Josip Plecnik chair recovered by Prague Castle

One of three identical armchairs designed by Josip Plecnik for Tomas G. Masaryk in the early 1920s, photo: Linda Mastalir

A very popular exhibit of Prague Castle's seating furniture has received two pieces of good news: high demand has extended the exhibit until the end of October, and visitors can now admire a new acquisition—or rather one that has returned home after 27 years away. An armchair designed in the early 1920s by Josip Plecnik for president Tomas Masaryk has been recovered at an auction, bought by Prague Castle, and added to the rare collection of pieces on display at Prague's Royal Summer Palace.

Prague Castle architect Josip Plecnik, who hailed from Slovenia, is well-known for his interwar era remodeling of the Czech president's official residence, and on May 21, 2006 the Castle's art collection department literally reclaimed an armchair that Josip Plecnik designed for President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk's study. Bought at an auction for 170 000 crowns, the chair is part of an original trio. In 1970s, when Gustav Husak ordered the remodeling of Prague Castle, many of the pieces from the bourgeois interwar era were discarded. Records show that the newly recovered chair was sold to the state-run company, Klenoty Praha, in 1978 and then lost until it turned up this spring.

Adriana Primusova, the curator of the "On Four Legs" exhibit, explains how Prague Castle uncovered the history of the chairs:

Adriana Primusova with the newly-recovered chair designed by Josip Plecnik,  photo: Linda Mastalir
"This chair was proposed for Tomas Garrigue Masaryk's office and library, and we thought that there was only one of these armchairs. However, then another one of these chairs turned up in an auction, so I started to research the potential existence of more of these chairs. That's how we discovered that Plecnik actually had three of these chairs made."

Josip Plecnik was the official Prague Castle architect between 1920 and 1935, and in addition to working on the exterior of the castle structure, he was entrusted with designing furniture for the various Masaryk family apartments. The Slovenian architect also liked to work with the number three in his designs—for example, he created tables with three legs and added only three chairs to match rather than the requisite two or four.

One of three identical armchairs designed by Josip Plecnik for Tomas G. Masaryk in the early 1920s,  photo: Linda Mastalir
The fate of the newly-recovered Plecnik chair is not unusual; Martin Hrda, director of the Castle's art collection, explains what happened to many items from Prague Castle during the communist era:

"If we want to express the loss in numbers, then I would definitely say hundreds of pieces of furniture. In the 1960s and 1970s when the castle's offices were remodeled with modern furniture, the true value of these historical pieces was not appreciated. During this time there was a massive transfer of this furniture from the castle to other institutions, or the pieces were sold to antique shops. I can't give you an exact figure, but the process certainly effected hundreds of items."

The Plecnik chair that survived remodeling at Prague Castle,  photo: Linda Mastalir
In the 1990s, Prague Castle went through a process of restituting items which were formerly in its collection, and state-run enterprises were generally cooperative so the Castle administration was able to reclaim at least a fraction of the pieces that had disappeared.

One of the three Plecnik chairs in question managed to remain at Prague Castle throughout the entire communist era, and in the 1990s it was declared a national cultural treasure. The second chair, recovered on May 21, 2006, returned to Prague Castle in rough shape after 27 years away. Milana Bravermanova from the department of Prague Castle's art collection describes the condition of the chair was in when it was recovered:

Table and chairs designed by Josip Plecnik in the 1920s,  photo: Linda Mastalir
"The armchair was damaged. After leaving Prague Castle the armchair must have been in a very wet space for a long time, and this caused degradation of the wood. We were successful in finding the first—the original—upholstery. The upholstery was preserved on only a very small part of the chair and we decided to find a very similar fabric to reupholster the chair. We succeeded, and we bought a very similar colour to the original, though it can not be exactly the same since the colour must have changed over time, because of effects from sunlight and so on."

Restoration to the chair's wooden construction was also extensive, and the process even required locating a rare breed of American oak.

Now two of the three chairs are reunited in their original home, and Prague Castle's art department hopes that with all the publicity that's being generated, the third armchair may also be recovered.

Visitors can see examples of Josip Plecnik's furniture at the "On Four Legs" exhibit which runs at Prague Castle's Royal Summer Palace until 29 October.