Lace is not typically viewed as high art. It is more of a decorative or utility object found under vases and on windowsills or as an ornament on garments. Historically speaking, it was often seen as a luxury product due to its hand-made origin that involved acquired skill. As a decorative object, its place in modern culture is tentative, however. Lace has been commonly linked to handicrafts, home industries and to folk art. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, new themes and approaches to lace began to be explored and Emilie Paličková Milde (1892–1973) is one of the key examples of a designer who experimented with lace as a form of artistic expression.
Paličková Milde specialised in lace created by various techniques, especially bobbin and needle lace. The piece by her that is the subject of this article has no particular title, although some of her other laceworks did have names. It is a round bobbin lace cover, which most probably had no practical function and was meant as a purely decorative object. It was displayed in the Czechoslovak pavilion at New York’s World of Tomorrow world fair in 1939 and was most probably created for this purpose. The round lacework contains two main scenes: a village composed of houses and trees that cuts through the mid-section and a procession of women and men in the lower part. The upper half of the circle is purely composed of intertwined threads that create the sky over the village with the sun and the moon woven into them. The varied density of the thread knots produces a sense of three-dimensional space by the use of shading. Paličková Milde has also achieved a high degree of abstraction by the net of intersecting and parallel white lines of different thickness. The figures are also abstracted into simple, geometrical shapes that construct their folk dresses.
This is where the qualities of bobbin lace, as a technique of braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins, came through the most; it can create various shapes and what look like many different shades. The way threads of different thickness are wound creates contrasts between full and more open areas, resulting in three-dimensional reliefs. Bobbin lace is made by using a pattern drawn on a card, attached to a support underneath by pins. An even number of threads are looped over pins and create the desired pattern from the top. Each thread is wound at its lower end around the neck of an elongated spool, or bobbin.
The use of asymmetrical composition and abstraction makes Paličková Milde’s lace a self-conscious work of art that departed radically from the folk origins of the craft. This departure can be seen in the context of the broader developments of applied art and crafts in central Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, which included a split between the work of the (often male) designer and the execution of the design by the (often female) crafts person. Consequently, work of Paličková Milde also invites the question to what extent were women involved in the creative industries of the interwar period.
Artist and designer
Emilie Milde (she married the construction engineer Jiří Palička in 1924, adding his name to her own) was born in 1892 in the northern Bohemian town of Náchod. She spent most of her childhood with her family in Bulgaria where her father founded a printing house. She studied applied arts in Sofia with, amongst others, the Czech painter Jan Václav (later known as Ivan) Mrkvička (1856–1938), who had been one of the founders of the National Academy of Arts in the Bulgarian capital. After her return to Prague before the First World War, she continued her studies at the School of Decorative Arts where she took up a position in the studio of the textile artist Marie Hoppe Teinitzerová (1879–1960). In 1919, she joined the State Institute for Education for the Home Industries and became professor there in 1923. The Institute specialised in textiles and crafts, which included lacemaking. Paličková Milde often travelled to Germany, Vienna, or Paris to learn about contemporary lacemaking, indicating that it was still considered an important craft in the interwar period.
Paličková Milde saw herself as, above all, an artist and designer who expressed her ideas through lacework. It was as an artist that she took part in many international exhibitions, representing Czechoslovakia abroad. For example, an early work entitled The Astronomical Clock, displayed at the first Milan Triennale of Art and Design in 1923, was a round lacework of 130cm in diameter inspired by the clock in Prague’s Old Town Square, which was decorated with the signs of the zodiac by the nineteenth-century painter Josef Mánes (1820–1871). Paličková Milde’s work was also included in the Czechoslovak displays at the Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. Her display of lace in Paris was highly successful and Paličková received a honourable mention for her work, while the exhibition by the State Institute, in which she also participated, was awarded a grand prix.
The French writer and art critic Marie Dormoy (1886–1974) was so taken by the display of central European lace at the Exposition that she wrote an entire book on the subject. She noted that craft was dying out in France, Belgium and England because of the progress of civilisation and it was new countries, ‘where the women have enough free time to still be able to devote long hours to manual work,’ that it was being maintained. Czechoslovakia, in her view, excelled in the art of lace with Emilie Paličková attracting most of her attention for the ‘fecundity, unforeseen fantasy and spiritual grace’ of her work.
