A handmade tale: Leon Jakimič on making Lasvit “Czechia’s first new global luxury brand”

Lasvit headquarters in Nový Bor

Lasvit is Czechia’s leading exporter of high-end glass and light installations, producing often stunning creations for luxury hotels, residences and retail outlets around the globe. The company was co-founded in 2007 by Leon Jakimič, who was initially based in Hong Kong but is now back in his native North Bohemia. We spoke at Lasvit’s exquisite showroom – packed with wonderful lighting creations and glass pieces – in Prague’s Holešovice district.

Leon Jakimič | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

I’d first like to ask you about your family background. You’re from Liberec but of course your name, Jakimič, isn’t Czech.

“Jakimič is a Serbian name. But it was in the 18th century that my many times great grandfather moved from Serbia to Kyiv.

“Then in 1920 my great-grandfather reached Příchovice u Tanvaldu, so North Bohemia, and married Marie Swarovski from the Swarovski family – from the branch that did not move to Austria but stayed in Bohemia.

“And that was the beginning of the Jakimič Czech tradition.”

What about the family tradition of glassmaking – what exactly were you doing in previous generations?

“Since I just mentioned the Swarovski family, part of my family glassmaking tradition can be traced to this family.

“The other part can be traced to the Šraml family. That was my grandmother’s maiden name – my father’s mother.

“She was from the half-Sudeten German family of the famous engravers and glass cutters the Šramls.”

I was reading that you were a competitive tennis player in your younger days, but you quit after you were beaten by Radek Štěpánek. Is that true?

“I did not completely quit after losing to Radek Štěpánek in the final of the Czech national championships.”

“[Laughs] Well, to a certain degree, yes.

“I did not completely quit after losing to Radek Štěpánek, who was three years younger, in the final of the Czech national championships.

Radek Štěpánek | Photo: Prokop Havel,  Czech Radio

“But I realised that I was probably not going to be in the top 100 at least in the world, so I decided to really focus more on school, while still continuing to play tennis.

“And I got a tennis scholarship in the States, so it was still very useful to play tennis, but not on the professional level.”

After studying in the US you moved to Hong Kong, where you represented a different Czech glass company. Then you founded Lasvit in 2007. I’m curious why you founded a company here but continued to live in Hong Kong.

Peninsula Hotel in Paris | Photo: Lasvit

“Two reasons. One: the business, especially in those days, was Asia-Pacific.

“There were so many business opportunities, so I kind of decided that my co-founder Aleš Stýblo, who is today the CEO of Lasvit, would move to the Czech Republic to put together the whole project management, design, engineering and production team.

“We acquired an existing metal studios, we bought an existing glassworks and so on.

“And I was to focus on business development, not only in Asia-Pacific – globally – but from Asia-Pacific, since there were the most numerous business opportunities.

“The other reason was my wife. She simply loves warm climates, the ocean, so she really didn’t want to move back to the Czech Republic at that time [laughs].”

Were you able to manage? I presume your mind was in two time zones, at all times?

“It was actually even more than two time zones.

“We opened offices in New York and LA very soon afterwards, then a Dubai office, and so on.

“So it was quite a few time zones.

“But yes, in the beginning I remember these Skype calls at 6 am in the morning Hong Kong time, when it was 11 pm or midnight in the Czech Republic.

“So these were the old days. When I think about them I almost think it was a crazy idea to leave an existing job, reasonably well-paid, for something completely new.

“But today I have absolutely no regrets, and I’m so grateful for that decision.”

Lasvit headquarters in Nový Bor | Photo: Lasvit

What was your vision when you founded Lasvit?

Designer Peter Olah with the Tour de France trophy | Photo: Lasvit

“The vision was always to have a company that makes a true difference in this world, through making something beautiful, something inspiring, something which is in fact more than just pretty – which goes a bit deeper and can even maybe change people’s lives.

“Because when you surround yourself with something beautiful and meaningful, it can lift you up, it can inspire you, it can make you happier.

“So I always wanted to do something which would be more than making a product, which would be something connected to the Czech Republic, a country that I’m very proud of and very excited about.

“And glass was natural because of my family tradition and because of the conditions, the reputation, the tradition, the skill, the know-how.

“So it was very, very natural in a way.

“Today we have fine-tuned the vision a little bit, we have redefined it, so it can be, in a way, measurable.

“We have decided for the vision to be Lasvit would like to be the first new luxury brand of the Czech Republic loved globally.

“The Czech Republic has never had luxury brands. We always had Baťa, Škoda –the best value kind of brands.”

“The Czech Republic has never had luxury brands. We always had Baťa, Škoda – you know, the best value kind of brands, and Czechs are always very good at that.

“But I think it’s time for this country to have a product or brand that can really inspire people, and not just actually sell, but more like people love it, people desire it, people don’t buy it because it has a low price or it’s got some features – but basically it’s about an idea.”

Lotte World Tower,  Seoul | Photo: Lasvit

How close do you feel Lasvit is to achieving what you’re talking about, being a Czech global luxury brand?

“We are very close and very far.

“Very close in the way that we are already the most famous Czech luxury brand in the B2B business: among architects, interior designers and people who really know, who like something amazing, bespoke, one-off.

“But a luxury brand in terms of retail presence, in terms of general brand, where people compare you to companies like Swarovski and other luxury companies – Hermes, Louis Vuitton – we are still far.

Hotel Imperial Pacific,  Saipan Island | Photo: Lasvit

“But we are working on it: opening our own stores as well as looking for more third-party retailers, developing new products – not just lights but also tableware, glassware.

“In a few years we may have some very unique jewelry, based on craftsmanship, not typical jewelry.

“So we still have a long way to go.”

