“We think that design is an instrument of our national pride,” states Czech curator Jana Zielinski in Prague. This year, she celebrates 20 years at the helm of Designblok, the country, as well as Eastern and Central Europe’s, largest design week. It’s safe to say it has been a fruitful two decades for the project. Zielinski and her partner Jiří Macek began running it when they were still students: what began as a small gathering of 14 local practitioners interspersed throughout the city in galleries and studios has blossomed into a blockbuster show featuring over 300 different exhibitors from home and abroad, curated presentations housed in historic spaces across the city, a strong diploma section showcasing the work of graduates across Europe and a series of satellite events.
“Before WWII, Czech design had a really special position in the world,” explains Zielinski, “together with France and Great Britain it was really one of the leading countries in terms of glass and porcelain and even furniture as well. And then, during the communist era, a lot of it was destroyed, and design was almost a nasty word.” Much of Zielinski’s mission in the early years was to rehabilitate the domain’s image within the country, starting with the basics. “Even 20 years ago we had to explain what it meant,” she laments. But their efforts have begun to pay off: the Grand Design Award, which they launched 10 years ago, is now broadcast on national television and the country’s furniture and manufacturing is once again making a name for itself internationally. 2017 even saw local glassmaker Lasvit win the Milano Design Award at the Salone del Mobile furniture fair for their Little Monsters project, a series of imaginary creatures hewn in coloured glass.
But at Designblok, the anniversary has allowed for a moment to reflect. The headlining show, Manifest, brought together a group of practitioners, both international and local, who have, “influenced us through these 20 years,” says Zielinski, “and who we have in turn influenced back.” Headlined by Spanish furniture maker and artist Jaime Hayon, he sprinkled his colourful work on a celebratory cake-shaped platform beneath the Colloredo-Mansfeldský palace’s Baroque ceilings. An impressive installation by Lasvit creative director Maxim Velčovský was also front and center, beneath the palace’s glittering chandeliers a wave of gold-coloured cans stacked like undulating mountaintops as a comment on contemporary consumerism. Local makers Olgoj Chorchoj, Zdeněk Vacek and Daniel Pošta also featured alongside up-and-comers like Spanish-born Jorge Penadés and French creator Marlène Huissoud, both of whom had previously won Designblok’s coveted diploma prize, which provides support to recent graduates following their win. “They all represent different ways of thinking about design,” explains Zielinski.
Looking forward, Zielinski’s goal is to further enlighten the world on her country’s underrepresented talented and grow the reach of Designblok abroad. “The Czech Republic has a great tradition of manufacturing, a very strong expression of designers with strong beliefs and a good sense of humour,” Zielinski insists, “it’s getting more and more interesting every year.”
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1. Preciosa Lighting