100 Czech Design Icons - "the key to the nation's memory"

100 Czech Design Icons is the title of a remarkable exhibition which has just got underway in Prague. It features an extremely broad range of Czech design classics, from a Cubist clock made by Josef Gocar in 1912 to colourful 1970s inflatable animals.

"When the Financial Times reviewed the show the headline was 'key to the nation's memory'. And it is just as much about the nation's memory as about design."

Says Tomas Zykan, one of the exhibition's organisers.

"First of all, we wanted it to be icons in the sense of symbols of their period. We were looking for pieces which people know, people use, they have them in their households and they some kind of emotional attachment. We were not looking for some kind of exclusive design prototypes. We were looking for real things which symbolise the lifestyle of the period.

"We approached a group of seven people; they were not primarily art historians but we chose people who know design, who work in design, but they are also enthusiasts for a certain period. The whole project was debated in the group as well. There was quite a heated discussion to come up with the final 100."

Among those selected was Maxim Velcovsky, who mostly works in porcelain. The brilliant young designer learned of his inclusion in 100 Czech Design Icons when he saw the book which accompanies the exhibition.

"It was really a pleasure to find out I was chosen. It's a really nice selection and I was really quite surprised I had a few pieces in it. I didn't know the project was going on and when I saw the book published I went through it - it was like a pop encyclopaedia of design.

"It's not really a highly educational encyclopaedia but it's more like pop, which I like. And you can find different pieces. If it was too serious it would probably be boring."

The exhibition is on show in a most unusual location, although one well known to anybody who has been to Prague - the Bata shoe store at the foot of Wenceslas Square. Sitting on a café balcony next door, I asked Tomas Zykan: why Bata?

"Bata as a company, the brand Bata, was included in the project as icon number 19. Bata is such a phenomenon, it's an international company, it's a brand name around the globe.

"We were looking for a symbol of the company, and we picked their flagship brand showroom on Wenceslas Square from 1927. We included it in the project and the book as a symbol for Bata. So we are using the whole building as an exhibit, actually.

"And secondly it is of course perfectly positioned to get this project to as wide an audience as possible, to Czechs as well as tourists, and to people who wouldn't normally go to a museum show, or a design exhibition."

Among the more surprising items on show are an orange metal tram seat, the cover of a late 1960s edition of Mlady Svet magazine, 1970s running shoes called "Botasky" and - in Bata's children's department - a Krtek (Mole) cartoon. Have the organisers deliberately tried to make the show "poppy" and accessible?

"We tried to make it an entertaining guide to Czech design, and the exhibition was meant to be a travelling show for a foreign audience. So we were looking for an accessible way to present not only design but what the Czech Republic went through during the last 100 years. So yes, it was meant to be both entertaining and educational."

You said that the exhibition was designed to be shown abroad - where has it been shown and what has been the reaction?

"So far we have shown in Berlin in May and Bratislava in June. So Prague is the third stop, and immediately after Prague it's going on to Stockholm, Brighton and Milan.

"I think that Berlin...it wasn't a completely foreign show for them, because they know quite a bit of socialist retro from eastern Germany. And also a number of Czech lifestyle features are known in Germany - it can be Karel Gott or Czech animation, some fairytales or Czech products.

"People were looking at it as design but also as a way to understand what Czechs went through...they could understand Czech fortunes in terms of the economy, politics, people's private lives, etceteras. And those objects were able to interpret that story.

ETA iron,  photo: www.czech100.com
"In Bratislava it was more home territory, people reacted more emotionally because they remembered the pieces, they still have many of them. And each generation was able to find a layer in the exhibition which was directly linked to their memories."

What is particularly Czech about Czech design?

"I think you can see uses of certain materials, and of course certain eras or decades are defined by certain materials - it can be plastic, it can be glass, it can be fibre materials, etceteras. And Czechs are good at working with glass and porcelain, so that's why you will see a number of those in there.

"Toys and animation is also something which goes throughout the whole project, not just in one period but in different parts.

"It probably seems that Czech design is sophisticated and clunky at the same time. Many of the objects can appear slightly heavy-handed, but I think that can be their charm as well."

But, in today's world, can design in this country remain uniquely Czech in some way? Designer Maxim Velcovsky has his doubts.

"I think the market is quite global...the big global tsunami is going around the whole world...young people are getting inspired by magazines they buy abroad, and it's easier to surf on the internet. All designers are connected on-line, so it's really hard nowadays to say why we are different, or if we are different."

Is that a view shared by Tomas Zykan?

"I would agree with it, even though Maxim Velcovsky is a designer who is distinctly Czech, because there a lot of cultural references, and irony and humour in which he is commenting on Czechness.

"For example he has a vase in the shape of the Czech Republic. Or he has a porcelain boot which serves as a vase; but that porcelain boot is like a typical Czech workman's...shoe. So it's definitely very much Czech.

"But otherwise I would agree with that. It's becoming a global arena and it's more difficult to speak about a national design."

For more information go to www.czechmania.com