15th Designblok arrives at 1930s freight station

Photo: CTK

This week, Prague has been transformed into a hub for designers from the Czech Republic and further afield for the annual Designblok festival. Almost everything under the umbrella of design – including fashion, home design, art, architecture, lighting and jewellery – can be found in a plethora of exhibitions, shows, seminars and presentations at several locations around Prague.

Lucie Koldová,  photo: CTK
Jana Zielinski is one of the founders of the annual event, now celebrating its 15th year.

“We connect design, industry, art and fashion; and this is very important to us that design is seen as a part of lifestyle, that it’s not just about the products but a way of life.”

Designblok has come a long way since its inception in 1998. Originally inspired by the Milan Design Week, the first event had just fourteen participants and was intended for people associated in some way with the design industry. This year, however, over 200 exhibitors are showcasing their work to others from the industry and, perhaps most importantly, to the general public. Zielinski says there is a healthy balance between local and foreign designers.

“I would say it is half half, 50:50, let’s say. We have more than 200 participants this year about half of them are international producers and foreign designers and about half of them are Czech producers and designers, but their products are absolutely comparable to the international market.”

Such examples of Czech design can be seen with the collection of toys from the Fatra toy company, spearheaded by the revered Libuše Niklová; and the collection of glass objects from award winning designer Lucie Koldová, including the Apollo lamp, which can be seen in the installation of Brokis glassworks.

Photo: CTK
Each year, organisers assign a different theme to the Designblok week. In previous incarnations of the event, themes ranged from the likes of ‘water’ to ‘the city’. Zielinski explains the thinking behind this year’s watchword.

“This is the 15th year, so we have decided to make the topic icons. The icons are not only the products which have grown in these last fifteen years and become icons, but also the designers. Fifteen years ago the public knew fewer names, maybe one or two, but now its very different because design is a big topic in Czech society, and so the designers became icons themselves. So we have decided to make this exhibition about icons- not only the products but also the designers themselves.”

Perhaps the fact that 16 different design schools and universities from the Czech Republic are represented is rather convincing evidence of the fact that design, especially with respect to the younger generations, is of increasing importance in Czech society.

Although Designblok itself has not travelled beyond Prague, it utilises several buildings and spaces around the city. One of the highlights of the event is the yearly location change of the main exhibition space, otherwise known as the Superstudio. The Superstudio has a tradition of finding its temporary home in some of the most interesting and unusual places around the Czech capital. Previous hosts have been, for example, Prague Castle and the ‘Botel’ – a boat hotel which gave each designer their own cabin to showcase their products.

Nákladové nádraží Žižkov,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
In a move which echoes trends in Berlin and London, recent incarnations of the Superstudio have utilised some of Prague’s abandoned industrial spaces, such as the former ČKD factory in Karlín and an old electrical plant in Holešovice. This year, the Superstudio finds itself at the Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, an old freight railway station.

“We always try to show our exhibitions in very interesting architectural venues in Prague, and to allow the people to discover Prague. This year’s venue, the railway station in Žižkov, is a very good example of this, because it’s a very nice industrial and functionalistic venue. It serves normally as a stock house for Vietnamese shop owners and also antique shops, but we are now trying to present a new cultural future for this venue, which I think Prague 3 is trying to find.”

One of the festival’s draws may be that it gives visitors the opportunity to see inside interesting, normally inaccessible locations. Jana Zielinksi:

“I think when the people come they will understand why we chose it. Its great architecture. Normally the inner space of the railway station is inaccessible to the public. It’s absolutely beautiful, there are big towers, for example. We have decided not only to use the railway station buildings, but we have also brought a train, in which an exhibition will take place, so I think this is will be really exciting.”

Jana Zielinski,  photo: archive of Jana Zielinski
At one point threatened with demolition by housing developers, the freight station in Žižkov was confirmed as a heritage site only in March of this year. Very few people had previously had access to this 1930s functionalist building, and since the spring local initiatives and NGOs have tried to find ways of using the space to serve the public. The Prague Biennale was held there this year, and plans are in the making for more permanent uses as well.

Aside from the Superstudio, there are two other main locations: the Arthouse at the Colloredo-Mansfeld palace, another newly re-opened venue in the city centre, which houses for contemporary art and design works; and the Openstudio in the Kafka house or Kafkův dům, where Franz Kafka was born, which is showcasing fashion.

Another facet to the Designblok festival is the hugely popular Premier Fashion Week. Added to Designblok in 2011, the Premier Fashion Week quickly became one of the most popular features of the event. From Wednesday until Sunday an extensive programme of presentations and exhibitions is taking place in both the Kafka house and the Church of Saints Simon and Jude in Prague’s Old Town.

Jana Zielinski is keen to point out that the Premier Fashion Week should not be confused with the Prague Fashion Weekend, an entirely different event that took place recently.

“We are not the classic fashion week, this is probably the biggest difference, and we do not have this ambition. We simply want to show the best European design in fashion. Our programme is very international, so we are not only the fashion week who is introducing everybody, this is not our aim, we are very selective. We curate our shows very particularly, we curate also the selection of the fashion designers which we accept at Designblok, and this is probably the biggest difference.”

Premier Fashion Week,  photo: archive of Designblok
The foreign stars this year include the Flemish design house A.F Vandervorst. As for Czech brands, Klára Nademlýnská, Hana Zárubová and Monika Krobová are showing their wares, while visitors will be able to pieces by other local designers on Saturday at the Openstudio.

Despite the corporate and brand sponsorship that has become increasingly associated with the Designblok festival, Jana Zielinski is confident that this detracts neither from the festival’s mission to support young designers nor from its wish to appeal to the public.

“We have very prestigious sponsors and they understand what we do - and there is no interference with the content. If there would be interference on behalf of our sponsors, we wouldn’t do it. We wish people to come and enjoy it, its very simple. Last year 40,000 people came, and we wish that at least this amount of people come and will like it.”