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Prague's Traditional Reinvention

Touring Dlouhá street.

Photo: Monika Hoefler

One of the earliest to see the promise of Prague’s indigenous culture was Janek Jaros, who for almost a decade has been championing Czech Cubism from his downtown gallery Modernista. Set somewhat incongruously among the treacly gift boutiques and garnet sellers along Celetná, a popular tourist road in Old Town, Modernista is Prague’s original Czech design emporium. The fortysomething Jaros manufactures reproductions of furniture, kitchenware, and porcelain by the best-known Czech Cubists, such as Vlatislav Hofman, Pavel Janák, and Josef Goćár (of the House of the Black Madonna), and sources hard-to-find originals for a handful of prominent clients, among them London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. But it’s only in the past two to three years that his local clientele—relatively newly educated about and ready to invest in their own aesthetic traditions—has begun to grow. “Modernista has changed a lot in the last three years, and so has the market. We’re going back to basics, working with locals and expatriates who live in Prague long term.”

Jaros recently collaborated with the designers of the Rocco Forte Collection’s 101-room Augustine hotel, which had its much-heralded opening last May, by helping to source products for its interiors. Housed in a 13th-century Augustinian monastery spread over seven buildings in the picturesque Malá Strana district, the hotel offered Olga Polizzi, the collection’s design director, a chance to delve into Prague’s design history. “What’s unique about the Czech Cubists is that they pushed the ideas of Picasso and Braque beyond what the movement in Western Europe was producing,” she says. “In Prague, Cubism became buildings, decorative objects, printing, textiles. It’s a very important—perhaps the most important—period in Czech art.”

Known for her work on Rome’s polished Hotel de Russie and the renovation of Rocco Forte’s London flagship, Brown’s, Polizzi committed herself to integrating local design traditions into the Augustine’s interiors. The results are a testament to how an international hotel brand can achieve an authentic sense of place in one property. Few European hotels can match the Augustine, with its still-active ecclesiastical libraries and 18th-century frescoes, for pedigree (the Mandarin Oriental, Prague, just blocks away from the Augustine and also housed in a former monastery, is one). Some of the textiles in the rooms are faithful reproductions of archival Cubist and Modernist designs; others are more playful interpretations of them. Hofman’s signature armchairs and dining chairs were purchased in bulk from Jaros, so that most rooms have one (along with a selection of tomes and catalogues on Czech Cubist theory and objects). Porcelain pieces—vases, boxes, tea saucers—line bookshelves. A sinuous reclined chaise longue by another significant Czech Modernist, the Brno-born architect Adolf Loos—whose perfectly preserved Villa Müller in Prague’s green Střešovice suburb is open to visitors—appears in some of the suites. All of this interacts dynamically with rough stone, pitched chestnut beams, somber portraits of saints, and biblical scenes from the order’s private collections that Polizzi had restored and hung in the stairwells. The effect: two vernaculars sharing Czech DNA but separated by six and a half centuries. “The rigor of Cubism, of its aesthetic, lends itself well to this strict environment,” Polizzi says. “And they’re both quintessential parts of the city.”

Across the river on the edge of Old Town, just down the street from Jaros’s Modernista, an American expat named Karen Feldman is busy reinterpreting one of the city’s other great artistic traditions: hand-etched glassware and crystal. Feldman left San Francisco for Prague in the early 90’s and soon developed a keen interest in, and collector’s eye for, top-quality glass workmanship. In 1999, she founded Artěl, which produces contemporary glassware hand-engraved by classically trained artisans (many descended from generations in the same trade). She started the business in the bedroom of her apartment; a decade later, her products—characterized by bold or abstracted interpretations of traditional motifs, and the occasional tongue-in-cheek one (swirling goldfish; underwater scenes, jellyfish and sea horses included)—are sold at Barneys in Tokyo and at Paul Smith in London and New York City. In the Artěl boutique on Celetná, rows of symmetrical spotlighted alcoves are filled with highballs and flutes. Glass cases lining the walls hold tableware and jewelry, including charming gem-toned sunburst rings and pendants. There’s a deftly edited selection of vintage objects along with contemporary pieces produced by young Czech design entrepreneurs, such as Maxim Velćovský, of the firm Qubus, a definitive presence on the Prague creative scene, and Olgoj Chorchor, a collective whose work is sold at Moss in New York City.

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