Brooklyn shop showcases classic Czech 20th century furniture

Prague Kolektiv, photo: Ian Willoughby

Prague Kolektiv is a shop in New York which sells nothing but Czech furniture, lighting and decorative objects from the pre-war avant-garde and mid-century social realism periods. The store, located in the DUMBO district of Brooklyn, has been running for nearly three years and sells mostly original restored pieces (at prices that might startle your average Czech babička), as well as some replicas which it has made in the Czech Republic.

Barton Quillen
Barton Quillen, co-owner of Prague Kolektiv, explains the origins of the business:

“I lived for years in the Czech Republic, starting in 1990. I collected quite avidly, just for myself. As the years passed I had this collection which eventually grew larger than my own space could accommodate and I started storing it, all the while moving.

“A friend of mine, an Italian architect called Giovanni Negrisin – who also collected and was living in Prague at the same time as I was living in České Budějovice – said, we both love collecting and you’re moving back to New York, you should give some thought to showing what you’ve collected, maybe there’s a way we could do this as a business, to showcase Czech design. It seems that we know the designs are beautiful, but very few people in North America or New York are aware of the genius of Czech design.

Prague Kolektiv
“That’s how it started. It was really down to my friend, who subsequently became my business partner in this venture.”

What brought you to České Budějovice in 1990?

“Well, it was a fabulous experiment in living for me and it was just such a success for me, personally. I graduated from Princeton University as a history major. In my last year, the 1989-1990 school year, all these exciting events like the Velvet Revolution, the changes in Hungary and Poland, all these unprecedented events occurred.

“It was during that winter of my last year, November, December ’89, that I started thinking that I would love to be there, that is, in the Czech Republic.

“So I applied for a teaching job with the Ministry of Education. I was put, by their choice, in the town of České Budějovice.”

New York is full of design. Is it hard to make a splash in a city where there are so many things going on in the area of design? And what kind of reaction have you had?

“I think it’s always a challenge when you’re in a city that has so much going on in design, there are so many different voices and so much noise, as it were.

Prague Kolektiv
“But that’s actually what I think has made this concept and what we’re doing here…the success, some of it, is due to the fact no-one’s done this before.

“So in the midst of all this design energy and these expressions of design and this great market for design, this Czech design is something that’s new for American people.

“It’s something refreshing and there’s very much something to it, it’s not something that is heavily PR oriented, it’s actually an authentic movement, a real phenomenon with a real need to show it’s face to the world.

“So we’re finding that people have been very receptive – architects, designers, anyone interested in design for that matter.

“I think it’s because it’s something new and they haven’t heard about it. On the merits of the designs themselves there is something that is just fabulous. And the workmanship is always extraordinary – Czechs know how to make things and Americans can now appreciate that.”

Broadly speaking, what do you think is the appeal of Czech design?

“I think there are a few qualities that are appealing about Czech design. First, I think the Czechs, no matter what generation you look at….whether it’s going back to turn of the century designs and Secessionist era designs, or the designs of the avant-garde in the 1920s and ‘30s, or designs in the 1950s, and we focus on the designs of all three of those areas, and even Czech design today…in Czech design there’s a continuity in some qualities, such as that Czechs, I think, know how to make things. They make things very well and they have a great sense of economy of materials.

Prague Kolektiv
“So Americans, whether they’re very sophisticated consumers like an architect or a designer, or just someone who happens upon our space, and sees a design and lets their eyes fall on a chair, on a table, on a piece of lighting, certain things are immediately apparent.

“There’s an elegance, a simplicity, a certain economy in materials and design that is manifest as something elegant and something clean with its lines.

“But also something else which I could stress is that things aren’t terribly functionalist and purely pragmatic – there’s always a little bit of play and a little bit of whimsy, and a kind of playfulness in the designs that also speak to people here.

“And finally the Czech designs…and I wasn’t aware of this until I got more involved in actually finding out what clients like here and what there needs are here and in LA and in North America…the sizing of Czech designs tends to be more diminutive. People find that these work particularly well for apartments, particularly in New York City where apartments tend to be smaller.”

I presume you must be a real expert now on Czech design of the 20th century. Are there any particular pieces or any particular designers that really appeal to you?

“I would say yes. I should say that we try to focus on anonymous designs, on everyday designs that were made in pretty substantial quantities, whether we’re talking about the 1930s or designs from the late 1950s and ‘60s.

“So I will say we try to focus on anonymous designs, but of course there are certain names that stand out and that we really respond to, and when we find these pieces and bring them here and restore them our clients love them also.

“I personally have a great love for Jindřich Halabala – the UP závody designs are stunning and his designs in particular…I understand most of the designs from that company, and he was there for so many years, before and after the war and in the ‘50s…he really left a great legacy in Czech design.

“I think many designers in his generation responded to his work. So we love finding Jindřich Halabala chairs for example, the great bent-wood, larger than life armchairs are fabulous. Even his tubular steel tables with very simple plain surfaces and tubular steel bodies…So Jindřich Halabala is certainly somebody who sticks out.

“There’s a great interest in cubist design and I’m fascinated by it, though we don’t have any commercial activity there. They’re extremely expensive.”

Where do you find this stuff? Where do you get it?

“We really get it anyway we can. But typically we find it directly from people, from their homes. There’s a great deal of effort that goes into advertising and meeting and going to people’s homes.

“And of course a lot of times we don’t find anything when we make those attempts. But ultimately if you knock on enough doors, if you meet with enough people who have an interest in selling to you, you do find things.

“Also we buy from small shops. Not just in Prague, but all over the country. So the antique trade, people’s homes…by auction as well.

“And more and more, just because I think Czechs have such savvy with using technology, we find that these days, just in the last year, we do more on-line.

“So we’re becoming aware of opportunities to buy things on-line. Which of course would never have been possible a few years ago, and is making our lives a lot easier.”