Dormoy’s publication focused on central European lace more generally, but gave more space to Paličková than to anyone else. Yet it also covered lace by the Wiener Werkstätte, and this included the work of Dagobert Peche (1887–1923), the recently deceased versatile designer, or Emmy Zweybrück-Prochaska (1890–1956). There are clear parallels in the direction of lace towards abstraction and freer expression between the Wiener Werkstätte designs and those of Paličková Milde. The Wiener Werkstätte, founded in 1903, had included lacemaking amongst its many workshops and studios. Many artists worked in lace as one of their many mediums, this included the female designers Reni Schaschl (1895–1979) and Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945) as well as several male designers, like Josef Hoffman (1870–1956) and Peche. But, as in the case of Paličková, they only provided the designs, and were not involved in their actual execution in the workshop.
It is not clear if Paličková Milde was aware of the works of the Wiener Werkstätte designers, but it is highly likely because they took part in the same exhibitions, such as the Paris exhibition in 1925, they drew on the same pattern books and shared the same system of schooling and promotion of crafts before 1918. Under the Habsburg Monarchy, lacemaking had been centrally supported by the Austrian government via the Imperial Institute for Women’s Home industries (k. k. Anstalt für Frauen-Hausindustrie), which organised schools and courses and published pattern books. Lacemaking, like many other crafts, was aimed at giving source of income to women in poorer regions. When Czechoslovakia was created, the role of the Imperial institute was taken over by the State Institute for Education for the Home Industries, where Paličková Milde worked. There were some twenty thousand lacemakers in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s who learnt the craft in various courses and workshops organised across the country. Students at the Institute acquired lacemaking techniques as well as designs, while the more complex designs in terms of artistic expression and execution were supplied by established artists and designers like Paličková Milde.
Marie Dormoy seems to have missed this distinction between lace as folk handicraft and the designer lace of the kind she saw on display in Paris. Moreover, in Czechoslovakia, or Austria for that matter, not all women had enough free time to allow them to put in long hours of manual work. Dormoy’s comment suggests that she still held a romantic idea of lace being created during long dark winter hours in the countryside. Division of labour and education in the craft changed the traditional process and lacemaking, like many other areas of folk art, became industrialised and commercialised.
The production of modern folk art
This shift towards commodification of craft began in Czechoslovakia at the end of the nineteenth century but fully took off with the twentieth century. Companies and coops like the Prague-based Artěl and Svaz československého díla (The Association of the Czechoslovak Work), or the more regional coops Zádruha and Detva, were established already before the First World War, to represent small producers of crafts as well as designers and artists. They also enabled production of craft and design and their sale.
Artěl and Svaz československého díla have already been discussed on this blog in relation to the designs of Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) and the ceramics of Helena Johnová (1884–1962) These two designers represent the conscious embrace of modernism in their respective media by which lower-middle class households should gain access to functional as well as beautiful objects. The lace of Paličková Milde was part of this trend and her designs often appeared in promotional material of, for example, the Krásná jizba shops, for instance placed underneath Ladislav Sutnar’s functionalist porcelain.
Zádruha and Detva had a different focus. Detva, for instance, was a company based in Bratislava with some 2,000 employees mainly around Slovakia. Trained artists provided designs which were executed by trained individuals (often women) in the regions. Their products would be adjusted to the new needs of contemporary people and requirements of the culture of dwelling and sold in shops and exhibitions. Companies like Detva therefore redefined folk art for the modern world. Traditional folk art such as lace was seen as inevitably headed for extinction, and its production, even though technologically advanced, was deemed inadequate given the nature of modern taste. Critics argued that it was based on ‘mindless copying of rural models – in many cases declining in style and colour.’ The creative artists of Detva, however, sought to reinvigorate it by using it to decorate items for use in the modern urban home.
With such practices the boundary between modern designed lace and lace produced in the home as a tradition could therefore be quite blurred. In 1927, for example, the Czechoslovak folk art exhibit at the Women’s World’s Fair in Chicago placed lacework by Paličková Milde and Detva alongside historic lace from Bohemia and Slovakia without drawing any distinction between them. Paličková Milde was not the only designer who applied modern abstract designs to this traditional medium. The contemporary lace designers Marie Serbousková (1895–1964) and Božena Rothmayerová Horneková (1899–1984) also experimented with geometrical abstraction while Marie Teinitzerová and Antonín Kybal (1901–1971) applied functionalist designs and bold colours to textiles for the home.
