Nicholas Lowry: It was part of my Czech identity that my family owned a condom company

Nicholas Lowry, IDENTITA

Nicholas Lowry leads viewers through IDENTITA: A Film About Czech Graphic Design, which is set for release later this year. The New York auctioneer, art expert and TV personality seems the ideal man for the job, given his vast knowledge of the subject and his family background. We discussed Lowry’s Czech heritage, his time in Prague in the “Wild East” early 1990s and what he has learned from working on IDENTITA in Prague recently, shortly after shooting wrapped on the feature-length documentary.

What are your own Czech roots, Nicho?

“My father was born in Prague in 1932 and lived here with his parents and his brother. They were officially at that time Sudeten Germans, so German was his first language; Czech was his second language.

“We’re also a Jewish family, so come the war, come 1938/1939, the family had to leave, and were able to successfully get out.

“I spent all of my birthdays as a child going to one of New York’s only Czech restaurants.”

“We actually have my father’s passport from when he was seven years old, which has the Iron Cross stamped on it. So the Germans had already invaded the country before he left but hadn’t yet shut down exit for Jews.

“The family went from Prague to Paris. The Germans invaded France, they had to leave France. Then they went to Portugal, to Lisbon, where they were long enough to book passage to America.

“So when my father arrived, at the age of nine, he spoke German, Czech, French, Portuguese, and then he learned English. Which I’ve always been very jealous about.

“I spent all of my birthdays as a child going to one of New York’s only – I would say best, but it was really one of the only – Czech restaurants, so that became a real birthday tradition: skating at the Rockefeller Centre, then dinner at the restaurant, which was called Vasata.

“It was one of these restaurants where all of the waiters were older Czech émigrés and they wore their vests and their white shirts.

“So I got a good taste of Czech food, and I learned enough Czech to be able to say dobrý den and dobrou noc. And my father was incredibly pleased that he taught everyone in the family the phrase ‘Mluvím sedm řeči, nejlepši česky’.

“So we’d say that to the waiters and they’d get all excited and then we’d be like, We don’t know what you’re saying.”

You told me earlier you came here for the first time yourself in ’88?

“My father had only come back to Prague once. His parents never returned. He came back once, with my mother, in the 1960s. And then the second time was in 1988.

“We were taking a family vacation. It was the year I graduated high school. We were in Munich and we drove from Munich to Prague, and we stayed at the Hotel Alcron.

“We had a fantastic time. I remember the general feeling of having a fantastic time and the specific thing I remember was saying to my brother, This is such an extraordinary place – I would love to live here, shame about the Communist government.

“I remember saying to my brother, I would love to live here, shame about the Communist government.”

“There was just no way for an American… I mean it was possible, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea. In fact, while we were visiting our hotel room was gone through by, I assume, the secret service. A watch was taken and papers were overturned. I’m not sure if we were targeted – who knows?

“But it just felt like there was such a polarisation between America and communism that it just didn’t seem like a good place to be.

“Then the wall came down and I graduated university and the Velvet Revolution happened.

“I spent the summer after I graduated university travelling around Europe on a Eurorail ticket with a friend. We came to Prague. And back then, in order to get out of the country – because Czechoslovakia wasn’t yet on the entire Eurorail system – you had to go to Čedok on Na Příkopě and you had to book a ticket out.

“And we went to Na Příkopě, we went to Čedok, and we were booking a ticket out. And on the wall there was a mimeographed flyer that had been scotch-taped to the wall that said ‘English teachers wanted’.

“I said, You know what, I think I’d like to do this. It was a company called SPUSA, Společnost přátel USA [Society of Friends of the USA].

Photo: Jan Rosenauer,  Czech Radio

“I walked into their office, which was somewhere on Old Town Square, I handwrote a résumé and I was hired on the spot, for a three-month contract.

“I went back to New York, I packed my bags, I came over – and I stayed for four years.”

And here, from what I read, you were working for the newspaper Prognosis, and also you had something on the radio station Radio 1?

“Yes. I was teaching English and I was making a fortune teaching English. If I can put that into practical terms, I was making 3,000 crowns a month.

“That was above the average salary, so I felt rich. And if I dared supplement that 100 dollars a month with an extra 20 dollars of my own I definitely was rich. There was nothing to spend money on, but I was rich and it was a very nice feeling for a 21-year-old.

“I met some Americans – because there was nothing but Americans in Prague in the early 1990s; it was rife with Americans – and they had all worked at the university newspaper at the University of Santa Barbara, a newspaper called The Nexus.

Nicholas Lowry,  IDENTITA | Photo: Archiv Mowshe

“And they came to Prague with the idea of founding their own newspaper, which they did, called Prognosis.

