Jana Zielinski is a co-founder of Prague’s annual Designblok festival, which has done a huge amount to boost the profile of design in the Czech Republic in the last decade and a half. She also co-runs the gorgeous, spacious Křehký Gallery in an old industrial part of the Holešovice district – and it is there that our tour of “Jana Zielinski’s Prague” begins.
“This gallery was Georg Dokoupil’s atelier first. But he was here for just one year. That’s why we have this very long wall here, where he could paint his big paintings.
“When we saw the place… Michal Froněk from Olgoj Chorchoj showed it to me and we absolutely fell in love with the venue, so we said, yes. We wanted to open a gallery to experiment with design and art. We really fell in love with this space and we’ve been here for three years.”
Who are the designers whose work is on sale here?
“We have a few main designers who work for us: Maxim Velčovský, Michaela Tomišková, Richard Hutton, Jiří Pelcl, Daniel Piršč, Yveta Kroupová and Gabriel Vach. These are probably our most important.
“And then there are some designers or artists who just make maybe one project for us.”
Is there a kind of unifying vision of the Křehký Gallery?
“So it takes us very often quite a long time to develop a new product. We now have in the collection about 20 products.
“Last year we started to travel with our exhibitions and with our products and we now have our products in very prestigious galleries in Europe. So we’re quite happy that the collection has been very well accepted.”
What was the attraction of this formerly industrial part of Holešovice?
“Our office was near here a few years ago. It was in an old machine factory. We really love Holešovice – we think it has a great spirit and very great old industrial architecture.
“We think it fits very well with what we do. It’s near the centre too, so it was quite a clear choice.”
Have you seen Holešovice develop as a kind of area for design and artists in recent years?
“Yes, but this process started 15 years ago and I thought that it would be quicker than it has been. But we have DOX here just around the corner, a Konsepti factory and La Fabrika and other very nice venues. But I thought it could be a bit more.”
“Yes, definitely. Good cafes and restaurants. There’s one restaurant here you can go to eat at, but the rest are not that good.
“When we have international guests here and we want to go somewhere close to have a really nice lunch it’s quite problematic. So what I lack here is a higher quality of gastronomy.”
A few minutes’ walk away from the Křehký Gallery is the aforementioned DOX Centre for Contemporary Art. In just over five years, the privately owned DOX has established itself as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the entire region. Zielinski explains how it has also become one of her favourite spots in the Czech capital.
“I like the architecture and as well I have good memories of DOX, because Designblok opened this space in 2008 and it was a really good year. I really like this gallery and I’m proud that we have in Prague a contemporary gallery that is privately supported and owned.”
It’s often struck me as incredible that the [four] men who created DOX put in so much of their own money. I believe they put in CZK 50 million each. They’re not making a profit – they’re losing money on DOX.
“Yes. I think you really have to love contemporary art and you really have to want to have something like this. But I think that now they are supported by the state and the City of Prague, so I think maintaining the gallery should already be OK.”
Generally speaking, what do you think DOX has brought to Prague that wasn’t here before?
“A good gallery of contemporary art which exhibits not just for sale, not just a matter of business, but as a matter of giving an opinion.
“DOX is not just a gallery – it’s a platform of expressing opinions. I think this is very important and it’s a strong commentary on public matters, especially in the last year – I can feel it very strongly.”
Around us here at the DOX shop there are all kinds of design items by some very well-known designers. In what state do you think Czech design is, generally speaking, today?
“I have to say I’m very happy. I think companies are really starting to work with designers. The designers don’t have to produce any more only for themselves, prototypes, but their stuff is really getting to production.
“They have opportunities to travel, they have opportunities to obtain work from other companies abroad.”
I’m sure you travel quite a lot in your work. How does the design scene here compare to in other European countries?
“When you compare it to Italy or Great Britain or Sweden, of course design doesn’t play as important a role as in those countries, where a big part of industry is based on design. We are not in that situation any more.
“But when I compare it to other Central and Eastern European countries, I think the level of Czech design is really very high.
“What’s great is that there are more and more Czech companies who are working with designers. We had more than 30 Czech exhibitors last year [at Designblok], companies who produce their products with good Czech designers. I think it’s a miracle.”
But haven’t the Czechs always been strong in design? It seems to me that throughout the 20th century they were very strong in that area.
“I think even before and that it started in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy; the Czech state was always the centre of industry and of applied art: industrial glass, porcelain-making.
“During communism [the term] design could not be used, we had to use applied art. And now I think it’s getting back to what it was, to the important role it played between the world wars.
“It’s still not there. Because in those times Czech design was one of the most important matters for the state; for example, they even supported a national style, which they wanted to export to the whole world.
“The Czech state [today] is not that much interested in Czech design, because they don’t see high turnovers.
“So I think it’s a pity, but it’s growing and new brands are being established and are successful, like Lasvit or now Preciosa is working with the designers. I think the situation is getting better.”
From DOX, Jana Zielinski and I head down to Újezd, which is just across the river from the National Theatre and lies on the edge of the picturesque Malá Strana district. It’s the neighbourhood she calls home – and the location of a restaurant where she’s a regular diner, the elegant Café Savoy.
“It’s a very good place for meetings. They have very good service. They know me, so they always find me a table. The food is very good, when you want to have a quick lunch or breakfast with some of your colleagues or people you need to meet.
“Our foreign guests also really appreciate it. It’s traditional Czech food and they have very good baked goods. So I think it’s a perfect combination. It’s in the centre. Everybody knows it. The atmosphere is very good.
“The owner, Tomáš Karpíšek, is a friend of mine. He really likes to do everything to the highest quality, and I think that’s the best ambition you can have.”
Doesn’t he also have a kind of chain – the Ambiente restaurants?
“Yes, he’s the owner of Ambiente. They’re our partners as well in Designblok. They have Lokál and Čestr and other restaurants. They are all different, but all really absolutely top quality.”
Apart from Café Savoy, what are your favourite cafés or restaurants in Prague?
“I really like Sansho, because it surprises you with some taste you wouldn’t expect.
“When we celebrate something really big, we go to Kampa Park for the food, which I think is really incredible. And when you sit there and the sun goes down it, it’s the most beautiful view of the river I know. It’s really lovely.
“I also like Alforno, on Petrské náměstí. And I like Miyabi, a traditional Japanese restaurant. I’ve been going there for 15 years. It’s the oldest Japanese restaurant in Prague.