2 July 2014 -

During interviews and meetings with generous key historians, curators and practitioners in the Czech Republic (February-March 2014), one repeated assertion was that whilst Communism in Czechoslovakia was morally and politically corrupt, an infringement of human rights and a regime that turned a nation into a prison, there was one thing it delivered that could be considered relatively successful for those involved: state-organised design.

Focusing on glass and furniture design in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to the late 1960s, my thesis analyses nationalised design production, exploring design and craft in relation to official socialist and Communist aims and rhetoric. Receiving a Design History Society Student Travel Award enabled me to carry out a five-week trip in the Czech Republic to research the complexity of these institutional structures and the role of the artist therein. Having grounded my research in critical writings available in the UK and via magazines published during the period, my knowledge of the field was largely that recorded in official channels. Through oral history and collection-based studies, this trip enabled insight into the everyday reality of being an artist or designer within the state system whilst providing valuable time to begin to unpack the complex bureaucracy of a myriad committees and small organisations that made up the fabric of socialist design production in Czechoslovakia, resulting in a cultural, economic and social impact that is still felt in Czech design today.

Detail from illustration to accompany article “Přestavujeme vesnický domek” by Otakar Máčel for Domov magazine, 2/1960. Published by ÚBOK, Prague.

As well as interviewing practitioners, I carried out research within resources held by range of large and small institutions in Prague and beyond. Two key organisations were UMPRUM (the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague) and UPM (the Decorative Arts Museum Prague). UMPRUM's pedagogical role as the educator of the majority of Czech artists had a fundamental effect on the research practice and delivery of national design institutions, and indeed the reception of those artists when they left Prague under the auspices of key institutions such as ÚBOK (Institute of Home and Fashion Culture) to instruct factory workers in the making of their designs. The ÚBOK archives, an organisation that centralised glass, furniture, ceramics and textiles often through the absorption of predecessor organisations, are held at UPM alongside a large collection of glass and furniture. The complex relationship between art, craft and industry that made for rich debate in socialist Czechoslovakia is demonstrated through the telling brackets used in the museum's logo, U(P)M, separating art (umĕní) from industry (průmysl). Equally important to my research were visits to smaller-scale organisations such as Czech Design, the Moser Glass Factory, the Glass Museum in Jablonec nad Nisou and city museums in towns such as Karlový Vary.

Collaboration and synthesis were key concepts within state-led organisations and my trip included visits to sites demonstrating the realisation of these concepts, as well as their earlier influencers. These included the Invalidovna housing estate, a case study for my thesis where in 1961 a project was hosted by ÚBOK with the involvement of other organisations such as ÚLUV (The Centre for Folk Art Production) to furnish five ideal socialist flats, bringing together craft practice and aims for mass-manufacture; hotels such as the Hotel International in Brno with its (potentially at risk) early 1960's furnishings designed by members of key national institutions; and villas ranging from Dušan Jurkovič's Arts and Crafts-influenced house to Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat.

The list of key state design organisations established at the time (e.g. VNP, SÚPRO, VÚVS, Art Centrum, Sklo Export etc) is vast, not to mention the smaller ateliers absorbed within craft-orientated and ethnographical organisations such as Umĕlecká řemesla. Research carried out on this trip allowed me to better understand connections between these and pre-Communist organisations, plus associated aims and theories, as well as gain a better understanding of international connections (particularly with Britain via exhibitions, exchanges and the referencing of multiple British publications during the 1960s).

Folk and regional production techniques and formal values were also consolidated within centralised institutions. The latter discussion introduces notions of kitsch (and its Czech counterpart, kýč, discussed as early as the 1920s by Josef Čapek), in relation to folk aesthetics and a drive towards an intellectualised, modern manifestation of traditional techniques and debates around taste. One source for this debate that was key to my research trip was the design and lifestyle magazine Domov held by the UPM library.

I am extremely grateful to the Design History Society for facilitating this trip, which allowed valuable connections with institutions and experts in the field to be established. The trip also enabled understanding of how further research can be continued in a concentrated manner using the resources located in the Czech Republic as well as showing areas for expansion within British resources. All research will contribute to my doctoral thesis, which offers a new study of the role of artist and designer within state-organised design under Communism.

Rebecca Bell


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