Prague company keeping classic Czech design of early 20th century alive

The company Modernista, which has a shop in the centre of Prague, deals in both original Czech furniture from the first half of the 20th century and replicas it has made under license. Perhaps most notably, Modernista sells and recreates Cubist pieces – including ceramics and clocks – which are unique to this part of the world. Owner Janek Jaros described the business to me when we spoke a few days ago.

“It’s developed quite a lot since 2001. Originally I only sold restored original furniture. But as time went by I added some licensed reproductions, first of Czech Cubist ceramics and clocks and some metal work. Then later some Czech Modernist furniture.

“It’s a fairly mixed bag. I think the unifying feature of it all is that Modernista concentrates on the first half of the 20th century – furniture, furnishings, decorative objects.”

About the original items that you sell – how do you acquire them?

“First you start looking in the obvious places – auctions, second-hand furniture stores, house clearances. But then once you become active in the business the items start coming to you.

“There are loads of people who are also involved in the business on a level that’s closer to the ground. They come to you, and then gradually over the course of time a circle of suppliers develops.

“Then you don’t have to devote so much time to scouting. You devote more time to the administration and organisation of the business, dealing with your restores. Business develops, the format develops with time.”

About the Cubist items you sell – is Cubist furniture and Cubist ceramics particular to Czechoslovakia?

“It is particular to Czechoslovakia, or Bohemia, as it was at the time. We’re talking about the time before the first world war, when this country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“It is Czech specific. Nowhere else in the world was it taken to such lengths. So we are the only country with Cubist buildings and Cubist coffee sets and Cubist clocks. That’s what makes the items interesting for people outside this country, and for people interested in design in general.”

Tell us about the replicas you sell – how do you acquire the rights to make them?

“You have to identify the rights holders, usually the descendants of the architects. You have to make sure that they have those rights and that you have the right people. Then you enter into a legal agreement with them. It’s quite simple, it’s like licensing anything else.”

Is it so simple to find people who are capable of making those items?

“For some items it is easier, for some it is more difficult. For ceramics it’s not so complicated, because it’s something that people can basically do at home, or in a very small workshop.

“For some of the metal work it is harder. It requires a lot of skill but also some machinery. With some items that require metal plating, for instance, it’s becoming very hard to manufacture, because times have changed a lot and in the metal plating business the technology has changed enormously, as it’s very environmentally damaging. So with those items we have a lot of trouble. We have to travel very far often, or pay a lot of money, to get it done.

“And then moving closer to mid-century some items that we would love to add to the Modernista range are unfortunately impossible to make these days. We were looking very seriously into making a plastic toy which was originally made in the 1950s and it became obvious that we couldn’t do it.

“We would have to make so many pieces that it would require such a huge investment, into production and into warehousing and into distribution, because we would have to distribute to a much wider public, so we had to abandon the idea.”

Would you often add new designs to your range?

“If we identify an item that would be interesting for the collection and we find producers, we always do it. But very often now we stop at the production barrier. Because as we get closer to the mid-century items which would be most interesting for us…because these items were made through an industrial process it’s becoming more difficult for us to reproduce them now.”

What are your biggest sellers?

“There are some items in the Cubist line which always sell. To name but a few, there’s the Pavel Janák crystalline box, or some items from his coffee set. The coffee set seldom sells as a whole, it often sells in parts. Our Modernist lamps are a very popular item – they sell often.

“We also sell some contemporary Czech design that we do not manufacture, and there are some favourites among those pieces also. So it’s a mixture.”

Who are your customers? Are they Czechs, tourists, foreigners?

“Again it’s a mixture. For our furniture it would be mostly Czechs, or foreigners who live in Prague or in the Czech Republic. For the smaller items it would be more often be tourists and foreigners than locals.”

Tell us about the international aspect of your business, and what kind of reaction your range had internationally.

“There’s always been some international interest. For a while there was a lot of interest in the Cubist line. There were a major exhibition that incorporated Czech Cubism travelling around the world in the early part of this decade and we were successful in adding our products to the lines sold in the museum shops. We sold in major museums like the V & A and the Metropolitan and some museums in Japan.

“But the interest has kind of gradually died down and we only have a few dealers that sell our items. The trouble is that though Czech Cubism is unique, it’s not very well known. And because the items are quite complicated to make and they’re fully licensed, they end up selling for a high price. And it then requires a lot of explaining of why it costs so much, and what it is, etceteras, etceteras. So it’s not an easy sell.

“As regards our furniture, we’ve always had people interested who either find our website or get to our website through various other sites where our work is displayed. Every day we get some inquiries, and some of them eventually lead to some sales of smaller furniture items.

“But some people are quite adventurous and they will happily have a large piece shipped halfway across the globe. So, yeah, Modernista is fairly well known internationally, now.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 4, 2009.