“I’m not much of a writer, I’m a bit dyslexic – but I am a big eater. So given my newfound wealth and my sort of omnivore taste, rather than cook for myself I was eating out all the time.

“When the newspaper started I asked if they wanted me to do restaurant reviews.

“Because it was also very difficult for tourists to understand the concept of restaurants. I mean, the waiters were rude. You could walk into a restaurant where every table had a ‘reserved’ sign on it, they would refuse to seat you, and if you came back three hours later every table was still empty with a ‘reserved’ sign.

Photo: ongchinon,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Under the Communist regime they would get paid whether they served 400 diners or zero diners, and they chose to serve zero.

“However, when they did choose to serve they would present a second menu that had foreign prices on it. They would gouge you on prices. And again, gouging on prices…they might have charged you 20 crowns for a beer, instead of 10 crowns. Which wasn’t a lot for the tourists, but they were making double the money.

“So I started writing restaurant reviews for the newspaper, which I loved. I did that for years and years, and actually published a restaurant guidebook at one point. I published my own guidebook and then I wrote a chapter for the Dorling Kindersley guidebook to Prague.

“And the newspaper had an advertising exchange with Radio 1, where the radio would have an ad in the weekly newspaper and the newspaper would have a daily half-hour show in English – current events, sports – and I did that for three or four years.

“At that point Radio 1 was broadcasting from the space right behind the bar at the Bunkr, if you remember the night club the Bunkr? So I DJed at the Bunkr. I was a DJ for a little bit at the night club Ubiquity.

“And then – I don’t remember exactly how it happened – I also got a three-hour radio show on Radio Metropolis, which was probably the final thing that I did: 6 am to 9 am. It was a very different lifestyle for me.”

Now you’re the president and principal auctioneer at Swann Auction Galleries in New York – and you’re at the centre of this new Czech documentary IDENTITA: A Film About Czech Graphic Design. How did you get involved with that project?

“So all of these things came together. I have Czech heritage, I have great interest in Czech art.

Nicholas Lowry,  IDENTITA | Photo: Archiv Mowshe

“My father and I collect Czech posters, and I like to say that we have the biggest collection of Czech posters in the world, outside of the Decorative Arts Museum in Prague. I like to say that, because nobody can challenge us because nobody knows if there are other collections. So whether it’s true or not, I like to say it – it’s potentially true.

“I also do a lot of work in America with the American version of the [TV show] Antiques Roadshow, on which I’ve been an appraiser for 28 years, so I am good in front of a camera.

“I have great Czech interest and Czech graphic design knowledge, and, as you say, I own and run an auction house in New York, Swann Galleries.

“And a friend of mine knows the producer of this project and they had been talking over beers one night and they were saying, We’re doing a movie on the history graphic design but we’re looking for someone who can moderate.

“I was recommended. And I think it was a very strenuous application process – I was the only one, and they hired me.”

Nicholas Lowry,  IDENTITA | Photo: Archiv Mowshe

I know one of the focuses of the film is Czechoslovak film posters, which have a lot of admirers. What do you think makes those posters so special?

“Those posters are great, and I have a lot of them in my collection. I remember when I could go to antikvariáty [second-hand bookshops] in Prague and buy them for 20 or 30 crowns a piece – now they’re substantially more expensive.

“They’re great for their unbridled creativity. By that I mean these were artists who were restricted so much in what they were allowed to do artistically by the regime – and yet somehow their work for these posters was unregulated.

“So they really are a very liberated art form. They’re beautiful, they’re creative, they’re entertaining and a lot of times [whispers] they have nothing to do with the movie.”

Also it seems to me that they had free rein and were in no way influenced by the original American or British or whatever posters, in the case of international films.

“They weren’t given marching orders – they were told, Make a movie poster for West Side Story, make a poster for Jaws, make a movie for Rocky, whatever it was, and they did it.

“And this was beautiful artistic expression at a time when you wouldn’t expect it.”

Also in the film there’s a focus on important figures in Czechoslovak graphic design. Who are some of the names that you have focused on?

“Sutnar was singularly responsible for introducing parentheses into phone numbers in America.”

“You’re going to have to see the movie, Ian. But I think one of the things that I bring to the table for this position is that, in addition to collecting Czech posters, I’m also a collector of Czech avant-garde material.

“And without giving anything away, which is a rhetorical way of saying I’m about to give everything away: some of the great Czech designers, like Ladislav Sutnar and Karel Teige and Otakar Mrkvička – names that already transcend out of Czechia into the large world.”

