Image: Rebecca Bell review of Designblok 13, Prague, for Slashstroke magazine. Research in the Czech Republic 

PhD Research, History of Design: V&A / Royal College of Art

Conflict and Integration: Craft in Socialist Czechoslovakia

Rather than having one official centralised definition, craft in Socialist Czechoslovakia should be understood in diverse and competing terms. Czechoslovak thinking and practice stemmed from a history of critical discourse around applied arts, including nineteenth-century concerns of national identity and interwar investigations of craft and modernity. In the Socialist context, these historic strands continued via the interests of individuals who had been active before the Second World War alongside younger members of the art and design community. Terminology, theory and practice had to be negotiated within shifting ideological parameters.

Craft and design grappled with the requirements of Socialist Realism and Socialist Modernism. State organisations such as ÚLUV (Ústředí lidové a umĕlecké výroby, the Centre for Folk and Art Production), ÚUŘ (Ústředí uměleckých řemesel, Centre for Artistic Crafts), and ÚBOK (Ústav bytové a oděvní kultury, the Institute of Housing and Fashion Culture) led the official discussion around craft and design through publications, conferences, exhibitions and projects. Studios and factories were encompassed in these organisations and their work was presented in magazines like Tvar (Shape), Umění a řemesla (Arts and Crafts), and Domov (Home). Such publications demonstrated a constant negotiation of terms that took into account Soviet models, international influences and parallel movements in literature, art, and philosophy.

Points of conflict and tension tell us a great deal about the role of craft and design in Socialist Czechoslovakia. Techniques were devised by the individual maker in order to offer a commentary on the socialist condition. Integral to this was a frequent departure to the absurd; using humour, whimsy and Švejkism (Kosík, 1963) to respond to a bureaucratic environment. Through a range of case studies, I demonstrate key moments in this ongoing dialogue, including Czech New Wave cinema, animation, magazines, show flats, publications, textiles and glass figurines.

My thesis proposes that craft practices in Socialist Czechoslovakia embraced a range of tactics in order to provide contexts for criticality, contrast and integration in an otherwise controlled environment. Relationships to traditional folk methods and motifs, as well as modernist approaches, resulted in a series of tactics that referenced or quoted, adapted, or rejected certain ideological, national and international interests. The resulting spectrums of value upon which objects were placed included craft to industry; kitsch to modern; authentic to false; capitalist to socialist; and moral to economic. The characteristics of craft were often positioned alongside or against folk practices as well as more scientific and didactic approaches such as ergonomics in the home. The Socialist Modern can be defined according to these multi-faceted terms.

Important Anglo-American publications have focused on Czech art glass (Petrova: 2001; Ricke: 2005). But less chartered territories are smaller scale works in glass and ceramics, industrial objects and ventures into architecture, furniture and interiors. Current Czech projects are beginning to address these areas (Hubatová-Vacková, Pachmanová, Pečínková: 2015; Bartlová, Vybíral et al: 2015), yet there is comparatively little in English. Additionally, the discomfort of approaching Socialist Realism and the Socialist agenda in Czech craft and design scholarship remains, alongside a reliance on temporal divisions of objects according to accepted delineation of time periods (e.g. Socialist Realism, Normalisation). My research sets out to cross these historical, linguistic and temporal boundaries.

I follow in the footsteps of Soviet specialists (Svetlana Boym: 1994; David Crowley and Jane Pavitt: 1998 and 2008; Deema Kaneff: 2004; Juliet Kinchin: 2009; Nicolette Makovicky: 2009; and Greg Castillo: 2010). I hope to add to their scholarship by bringing Czechoslovakia and its complex definitions of craft further into the foreground.