' creations—the subject of the 2002 show "Glass Behind the Iron Curtain" at the Corning Museum of Glass—have become highly collectible, joining the best Italian and Scandinavian postwar glass.