Prague art students create new Czech banknote designs

Photo: archive of UMPRUM

The same Czech banknotes have been in press for over 20 years. What could an alternative new design look like? That is the question that students from the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design tackled in a two-semester long project whose results are being exhibited at the Czech National Bank.

In 1992, ahead of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, designer Oldřich Kulhánek began working on the new look of the Czech currency. The artist chose portraits of leading Czech historical figures such as Charles IV., František Palacký, Božena Němcová or Tomáš G. Masaryk to be featured on each banknote, with accompanying symbols that depicted their life’s work or Czech heritage.

Photo: archive of UMPRUM

More than 20 years later this currency is still in circulation, although Bohemian King Přemysl Otakar II. and St. Agnes of Bohemia are no longer in circulation as the 20 and 50 crown banknotes have been retired following a rise in wealth and inflation.

However, it is quite common for figures and images to change on the money we use. Many countries regularly change their banknote design. One recent example would be Switzerland, which ditched its acclaimed colourful design that also featured portraits for a more abstract design revolving around elements, language and time. Another would be the United Kingdom, on whose pounds the queen regularly gets older as time passes and new historic figures are featured on the rear side.

In the Czech Republic, no new design of the state’s currency is currently being planned, but that still did not prevent Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (UMPRUM) to look into what such an alternative could look like. Indeed the school has a history in the discipline, with many former UMPRUM teachers involved in designing Czechoslovak banknotes at different points in history.

Radek Sidun is a lecturer at the schools Typography Studio and was one of the people in charge of the project. He spoke about it this week to Czech Radio.

Photo: archive of UMPRUM

“I think our banknotes are of high quality. There is a wide variation of approaches towards how to design them, which was also proved by the different approaches of our students. The current Czech design is among the more conservative and, because our country’s banknote design tends to be traditional, we also chose to hold on to traditional designs.”

The challenge was quite complex Sidun says, because it combines aspects of illustration, typography and security markings embedded within the currency. However, the most difficult challenge for each student was deciding on the guiding motif of the currency that would enshrine the overall look of the series, the lecturer says.

“That is particularly hard simply because agreeing on a Czech symbol is difficult. Our country has gone through several changes over the past 100 years, when we were repeatedly forced to reconsider what our symbol is. We were interested in how our students would approach that question.

“Then there is the formal, graphical sphere where we decided which graphical language could best describe what a state currency is. Third, there is the technical question. The banknotes are subject to a wide range of technical parameters, which was a new challenge for us.”

From heroes to inanimate objects and abstract designs

One of the students involved in the project was Tuan Vuong Trong, who chose the past century of Czech design as his leitmotif. His design of an alternative 2,000 crown banknote which features a red inflatable buffalo created in the 1970s by artist Libuše Niklová was especially popular and the State Priting Works of Securities has decided to print a series of these banknotes for collectors.

“Personally, I see banknotes as a sort of business card of the state. It is one of the first things that a tourist gets in his hand when he or she arrives in the country. At the same time, I wanted to avoid using the traditional method of depicting historic figures and got thinking about what other forms of national heritage this country can offer.

Photo: archive of UMPRUM

“I came to the conclusion that there are many great products made in this country, both in terms of the design side and industry, and that it would be worth showing them to the people.”

Aside from the inflatable buffalo, Trong also used the cubist ceramic dose design of artist Pavel Jának, or porcelain ponies created by Jaroslav Ježek in his banknotes.

Another student who took part in the project was Josefína Karlíková, who choose a distinctly abstract, minimalist approach, with the rear side of the banknotes featuring almost exclusively just the necessary security marks of the currency.

“I approached the project unwilling to create a predictable look for the banknotes. I was inspired by the works of renowned Czech artists, such as Jiří Kolář, Zdeněk Sýkora, or even with the Anticodes experimental poetry book of Václav Havel. There was also the example of the polygraph of Jaroslav Heyrovský.”

Theirs are among the ten best designs currently being displayed at a special exhibition at the historic treasury of the Czech National Bank until December 18, 2020. Every series is also accompanied by texts, explaining the background behind the design imagery and the reasons for its selection.

Josefína Karlíkova revealed what sorts of designs the other students came up with.

“There were designs which focused on Czech architecture, catering to the colour-blind, or, for example, Czech glass.”

Current banknote design varies across the world, with some countries choosing abstract or natural images, while others feature more conservative portrait imagery. UMPRUM lecturer Radek Sidun says that there was quite a variety in European designs prior to the adoption of the Euro.

“With the entry of the Euro, many European banknotes of course disappeared. For example, the Dutch Gulden, which were long considered as particularly well designed currency.

“Speaking of conservatism and motifes in design, it is interesting to point out that the buildings on the Euro banknotes are fictitious, so that everyone could agree on them. They only represent individual periodic artistic styles. As you can see, what is featured on a banknote could potentially be a source of contention, so that is why the EU solved it this way.”

Designing state documents

Visitors to the exhibition at the Czech National Gallery will not only be able to look at alternative Czech currencies, but designs of documents as well. The UMPRUM project involved the challenge to create a uniform design collection for various state documents ranging from identity cards and passports to driving licences.

Photo: archive of UMPRUM

Students had to research existing documents in detail, taking into account the current standards and various security features.

Josefina Karlikova was surprised by their current chaotic nature when she began working on the project.

“I found that the current form of Czech documents has some issues in the fact that they are not based around some uniform visual features. It was something that I, working with my colleague Jakub Novotný, tried to create.

“It was a very different type of challenge to the banknotes where picture motives lie at the core. When it came to documents, this question came last. More important was the design of the space to ensure that it could contain long names, or various necessary pieces of information. It was necessary to strike a balance between making the documents aesthetically appealing, while also have them contain all that was required. You can’t make compromises in this respect.”

The students also chose to use exclusively Czech designed topography. Three letter designs were used in total, depending on their size. However, inspiration from foreign designs was also employed, for example Norwegian passports.

Asked about whether he would like his banknotes to replace the current version, Tuan Vuong Trong laughingly admitted that he would not mind. However, both he and Josefína Karlíková agree that the Czech banknotes in circulation today are beautiful and that there is no need to hurry in replacing them.