Didn’t Sutnar even impact the whole of America, with his parentheses on phone numbers [specifically around area codes]?

“Sutnar was singularly responsible for introducing parentheses into phone numbers in America. He did a whole lot more too, but even if you don’t know who he is, you use his work on a daily basis. I think it’s just so incredibly wonderful.

“But he was a pioneer in information graphics and I often think what a shame it is that he wasn’t around during the digital era, because the work he did in the 1950s was so digitally oriented, at a time when computers, if they even existed, were the size of rooms.”

There’s also one name I came across in the literature surrounding your film that I didn’t know: Josef Váchal. Who was Josef Váchal?

Josef Váchal  (1913) | Photo: Západočeská Galerie Plzeň

“Váchal was an incredible artist, philosopher and mystic. And he is known outside of the Czech Republic, to be sure, but not universally known.

“His work is almost childlike in its colour and imagination, and yet very… I hesitate to say dark, but there’s a darkness to it; this was not an untroubled person.

“But really imaginative and creative – and we get into him a little bit.”

During the making of the film you travelled around Czechia. Where did you go, and what you exploring, or what were you looking for?

“It’s very easy to come to Prague and think that this is the entire country. And in fact when I lived here I lived here for four years and quite shamefully I very infrequently got out of Prague. Because there was just so much to do, and so much to see and so much art and so much music.

“But the country is great, from the wine caves of Moravia to the company cities also in Moravia; Zlín, for example.

“We went looking for great examples of classic design wherever we could find it.”

We’re getting near the end of this interview and I realise I forgot to bring up something earlier that I should have: I heard that your family were involved in the foundation of the company Primeros in Czechoslovakia, which is apparently the oldest brand of condom in Europe.

“Not only involved – my grandmother’s brother founded the company in 1909.

“Nobody really remembers Primeros rubber gloves – they remember Primeros condoms.”

“I’ve actually been speaking to people a lot about this. There was a much greater need or desire or interest in using condoms back then, although they didn’t just sell condoms

“It was vulcanised rubber, so they made surgical gloves, they made nipples for bottles, but condoms were their number one product.

“Nobody really remembers Primeros rubber gloves – they remember Primeros condoms.

“It was a very, very large business, with factories in Germany and factories in Poland and offices all around Europe.

“My grandmother’s brother perished in a concentration camp. A lot of the family, most of the family, did escape, but the business was confiscated by the Nazis. It was used for war production – apparently tank threads and jeep tyres, which are also made out of rubber.

“Then after the war some members of the family got the factory back, only to lose it again in 1948, when the country was taken over by the Communists.

“And despite years of trying to get restitution that never worked, for a number of practical and impractical reasons.

“But you ask about my Czech background – it was part of my identity that my grandparents owned a condom company. It was a never-ending source of enjoyment and laughter.”

Also if you were here from 1990 to 1994, that was kind of before Durex took over and Primeros were still on sale everywhere?

“They used to be on sale in subway stations in vending machines.

“Since then the company has been purchased privately and I have been lucky enough to meet the new owners, who are absolutely fantastic people, smart people.

“Travelling around with this incredible crew I have seen things that I never thought I would see.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time with them. They’ve actually become good friends and I really admire what they do. I’m proud that the company has been taken over.

“They are focussing most of their efforts now on the LGBTQ+ community, in a very reaffirming, sex-positive way, which I think is exactly what this era and time needs and deserves.”

My final question. Obviously you came into the IDENTITA project with a lot of expertise. But what do you feel you learned working on the film? Or what did you personally get out of the whole thing?

“Well, for all the time that I spent in Prague – I lived here for four years and I keep a flat here, so I return as often as I can; obviously the pandemic slowed that down a bit – I really thought I had a good feeling that I knew Prague.

“I thought that I knew Czechia, that I knew Czech people, that I knew Czech art, that I knew Czech design, that I knew Czech cuisine.

Photo: RitaE,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“And travelling around and working with this incredible crew who have put this film together I have seen things that I never thought I would see; not necessarily valuable things, just wonderful eye-opening things.

“I’ve travelled to parts of the country that I never would have gone to otherwise.

“My food intake is limited these days, because since I lived in Prague I’ve now become vegan, so it’s a little bit more restricted in what I enjoy. But I enjoy watching other people eat all the řízeks and párek and buček and everything.

“I’ve also met people who are so influential in different areas: designers, curators, chefs. It’s just been an incredible experience: validating and affirming and horizon-opening.

“I’m sad that it’s over, because I’m not sure what’s out there that I haven’t seen yet. And I’m really looking forward to finding that.”

IDENTITA: A Film About Czech Graphic Design is due for release in October 2024.