You create amazing objects for high-end customers in many parts of the world. Typically, how do those commissions begin? Does somebody come to you and say, We have a space, what have you got? Or do they say, We need something that resembles clouds, or teardrops, or whatever?

Four Seasons,  Jakarta | Photo: Lasvit

“I wish it was this simple. I think every project has a story of its own.

“The majority of our bespoke art installations start in a face-to-face meeting between our project advisor, sometimes together with our product designer, and an interior designer.

“I would say 60 to 70 percent of our projects start this way.

“Then after we brainstorm the original ideas and realize what areas of the space – no matter whether it’s a private home, office building, super yacht, cruise liner, retail store – the product designer starts to create proposals.

“And maybe a few days, sometimes months or even a few years after that we get to meet the owner.

“Sometimes we have 100 percent freedom, that we can create whatever we think would work.

“Obviously we like that way, because our product designer can really think outside of the box.

“Sometimes we get zero percent freedom.

“Like with projects in Japan – many times the architect or interior designer tells you exactly what they want.

“Then it can almost go straight to our engineering team and even skip the creative product development process.”

How technically complicated can your pieces be? Also I’m curious how the cooperation works between the purely design people, the glassmakers and the engineering people?

The Londoner,  London | Photo: Lasvit

“I think this is one of the strengths and unique aspects of Lasvit, that we combine so many skills, so many people with various backgrounds under one roof.

“We have product designers, we have lighting engineers, we have design engineers who do our 3D modeling, we have project managers, we have installation teams, we have craftsmen.

“That ranges from glassmakers – who blow glass, who engrave, who cut, who paint, who fuse, who mould melt glass, and so many other glass techniques – all the way to people who work with metal, stainless steel, brass, aluminum, who bend, shape, weld.

“Also we have what are called girdlers, who work with brass and add these little details.

“So the variety of what we can create with metal and glass is amazing, and together with light – with the best lighting engineers, who we also have – is I think one of the main reasons Lasvit has been so successful.”

Are there any regimes or individual who you would be reluctant to work with as potential customers?

Instalation in Abu Dhabi | Photo: Lasvit

“Obviously a company whose value is love and humility – in fact the brand Lasvit: laska and svit, love and light – can’t work with regimes that are evil.

“So obviously we closed the Russian office a few days after the war started.

“We have walked away from projects in Russia where the owners were willing to send us 100 percent deposits – and we just said sorry.

“We know our product is not military and is a peaceful product, but still we don’t want to work in a country that is now creating so much evil.

“Obviously North Korean and Iran and countries like that – we don’t work with clients from those countries.”

Typically how many bespoke projects are your team working on at any one time?

“Every year we complete between 180 to 250 bespoke projects around the world.”

“As we are speaking now, we have eight installation teams, somewhere around the world, installing eight different projects.

“Every year we complete between 180 to 250 bespoke projects around the world.

“And in terms of how many projects we have in our pipeline, it would be close to 2,000 to 3,000, in various stages.

“One stage we call ‘just learned about it’ – we don’t even know who the interior designer is, we just know there is an amazing hotel coming up: a Fairmont in maybe the south of Spain.

“Then the other stages: the design stage, the pricing stage, the tendering stage, the production stage, the delivery stage, installation.

“So across all of these stages we have two to 2,000 to 3,000 projects right now.”

One area Lasvit also works in is architectural glass. What exactly is that?

“We can maybe even turn the whole building, or part of the building, into a jewel.”

“It’s an amazing new idea [laughs] that I’m kind of pushing very much right now.

“Because I don’t think we need to limit ourselves just to creating interior jewels, but we can maybe even turn the whole building, or part of the building, into a jewel, into a meaningful jewel that will complement the surrounding architecture and the space; without being too loud it can still sit beautifully in a space, even though the whole building becomes covered with art glass.

“I’m talking more about artisanal glass for architecture, where we either supply the whole facade – including the metal and the support and the IGU, which means insulated glass units – or just glass components, no matter whether it’s shingles or glass tiles or any other shapes it takes – and then the facade contractor would create the actual facade using our glass.

Lasvit headquarters in Nový Bor | Photo: Lasvit

“So we have both options available.

“It took us some time to learn those skills: how to create even an insulated facade, where the outer layer is actually art glass.

“But it’s definitely something that I think is a possible, I would say, even game changer for our company.

“It could not only double or quadruple even our business, but it allows us to use even more unique techniques, like glass fusing, slumping, thermo-shaping.

“We just recently bought a nine by six metres furnace which is the largest one in the world for art glass.

“We can do projects that we never even thought we could do one day.

“So maybe not the whole skyscraper, but the first two or three floors. Maybe part of a private home, part of a retail space – especially these luxury brands, they really one to differentiate themselves and through our art facade they could really make a huge difference.”

We’ve maybe already touched on it a bit, but where would you like to see Lasvit in, let’s say, 10 or 15 years?

Cartier,  Geneve | Photo: Lasvit

“I would like to see Lasvit as a truly new luxury brand that is loved globally.

“By new luxury, I mean we would like to redefine luxury.

“We would like people to think of luxury not as something necessarily made of gold and diamonds, and something that looks down on people.

“We would actually like luxury to lift people up, to be a more democratic type of luxury.

“Something based on beautiful authentic materials, natural materials, not toxic plastic but natural materials based on human craftsmanship.

“When a craftsman makes something with love, this product will later radiate it, whereas a machine-made product is dead.”

“Something that radiates positive energy.

“I think that when a craftsman makes something with love, this product will later radiate it and you will feel it, whereas a machine-made product is dead.

“So I would like Lasvit to focus on doing something handmade, something beautifully designed, with a meaningful story behind it, and redefine luxury in a way that lifts people up.”