I love the Czech Republic, I really do. Please don’t gain the impression from my enthusiasm that I’ve actually been there, as I haven’t. This is a passion by proxy, or rather a theoretical knowledge that what the former Czechoslovakia has given the world in aesthetic terms is a fascinating reflection of a nation buffeted and abused by the competing ideologies and power structures of 20th Century Europe. This interview with famous Czech émigré Eva Jiricna in The Guardian was therefore virtually guaranteed to prick my interest, but I was still surprised by just how much I gained from it. Firstly, before reading it I had no idea who Eva Jiricna actually was, so that was a valuable lesson learned. Secondly, the work of this mainly interior architect over the last 25 years is, it appears to me, a vital case study in understanding the shifting forms that modernism has taken since its postwar heyday to the best contemporary designs we see around us today.
Arriving in London in 1968 for a work placement with the Greater London Council, Jiricna was unable to return to Prague after Soviet forces had invaded the country in August, crushing political dissent and effectively sealing off Czechoslovakia to free movement for the following 30 years. Even before this involuntary exile from her homeland, Jiricna was a restless modernist who had refused to join the communist party and was committed, against the popular grain, to the kind of avant-garde architecture passed on to her by her father. Eva was in every way the product of her hometown of Zlin, an amazing place that had been almost totally recast as a modernist utopia in the 1920s and 30s (in part by her architect father) to serve the needs of the local shoe manufacturer, Tomas Bata. This website tells the story in more detail.
What marks out Jiricna’s work is the detailed passion with which she took her own practise through the 1970s and 80s. These were dark days indeed for pioneering modernism, and, as a woman in a deeply misogynistic profession, Jiricna found it difficult to find work at all. The way forward came through niche projects, interior work found through personal contacts. In 1979 Joseph Ettedgui of the Joseph fashion chain saw her design potential, and it was Eva’s minimalist detailing and chic sense of modernity in her Joseph shops that secured her place in the celebrity merry-go-round of the 1980s. What followed was something akin to the drafting of a pattern-book from which contemporary designers of bars, shops and hotels still draw their inspiration. The Jiricna style reached its 80s apogee with designs for two nightclubs, Legends and Browns. The photographs show a style which was at once modern, ahead of the field, and yet so deeply rooted in its time that the zeitgeist seeps from every fitment, form and texture used. I lived through the entire 1980s (too young for nightclubs, admittedly) ignorant of any sense of the excitement and modernism explicit in these designs.
The modernism of today is, thankfully, rather more ubiquitous, confident and everyday. The iPod is an amazing example of how quality modern design has become mainstream; Norman Foster is a household name who has realized in built-form many people’s image of the future. Back in the 1980s, under the philistine cosh of the Thatcher government, there was a dearth of contemporary imagination as the state sought to recapture something lost rather than seek out something new. Jiricna’s work, amongst others, bucked this trend in the murky cultural milieu of that decade. There is a real, pulsing sense in her creations of a belief in the time in which it was conceived, a belief in contemporary materials, in modern lighting and slick, unfussy textures, but also in electronic music, new forms of expression and the art of the future. A stainless-steel-and-glass cantilevered staircase floating through space and bathed in coloured light is as convincing a cultural riposte to Thatcherism that I’ve ever come across.
Of course these interiors look overtly futuristic, imagining a technological age that barely existed at their conception, but that is where their art lies; partly in a glamorous escape from the divisive realities of the 80s, and partly as a statement of faith in modern design and the continuing possibilities of the future. You will no doubt see in these images familiar themes that have infiltrated today’s design culture – I imagine you’d loose count if you attempted to tally the use of back-lit translucent counters/bars and steel paneling in the modern high street and night spots. This fact need not make Jiricna’s ideas mundane, but rather worth celebrating as contributing to the higher standards of design we all enjoy today in some areas of the public realm.
It’s not hard to evoke the spirit in which these admirable designs were conceived. Picture a person with rather larger hair than is acceptable today, clad in something black with an unnecessarily chunky and low slung belt, standing on one of those staircases whilst clutching a primary coloured cocktail and feeling the music…
In a west end town, a dead end world
The east end boys and west end girls
West end girls