These developments in lace can be read in parallel with the changing notions of womanhood and femininity. In her key work, The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker discussed femininity in relation to embroidery, and her view that ‘to know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ could well be expanded to lace. Women were indeed associated with the traditional production of lace and this private craft was brought into the new context of industrialisation and commerce. As with many other crafts, lacemaking could be seen as emancipatory for some women; it brought a source of income to some and gave the agency of a creator to others.
The subversive aspect in the work of Paličková Milde can be found in several aspects of her work. First, it is the introduction of new topics, like the Zodiac inspired by a painting, that could be depicted by the medium of lace. The lacework from 1939 offers somewhat traditional theme of a village and a village procession, but the depiction is highly innovative in the distribution of the figures and buildings and the abstract lines of the net surrounding them. They disturb the confinement of the circle and create a sense of movement.
In her experimental approach to design Paličková Milde also departed from traditional lace, which is characterised by the repetition of ornaments, patterns and colours. Her work disrupted such practice and embraced irregular design and abstract forms. The disruption of traditional lace comes not only in the content and techniques she developed but also in defiance of the regular shapes of the object. Her work would progressively not be restricted to round or rectangular shapes, small details would regularly come out of the ‘frame.’
One example of this is the lace Life of Woman from 1926, which shows a woman in four different images. The square of the lace is split diagonally into four sections, each showing a larger half-torso of a woman surrounded by small figures – couples or groups performing different activities amongst buildings, trees and animals. The regular border is also disturbed here and the straight lines of the rectangle are structured into pyramidal shapes with small circles all around the perimeter.
Her later lacework created for Expo ’58 went even further in pursuing this non-conformist approach to the traditional practice of regular, symmetrical design. Here, individuals or a group of people step out of the round frames, only attached to it by a few threads. [fig. 6].
Paličková Milde turned lacemaking into an art form capable of free expression, yet one that was enhanced by traditional technique. As a designer, she worked effectively with the qualities of the thread and the abstraction it allowed. She might seem to have conformed to the traditional gendered division of (female) soft crafts and (male) art. Yet she became an independent artist, who used abstraction and experimentation, all prominent in the lacework from 1939, to express herself more freely. The bobbin lace therefore demonstrates at least two important aspects of development in this craft: first, it is the split between the role of artist-designer and the maker-craftsperson. Second, this trajectory also coincides with the emancipation of women as independent earners and recognised creators in Czechoslovakia and central Europe.
 Ludmila Kybalová, Emilie Paličková (Prague, 1962) p. 9.
 Marie Dormoy, Exposition des Arts Decoratifs Paris 1925: Dentelles de l’Europe centrale (Paris, 1926).
 Dormoy, Exposition, n. p.
 Hartmut Lang, Die Spitzen der Wiener Werkstätte: Dagobert Peche (Gammelby, 2016); Christoph Thun-Hohenstein and Angela Völker, The Unknown Wiener Werkstätte Embroidery and Lace: 1906 to 1930 (Vienna and Stuttgart, 2017).
 Kybalová, Emilie Paličková, p. 8.
 Arnošt Rosa and Jaroslav Jindra, Průmyslové a odborné školství v republice Československé [Industrial and vocational education in the Czechoslovak Republic] (Prague, 1928).
 Detva, československý ľudový umelecký priemysel, úč. spol. [Detva, Czechoslovak folk art industry ltd.] (Bratislava, 1929).
 ‘Zpráva o zvelebovací a propagační činnosti ústavu Detvy v Bratislavě v období 1924/1925 a 1925/1926’ [Report on the improvement and promotional activities of the Detva institute in Bratislava during the period 1924/1925 and 1925/1926], Detva archive, inv. No. 2, I.B.1, Slovak National Archives, 1.
 Iva Knobloch, ‘Funcionalismus jako pokrokový životní styl’ [Functionalism as a progressive lifestyle] Design v českých zemích 1900–2000 (Prague, 2016) p. 216.
 Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, first published in 1984 (London and New York, 2010) p. iv.