Krásná jizba, translated as “The Beautiful Room”, was a Prague based institution which advanced modern design in interwar Czechoslovakia. Founded in 1927, it was behind the promotion and sale of homeware products, such as dining and tea sets, glassware, furniture, and textiles, which put emphasis on functionality and aesthetic appearance together with their affordability. The newly refurbished Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague recently focused on this organisation in an extensive exhibition titled Krásná jizba dp 1927-1948: Design for Democracy, which closed on 3 March 2019. The curator, Lucie Vlčková, and her team presented the work of many designers, photographers and artists, including Ladislav Sutnar, Josef Sudek, Ludvika Smrčková, Toyen, or Antonín Kybal, indicating the extensive range of production of this key institution.
The “dp” in the exhibition’s title may sound slightly mystifying to an ordinary visitor. It refers to the publishing house Cooperative Works, or Družstevní práce (dp), established in 1922, which was behind influential design journals, including Žijeme (We’re alive) and Panorama.
The DP, as well as its branch Krásná jizba, promoted functionalist design in Prague and other large cities of Czechoslovakia with the aim of addressing as wide as possible customer base through its publications. Krásná jizba could be therefore considered as dp’s front – a shop based in central Prague selling appropriately functionalist goods, advisory service on interior design and exhibition space. For the first half of its existence, Krásná jizba therefore sold and promoted a functionalist lifestyle.
Design and Democracy?
The exhibition explored in most detail the first decade of the existence of Krásná jizba which had a clear functionalist orientation. It, however, did not shy away from the later and perhaps less known stage of the late 1930s and 1940s. The inevitable demise of the organisation in 1948 – the year of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia – is also remembered. Krásná jizba was incorporated into a new institution, the Centre of Folk and Artistic Production, while DP fused with a publishing house with an appropriately ideological name, Mír (Peace).
The political context behind the two design phenomena, Krásná jizba and DP, is quite important for understanding the aims and goals of the designers and promoters of design.
The title of the exhibition put design and democracy together by which it built up an expectation that the exhibition may link Krásná jizba with the interwar and post-WWII state and its politics. However, apart from a few references to state-sponsored participation of Krásná jizba at world’s fairs, the concept of democracy was not explored from the political point of view. The only democratic association could be detected in the relation to society. Products by the designers promoted by Krásná jizba were meant to appeal to a wide social spectrum of consumers and we were for example reminded that Ladislav Sutnar’s drinking set was equally part of middle-class households as well as of the Presidential dining room.
Selling Good Design
The important commercial aspect of Krásná jizba was addressed in the exhibition by focusing on two main areas. Firstly, it is the inclusion of a number of promotional and advertising posters and leaflets which offered the goods far and wide. Many of them featured now iconic photographs by Josef Sudek of the various goods on sale. They mostly feature tableware by Sutnar organised geometrically or with a minimalist emphasis on a detail of the depicted product. The photographs became part of Krásná jizba’s marketing material which combined image and text in Sutnar’s designs that emphasised clear communication of information. The focus on the collaboration between Sutnar and Sudek – which had previously been explored in a similar exhibition in the same museum some ten years ago – is particularly important. The two are commonly treated as representatives of the avant-garde in interwar Czechoslovakia without much reference to the fact that most of their work was meant for sale. It is clear from here that many designers collaborated on selling and advertising the products.
The second reminder of the strong commercial orientation of Krásná jizba were the recreations of several living spaces as they were probably shown in the shop’s viewing room. Here, it would have been great to see more of these spaces which visitors could “use” and try out the comfort – or lack of – using the various items, like furniture, fabrics, coffee sets etc. which presumably combined aesthetic qualities with functionality of the product. There indeed, was a small room at the end of the exhibition where visitors could lay the table with some of the designer sets or try to be an advertising photographer. Yet the back room seems more like an afterthought which was, during my visit, mostly overlooked by visitors. In light of slogans like the one pictured above referring to textiles, the lack of the haptic experience available throughout the exhibition was a missed opportunity and most items were instead displayed traditionally in glass cabinets and assorted according to material. A regular visitor of design exhibitions, looking at various chairs in museums, surely often wonders what it is actually like to sit in one of these.
Equally, the set by Sutnar, mentioned earlier, popular with the President as much as the common people, could be taken as an interesting example of the interaction between the functional and the aesthetic. Although aesthetically pleasing with clear, simple forms and lines, it “suffered from some functional flows,” the curators pointed out. What that meant in reality was not explored further, but such a statement suggests that the form follows function idea did not quite work in this case. Here, it would have been a nice interactive addition to have copies of these jugs and glasses available to try out and assess for oneself the verity of Krásná jizba’s emphasis of functionality of its products.
At the same time, this particular set by Sutnar was indeed purchased by ten thousand customers, which qualified as an enormous success and made it the best selling product of Krásná jizba. There may be a few reasons for such achievement outside of the looks. One was affordability – as DP was set up as a coop, the shareholders could subscribe to new products and pay them off in partial repayments. Pre-ordering from leaflets, often produced by Sudek and Sutnar, also meant that the various goods could be made in bulk, which lowered the cost. The economic success of Krásná jizba can thus be determined from the sales numbers. The question remains, how successful it actually was in cultivating and aestheticizing the taste of the middle-class households.
The exhibition also showed the extent of Krásná jizba’s designs beyond the emphasis on serving the object’s function. The story was told again through material – the steel of the furniture in the early 1930s pointed to the embrace of organic forms, while wood gained popularity in the late 30s. Wooden furniture and tableware reflected interest in organic language and the return to traditional material and ornament during this time. With the start of the Second World War, the use of wood and other natural materials with references to local vernacular handicrafts were an expression of nationalist sentiments as well as a symptom of an increasing lack of resources.
The opening description of the exhibition informed the visitors that Krásná jizba also offered products by foreign designers from e.g. the Bauhaus. However, the exhibition focuses predominantly on the production by Czech and Slovak authors. One of the exceptions is Adolf Loos’s glassware from 1931 which was put on sale in Krásná jizba in 1947. However, in the austere post-war times, Loos’s drinking set proved to be too expensive and, in many respects, undermined Krásná jizba’s interwar emphasis on affordability.
Krásná jizba dp 1927-1948: Design for Democracy which opened in September 2018 was part of the extensive programme of events Celebrate Czech and Slovak Century, commemorating 100 years from the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. It also fitted well with other design-oriented exhibitions that took place in the newly refurbished building of the Museum and focused on modern design. Apart from a small exhibition of Sutnar’s toys displayed on the ground floor, The Mad Silkman, still on display, tells the story of Zika and Lida Ascher, a couple that left Czechoslovakia and established themselves as important international seller and designer of textiles respectively. Hana Podolská, a Czech Fashion Legend, on show until 19 May 2019, presents the work of a fashion designer and salon owner of interwar Czechoslovakia. Altogether the exhibitions remind us of the rich world of commercial design in the interwar period and its intended and often successful appeal to urban middle-class consumers.
Krásná jizba dp 1927-1948: Design for Democracy (Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, 13 September 2018 to 3 March 2019)