One of the great joys about my job is the fact that I’m constantly learning. No expert knows everything, and quite often we’re most excited by those pieces that we know nothing about. That’s how I came across post-war Czech glass. When I bought a couple of stunning, superb quality pieces a few years ago, I knew nothing about them. Thanks to their vibrant colours and quintessentially modern style, I presumed they had been made on Murano, or possibly in Scandinavia. But why could I not find them in any books? It was only when a collector friend told me about a similar vase he’d bought with a ‘Bohemian Glass’ sticker still attached that the trail was set – I had to find out more.
Apart from England, modern glass design after World War Two was led by three countries: Italy, Scandinavia and Czechoslovakia. All produced innovative, progressive and modern designs that both built on their countries’ making heritage, and pushed the boundaries of design. And yet very little is known about Czechoslovakian glass today. Major private collector Graham Cooley, who began collecting post-war Czech glass over a decade ago and who exhibited his vast collection at a ground-breaking exhibition in King’s Lynn last summer, says, ‘Quite simply, Czech glass is the one that got away.’
The reason for this is undoubtedly the Iron Curtain that sprang up shortly after the war, but language barriers and the lack of publications coming to the West from this Communist-run country also had an effect. Research and understanding was hampered, meaning that the country’s enormous input to 20th-century glass design was largely passed over.
And what an input it was. The long-established Czech glass industry had been torn apart by the Second World War and, shortly after it ended, the new regime, keen to bring in valuable foreign currency, as well as to showcasethe successes and power of Communism to the capitalist West, set about reviving it. Factories were rebuilt and a clear educational structure was put in place allowing student glass designers to learn all aspects of glass design and manufacture, and to progress smoothly from education to a full-time job. This level of sponsorship and financial support continued into the industry itself, which was organised and run by a government agency, right through to sales.
Freedom to experiment Although most art produced at the time was directed towards visually promoting and demonstrating the success of Communism, the regime did not see glass as important for conveying a political or social message, and so glass designers enjoyed considerable freedom.
Excited and inspired by what was being produced in other countries, such as Italy and Scandinavia, artist-designers including Jirˇí Harcuba (well-known for his portraits of Czech notables carved into blocks of glass), Stanislav Libensky´, and the highly experimental Pavel Hlava were free to pursue a more modern, abstract style. In fact a number of artists, such as Jan Kotik, moved into glass design rather than working in more traditional art forms such as painting or drawing. This unique melting pot of inspiration, experience and skill, mixed with funding and support from the government, provided the spark for the creation of some truly fantastic modern designs. These were showcased at a number of important international exhibitions, starting with the Milan Triennale in 1957, and continuing with expositions in Brussels in 1958 and Montréal in 1967, at all of which Czechoslovakian glass won top awards.
Global appeal Designs can be divided into two categories: experimental and progressive designs produced in limited runs or as unique objects for exhibitions, and mass-produced, factory-made designs inspired by them and produced for sale in shops across the world. Both met with lots of global interest, with orders flooding in from the West boosting domestic sales. It’s important to remember that much of the functional pressed-glass homewares – glasses, cups, dinner plates and dessert sets – produced were destined for countries under Communist rule. However, since the domestic market for art glass was small, considerable amounts of avant-garde Czech art glass was sold at affordable prices in department stores and other shops across the West, finding its way into the homes of people like you and me.
Like much glass, it was largely unmarked apart from a label reading ‘Bohemian Glass’, which was applied by the centrally run export agency, Sklo (meaning glass) Export. This organisation also produced a monthly magazine to market its products, and it was the pages of this Czechoslovak Glass Review that held the key to identifying many of the designs.
Unusually, and thanks to their extensive training, Czech designers often worked across most or all sectors of glass production, including blown and moulded, pressed, cut and gilded and enamelled glass. A number of key names kept re-appearing, and the very few books published at the time soon confirmed the ‘style makers’.
Names to note Currently fresh and unusual to our eyes, I feel sure it’s only a matter of time before collectors hold these artists in as high esteem as Venini, Lütken and Wirkkala are held today. Names to look out for include Frantisˇek Vízner (who is still working today, producing studio pieces that sell for £6,000 to over £10,000), Miroslav Klinger, Josef Hospodka, Pavel Hlava and Frantisˇek Zemek, who sadly died young in a motorcycle accident. I think it’s fair to say that their designs are sure to become classics of the future.
My own collection has been built up on holidays and day trips here and abroad, with prices ranging from as little as a few pounds for a pressed-glass vase in a car boot sale in Yorkshire, to as much as £200 for a beautifully cased, cut and enamelled bottle from a range exhibited at Brussels in 1958, and found in Sussex. It could easily sell for up to £3,000 today. Online auctions are another great source. Many designs are mis-described as Murano, so if you can learn to recognize Hlava and Hospodka from run-of-the-mill Murano (a matter of getting your eye in through books and exhibitions) you could be onto a winner.
Very few untold stories have such a great background and such a chance of success, particularly when compared with such illustrious contemporaries as Murano and Scandinavian glass. If the rapid rise in interest, demand and value of these two markets is anything to go by, modern Czech glass is surely an area to watch in the coming years.
FIND OUT MORE
Hi Sklo Lo Sklo by Mark Hill, published by markhillpublishing.com in 2008, £20.
Art Before Industry: 20th Century Czech Pressed
Glass Design by Marcus Newhall, published by Hope Fountain Books in 2008, £35.
Czech Glass 1945-1980: Design In An Age of Adversity by Helmut Ricke, published by Arnoldsche in 2005, £65.
The Art Glass Fair
26th April, Dulwich College, Dulwich, London. >
National Glass Collectors’ Fair
3rd May, National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham. >
Cambridge Glass Fair
27th September, Chilford Hall Vineyard, Linton.
Jeanette Hayhurst Fine Glass
Kensington Church Street, London 020 7938 1539.