New project seeks to show how Czech graphic design helped shape national identity

Graphic designer Pavel Šťastný, author of the OF logo during the filming of Identity

A largescale project is currently in the works that seeks to present the history and current forms of Czech graphic design to both the domestic and international audience. Bohemian Identity, as it is called, will trace the story of how various designs, ranging from banknotes, state symbols, brands, metro signs and more, helped shape the country’s national identity. To find out more about what’s in store I spoke to one of the founders of the project, Michal Gregorini.

Kudrnovská,  Blažek,  Skalický and Racek | Photo: Bohemian Identity

“The idea originally started in 2018 in light of the celebrations of the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the independent Czechoslovak state. Filip Blažek and Linda Kudrnovská, the angels behind this project, came up with the idea to cover this 100 year history through the story of Czech and Czechoslovak design because it is very unique and has a special history of its own.”

Could you perhaps give me a few examples of Czech designs that played a role in shaping the country’s national identity?

“Well actually when Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, our forefathers were trying to explain to the world how sophisticated their young country already was. They presented the state at the world exhibition in Paris through a special form of design. Works by designers such as František Kysela won some important prizes too.

Banknote from 1922 designed by František Kysela | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“At that time Czechoslovak designers were focusing on developing something akin to a national style, which was quite unique. Some very famous names were associated with this effort, whether it be Vojtěch Preissig or Alfons Mucha. Then it kind of turned into constructivism.

“In any case this unique national design played an important role at the beginning of the history of the country.”

Is it possible to generalise in terms of what design characteristics were typical for the various eras in Czechoslovak, later Czech history?

Zdeněk Ziegler and his poster for the famous film musical West Side Story | Photo: Bohemian Identity

“Of course there was. It is hard to explain on the radio of course, you’d have to look at the images, but during the 1920s there was something like a Czechoslovak design style. Diplomas, ID’s, memorial plaques and special documents were designed with that style in mind. So Czechoslovak designers really created a unique style in the beginning.”

You project is quite extensive, it will include a television series, an exhibition, a monograph and even a feature length film. Could you tell me a bit more about these plans and their timeline?

“The original idea was to produce a seven-episode-long original TV series in coproduction with Czech Television. As we started writing the script, we realised that since the topic was so broad and there was so much to cover, there was no way to put it all into one television series. We therefore decided to spread the project out more broadly and write a monograph, which will come out both in Czech and English.

Museum Kampa | Photo: Radio Prague International

“Furthermore, we are preparing an extensive exhibition in the Kampa Museum in Prague. That exhibition will then travel around the world in cooperation with Czech Centres and Czech embassies around the world.

“Also, aside from the TV series, which is incidentally hosted by the famous contemporary graphic designer and actor Ales Najbrt, we will also have a feature length documentary film come out that will be more focused on the international audience. The latter will be hosted by Nicholas D. Lowry, the president and principal auctioneer of Swann Auction Galleries in New York, who has Czech roots and a very deep connection to Czechoslovakia in general. These are the four basic pillars of the Bohemian Identity project.

Moderator Aleš Najbrt and typographer Rostislav Vaněk during filming | Photo: Bohemian Identity

“As far as the timeline is concerned, we started shooting the TV series three years ago and collecting materials. The filming of the series is close to being finished. It should be broadcast on Czech Television at the beginning of next year.

“This should be followed by small regional exhibitions taking place across Czechia during the spring and summer.

“Then in October 2024 we will start the big exhibition in the Kampa Museum. The monograph, which also serves as a catalogue of the exhibition, will come out in tandem.

“As far as the feature documentary film is concerned, that should come out around January or February 2025.”

What may be especially interesting to our listeners abroad is the fact that you will be cooperating with Czech Centres and embassies on exhibitions abroad. Could you give us more details on that and where they can keep updated about the project?

Book graphic designer and typographer Martin Pecina,  director Jakub Skalický during the filming of Identity | Photo: Bohemian Identity

“We just set up a website: Right now it’s in Czech, but it will be available soon in English as well. We will also have social media pages, for example on Instagram, where news will be posted. As far as the Czech Centre exhibitions are concerned, they will take place at the same time as the documentary film is released in the respective countries where they are based.”

Your project reminds me of an interview I did a few months ago with Radek Sidun, a lecturer at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (UMPRUM). He was saying that Czechia needs to come up with its own custom design to market itself abroad. I was wondering if your project also looks into the future of Czech design, or just at its past?

“Yes. The Bohemian Identity project tells the whole story of Czech graphic design. It starts at the beginning of the 20th century, but it ends now. So we will not only look at the history, but also cover what is going on right now.

Michal Gregorini | Photo: DVTV

“For example, the TV series we are making does not run chronologically, but rather covers various themes. So it is constantly jumping through different periods in time. It brings up the fact that at the beginning of the Czechoslovak state we were making great designs. Then, during the communist period, this got a bit pushed down. Not because there weren’t any talented artists, but because freedoms were severely restricted. Now, we are back on top again. Czech designers are on a very high level internationally at the moment.

Photo: Bohemian Identity

“Speaking specifically about the Czech graphic identity, that is a never ending question. People were calling for that already two decades ago. Designers are calling on the government to move forward and organise a uniform graphic presentation of Czechia. And it’s actually slowly happening. I know that the Czech government is looking into this possibility at the moment and I hope our project will help set it up.”