Home, sweet home – a look at the way Czechs furnish their apartments today

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Long gone are the days that Czechs had very few options when it came to furnishing their homes. In the grey old days of planned economy, most flats would look very similar. With the end of communism, many Western chain stores flooded the market and there are much more items to choose from now. So how has the way Czechs furnish their homes changed? In this edition of Czech Life, we take a look inside peoples’ homes.

“I had a clear idea about the table I wanted, which is this wooden table from Indian wood. I knew this is going to be the centerpiece of the living room, because I like cooking and I wanted people to gather around the table.”

Nada Černá, a Prague resident, recently bought an apartment in the city’s Bubeneč neighborhood. She likes travelling to remote countries, adores books, and says she wanted her first own apartment to reflect that.

“And then I found a piece that was matching the table, which is the bookcase, but actually it feels a bit smaller than I expected because I have really tall ceilings, so I would love to find some special piece for books, and it’s something very important, internally, to me.

“But as I said, I haven’t found the perfect piece, so I will keep on searching. And when I started arranging the furniture in my apartment, I knew it wasn’t going to be done at once but that it was going to be a slow process somehow of the things finding their own place.”

Given that Nada’s taste is rather exotic, I asked her if the Czech Republic is still sparser on options for furnishings than other countries, some twenty years after the end of communism, or if the Czech furniture retail has fully caught up to Western countries.

“I cannot really compare how it is in other countries of Europe or let’s say, the US. Maybe probably the options are… you have more options there than here. Because I feel that Czech people are probably quite conservative and the style that I like, which is Asian furniture, tends to be quite expensive here, but you can find some good deals if you are really looking hard and that’s really what you want.

“But definitely, I would say that I had an amazing choice compared to my parents. I still remember when my mother tells me about when she was going to pick her kitchen, and there was a choice between a green and an orange kitchen, and that was about it. The shelves were completely the same, only the color was different. And you had to bribe someone to get the orange color because it was much more liked than the green.”

One Czech company that survived the days of the planned economy and is still around today is TON, which started out as a manufacturer of bentwood chairs. Milan Dostalík is the company’s marketing director.

“The history goes back to 1861 when the bentwood production was established by Michael Thonet, and up to the First World War, it could be called golden times.”

TON managed to survive not only two world wars, but also the communist regime, under which the firm was nationalized and renamed from its original Thonet to TON. But even after the Velvet Revolution, it faced difficulties when foreign brands and mass-manufactured furniture became available on the Czech market. How is the situation now? That’s a question I put to Mr. Dostalík.

“I think there are two directions. I think the Western brands were recognized to be of good quality, often a little bit higher priced and we were short of that, so everybody was looking forward to having something like this.

“But in the meantime, brands like Ikea or such chains are regarded in the West to be low-cost, to be for students to buy their first furniture. And that is actually starting to happen here, right now. So these chains, which are aiming at low-cost budget customers, are quite successful and they push us out of the market.

“But now we are also competing with standard Western companies, which are very good in design and quality. And people are quite happy, and do not make a difference between products from Germany or products from the Czech Republic, as long as they believe it’s of good quality, good design and reasonably priced.”

Ikea’s branch in the Prague suburb of Zličín is packed, even on a weekday afternoon, and it does not come as a surprise that Czech companies find it hard to compete with the popular Swedish furniture giant, where I met Inge Juliusson, Ikea’s head of marketing for the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian markets.

“This is my favorite, it’s called 365 plus, and it means that this product, you will probably use every day in your house.”

Inge Juliusson shows me his favorite Ikea product, a pot from the company’s 365 plus line, at one of the company’s locations in Prague, Zličín. He describes Ikea’s arrival in this part of the world.

“We celebrate our 20-year-anniversay next year, so we opened our first store in the Czech Republic in 1991. And the first small store was not this one, this one we opened in 1996, the Zličín store, where we are sitting right now. I have to say that here, in the Czech Republic, as it has been in most countries that Ikea entered, we have been welcomed with open arms, and people really like what we can offer. I guess Ikea came with something completely new after the Velvet Revolution, something that wasn’t offered here before.”

So in Ikea’s nearly twenty years in the Czech Republic, have Czech customers picked different favorites than those in other European countries? Is there anything unique about Czech shoppers in this respect? Inge Juliusson again.

“We can say that in Ikea that are the most unique Ikea products, such as the Klippan sofa, the Billy bookshelf, and the Pax wardrobe. These big product names sell as well here as in all other countries.

“I think it depends more on peoples’ situation at home, if they have a preference for more practical things or, if you live in a small space, you probably have a need for smart solutions, you cannot be so generous with big furniture and so on, but when it comes to taste, I cannot see a difference between the country I worked before and here.”

Prague resident Nada Černá has a weakness for unique and exotic furniture and wants her place to reflect who she is. But she says that she is not against including some Ikea products in her set-up.

“I like Ikea and I think it’s the typical thing that Czechs go for, and it’s not so pricey and you can find some really nice pieces of furniture. And actually, my idea was to combine, so that it’s not clearly visible that it’s an Ikea flat, because that’s something that looks uniform and it’s something that I didn’t want to have in my apartment, because I think it reflects your personality. Or at least, I feel that personal connection. So I knew that I was going to mix both styles, and I think it looks great if you have some Ikea stuff, like my sofa for example, which looks nice and it’s really practical, and it’s modern. But then I had a clear idea that it’s going to be assembled from different pieces of furniture and that the style would evolve slowly.”

While many of Ikea’s affordable products, such as the Billy bookshelf, have become so ubiquitous in peoples’ homes that you could call them a classic in their own right, they still do not have the same status as TON’s best-known piece: the number 14 chair, made from bent-wood, which Czechs have nicknamed tonetka. The company’s marketing director, Milan Dostalík, again.

“I think, actually, this chair, the number 14, celebrated its 150-year-anniversary last year, and it was a big comeback for this chair and all the bentwood furniture, even though it’s not a high-volume chair for us anymore.”

So what is your best-selling product?

“It’s a regular chair, I think people are willing to pay about 2000 to 25000 crowns for that, and it’s called Norma. It’s a basic chair, with a wooden back part, and it’s very comfortable. So we still sell a couple of 10,000 pieces of this chair every year.”

The tonetka still enjoys instant recognition in the Czech Republic, even though it’s no longer TON’s best-selling chair, while most Czechs would probably not know what a Norma chair is. Amid the difficult economy and big chains taking away from the company’s sales, what are Mr. Dostalík’s hopes for the company’s future?

“If we are operating… Next year, we will be in the business for 150 years, and why not double that period?”

And what are Nada Černa’s hopes when it comes to furnishing her apartment, a process that still hasn’t finished?

“I think I have my own ways, that’s why it’s slow and it’s taking time, but I think: This is your flat, you are going to live here for many years ahead, so you should feel comfortable, that’s it.”