The Velvet Revolution
Slowly but ever so surely, Prague is becoming a design destination
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 7/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Many American shoppers have found Prague, indeed the entire Czech Republic, a bit stingy when it comes to serving up perfectly formed souvenirs. And it turns out that retail frustration is far from a novelty there. "We never used the word shopping. It was more like finding," native-born travel guide and interpreter Marie Slámová explains after a dinner of foie gras, Indonesian tuna, veal filets, and chocolate mousse at an appropriately sumptuous restaurant.
A woman who came of age under Communism, Slámová sketched the contrast between the present candlelight and those dark years when the Soviets ran Czechoslovakia. Before the Velvet Revolution, chronic shortages, even actual breadlines, obliterated any pleasure in shopping, because there were never any choices. You grabbed the first winter coat you found, no matter how it looked. Snow boots were waterproof. . .maybe. Some Czech signature brands—Koh-i-Noor for pens and watercolor pencils, Bat'a for shoes—were probably more available abroad than at home.
Without choice, taste withered. When Lord Snowdon paid a legendary visit in 1965, zooming around Prague on a Jawa motorbike, he supposedly pronounced the consumer goods he encountered "ugly." Design, which endows certain objects with more beauty—hence value—than others, made little sense to officials charged with enforcing proletarian "equality."
Even in the hipster 1990's, Prague remained a city without any obvious shopping culture. That's something the leadership has been trying to change. Inflation is expected to accompany the adoption of the euro in 2010, and one idea is that design, style, and excellent service might help sell Prague and the second city, Brno, in the travel market if they lose their present distinction as budget destinations.
American expat Karen Feldman, a designer and entrepreneur whose company, Artel, produces contemporary glass in the Bohemian tradition, started noticing signs of progress when a Western-style mall opened in 1996, two years after she'd arrived. Gone are the days when the entire contents of a Czech store lived on shelves behind the counter—at least in the center of the city. Now, she promises, there's definitely "something to buy in Prague." She herself is looking to secure the right real estate for a shop, and her new Prague: Artel Style crystallizes her bid to become the pied piper of Czech retail.
Along with the addresses, maps, and color photos, shopping strategies fill 63 pages, roughly a third of the total "Think of each shopping attempt as a sports event," she encourages. "Maintain a sharp eye and iron determination." Also beware that stores that "accept credit cards will claim that they do not."
Some landmarks of this evolving landscape are reasonably obvious to visitors. If you're looking for a jewel-toned decanter, you can try the Moser flagship opposite the astrological clock on Old Town Square, at the very heart of historic Prague. But glass is of the highest quality many places, and the average tourist is liable to breeze right by essential stops. Take Arzenal, designer Borek Sipek's glass shop situated in the vestibule of a Thai restaurant strongly perfumed by garlic, chili peppers, and fish sauce.
In the Holesovice district, many of the big European manufacturers—from Vitra to Bulo—have staked claims. The showrooms cluster around a converted industrial courtyard building. Upstairs, right under the roof, the homegrown journal Blok shares airy white-painted premises with a Moooi lighting showroom.
Blok is published by Profil Media, a branding and marketing agency that also organizes the well attended Designblok fair each October. For the 2007 Designblok, Profil Media is planning to exhibit Preciosa chandeliers. It may also show Qubus Design's macabre Little Joseph candleholders in the form of white doll heads.
Modernista, an eight-year-old store in a baroque palace, is a source for Feldman's Artel glass, plus furniture and lighting reproductions. A chandelier based on a 1913 original by Josef Gocár is a sort of lightning bolt from a designer that she terms the godfather of Czech cubism.
It turns out that Modernista's reproduction Adolf Loos blue velvet-covered armchair in Feldman's own living room can also be found in Brooklyn, New York, where Prague Kolektiv is operated by former Czech Republic residents Barton Quillen and Giovanni Negrisin. In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, you'll discover five recently introduced repro pieces alongside what Quillen calls "Czecho deco" furniture and lighting—perfectly restored Mitteleuropa modernism. Even Czechs agree that no shop in Prague yet comes close.