Designer Jan Čtvrtník: from Czech Cubism to NASA lunar shields

Jan Čtvrtník, photo: Marián Vojtek

Young Czech designer Jan Čtvrtník has worked for some of the best-known names in the industry, from domestic firm Moser to IKEA and Electrolux. He has just won an illustrious Droog award for a vase highlighting the issue of climate change, which also attracted the attention of British design guru Marcus Fairs. He has studied in Sweden and spent part of his schooling at NASA HQ in Houston, Texas. He now lives and works in Italy. During a brief trip back to the Czech Republic, I caught up with Jan Čtvrtník in a bustling Prague café. As someone who has gained so much experience living and working abroad, I started by asking him how he thought design in the Czech Republic measured up to that which he had witnessed abroad:

Jan Čtvrtník,  photo: Marián Vojtek
“In the Czech Republic, I’m quite critical about the Czech industry. There are only a few companies who are visible on the world stage, or on a European stage. For example, there is Škoda. I mean, Škoda is doing good design, but it is about the only Czech design which is really visible outside of the Czech Republic.

“And then, when I work for a Czech company which is dealing in design, then they usually don’t know what they should expect. They don’t know what my role is in the company. They don’t know what I could offer them and what they should expect of me. Sometimes they want the full package – an exhibition designer, an interior designer and a graphic designer too. But my knowledge is really very specific – I am an industrial, product, designer, and this is very different from graphic design. I mean, I do graphic design from time to time, but this is not my business, and I don’t feel that strong in that field, so I don’t do that so often – not as a professional.

“But often I am asked to support that team here. So, it’s very difficult, and basically the knowledge of design, and what a designer should do in their job, varies from company to company. And especially in the Czech Republic, I think a lot of companies still don’t know what they should ask their designers to do.”

So you’re saying that the problem boils down to a lack of tradition and a lack of history?

“Yes and no. Because we cannot say there is a lack of design history here, because in between the wars, there was a very strong design tradition, and very good design schools here in what is now the Czech Republic. It is just the period of communism here changed everything. The design studios were very rigid and only gave their output a facelift every five years or so. They didn’t adapt their style towards the aesthetics which were reigning elsewhere around the world. So, there is a strong tradition of new design and new aesthetics here in the Czech Republic, but it is as if these companies now have to learn it again, because that knowledge has been lost.”

You yourself said just there that there are these very strong currents in Czech design, especially from the interwar period. Do you as a patriot ever find yourself referring to things like Cubism in your work?

“Well yes, I love Cubism. And I am patriotic, and I know how unique things like Cubism, and Cubism in Czech architecture are in the world. I am proud, but I don’t want to just spend time saying how proud I am. Because in the end it is boring. When I have to hear from Italian guys how good they are at soccer, it is boring. Yes, you are good, congratulations, squadra azzura win again, but what is the point? I know this. But usually people don’t know about the Czech Cubist tradition, and explaining it to them feels a bit like labouring a point. So, I’m not doing that usually.”

But obviously you are very aware of your predecessors, and of Czech design history, and this vase that you have just won a lot of awards with references a vase made in 1937, if I’m not mistaken, by a Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto. So, do you ever use Czech influences from around about that time in your work? Or would you say that that is not a conscious decision that you make?

“Yes, but not in such a direct way as I did with this vase. I studied at VŠUP – the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague. And this school has a very strong history and tradition relating to Functionalism and the stuff which was very modern in between wars. And this Modernism and Constructivism – it is our background. And we are trying to use it, just as people use rules from Christianity for example.

“It is kind of a rule here to let older people have the seats in the tram and stuff like that. You do that, because it is kind of traditional. And it is the same with design; we do these things because there is a strong tradition here. No one told us we have to do it; we just know that it is better to do things simply and not complicate them, and to make things as useful as possible. We have that as our background. We use this, though no one actually told us that we have to, obviously we can do whatever we want, but for me it is definitely a foundation.”

I’ve seen in your portfolio some rather weird and wonderful designs for NASA. Can you tell me a bit about these odd structures that I saw drawings of?

“For NASA, what I did was not in the least bit environmentally friendly. We were given the lunar mission to work on. NASA plans in 2020 to re-launch its lunar mission and to build a permanent base on the moon. And this involves a lot of problems, because previously they spent a few hours on the moon, which was not that difficult. Well, not that difficult – of course, it was extremely difficult, but it was much easier than setting up a permanent base there. So there was a lot of research to do, we had to think about how we, as designers, could help NASA to do something. In the end, we did a lot of research which could prove quite useful for NASA as well, because when they do the lunar mission they can go through our work and say ‘here we have a screwdriver made especially for people wearing spacesuits’. So they can use some points of our research to develop the proper, correct, final screwdriver.

“So we did the research, and we also developed the project as far as the prototypes or the mock-ups. But the end bit was just our fantasy. Because we don’t have the skills to calculate everything and to be able to plan everything correctly, and we don’t have all of the scientific knowledge needed to make it.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 14, 2008.