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If we consider the large glassworks and porcelain factories as the industrial establishment, we find its counterweight in small-scale manufacturers – artists with their own small glassworks and ceramic kilns, studios and designers who commission select producers to transform their small series or unique designs into finished products. The group of products they make is enormous, and includes folk-art items, DIY products, objects sold on tourist routes and trendy urban markets, or on online marketplaces such as Etsy. In the Made by Fire exhibition we focus on artists who pursue original design and so-called studio design, or what we might call art design. They are the masterminds behind creative ideas and impulses that are fundamentally innovative, have society-wide impact, and also a retroactive effect on the commercial sphere.
Why retroactive? Because the design practice of these artists or groups often reacts to mass production, and they often do so with direct criticism and irony. In contrast to mass production, they put special emphasis on their connection to a particular locality, a high level of craftsmanship, as well as bespoke design and the ability to adapt to their customers’ wishes. Pressures for environmental friendliness and sustainability have emerged from these very conditions and, as a result of growing “social demand,” larger manufacturers and companies have slowly responded to this. Of course, we are not saying that the major players in the field do not have any role in the progressive shift, as they too are certainly developing revolutionary solutions; but it remains true that the majority of creative ideas are coming from the grassroots.
The creative work carried out in studios can be seen as being on the cutting edge in setting the trends of industrial design. In consequence, the artists working in their studios, many of whom later become brand Art Directors, can be instrumental in saving “big business,” or function as a kind of hedge against bankruptcy, increasing resilience and flexibility – both commercial and operational – as well as a business’ chances of dealing with various crises without fatal losses.
EQUATIONS WITH POSSIBLE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE RESULTS
The effect of artistic and studio projects on mass production is the reason why the phrase “made and designed in the Czech Republic” has not become outdated and meaningless. It remains synonymous with unique quality and it will hopefully stay this way. The creative work of Eva and Marcel Mochal of LLEV studio is a great example of the connection between private studios and large-scale manufacturers. The designers have been experimenting with sustainable materials for several years. Initially, they were working with new composite materials, various types of paper materials including Richlite, and more recently mycelium, from which they make various products and even furniture. Their experiments with mycelium moulds used in the glass casting process soon got the attention of Lasvit, and the company has included their drinkware set in its portfolio.
But beware! The assumption that studio production = a reduced ecological footprint is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. The fact that the distinction between industrial production and studio production cannot be understood as a black-and-white difference between good and evil was pointed out by Adam Železný in his last year’s project On Vessels and Numbers. Železný focused on four different types of production processes of ceramic and porcelain vessels and tried to quantify their ecological footprint using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method. The first model scenario focused on the industrial manufacture of porcelain vessels with an annual production of up to 5,000 tons of goods, the second on the production of small ceramic and porcelain studios with an annual production of up to 5 tons of goods. The third comparative scenario was the prehistoric ceramics production and the fourth was the artist’s own experimental technology whereby ceramic vessels are produced using explosive charges and pressure. All criteria compared, the results were quite surprising. In percentage terms, small studio production is only slightly less advantageous than industrial production, and experimental production did even worse. Optimized production which, in Adam Železný’s proposition, is based on the re-use of waste material (where porcelain shards become the main component for new production) performed best.
This project is just one of the reasons why we should not fanatically reject everything industrialized and why we ought to see studio production realistically. We should not automatically accept the tendentious myth of studio production being cleaner, more ethical and more authentic because it involves handcraft – despite its authenticity, its primary purpose is, after all, to come up with designs which make people want to buy more products. The hegemony of consumerism, our consumer syndrome, reigns supreme. And the question for the years to come is how to deal not only with the burden on the planet as a manifestation of this disease, but also with its root causes.
Many actors on the Czech market have come to realize that there is no better future in store for us unless we learn to use sustainable materials, research and develop new methods and procedures, without the interconnection of different branches of expertise, without Industry 4.0. Gradually, state structures have also started to reflect the urgency of this matter. We all know that it will be a long process, because to lay down a few rules will simply not suffice. A whole network of mutually reinforcing long-term support programs will be needed. Various strategies will also have to be adopted to educate a new generation of skilled workers, of whom there is currently a shortage on the labor market.
All this will transpire only if we, as a society, come to the realization that the craft tradition is worth keeping alive even at the cost of volatile profits; provided that over the course of the 21st century we will ultimately not have to switch to cups and plates made of plastic or composite materials for the sake of economic profitability and the mantra of steady capitalist growth, and say goodbye to porcelain and glass as a form of cultural expression forever; or even in part: for example, porcelain becoming again available only to a small group of the rich and privileged, a luxury associated with middle-class households, as was the case in the 19th century. Given the conditions, this may also be a path we might have to take one day.
It will depend on our understandings of economic and social value, as well as on the effectiveness or failure of environmental strategies and the transition to energy self-sufficiency and sustainable energy systems. And there is also the issue of the availability of raw materials. Deposits are not inexhaustible, and minerals are not the only natural materials we will need in the future if we decide to continue developing our cultural heritage.
“It is the non-satisfaction of desires, and a firm and perpetual belief that each act to satisfy them leaves much to be desired and can be bettered, that are the fly-wheels of the consumer targeted economy. Consumer society manages to render non-satisfaction permanent.”
“The ruling logic of transformation, of a permanent revolutionizing within bourgeois society, becomes a problem. It causes ever deeper and more uncontrollable crises. And this logic is powerful and domineering, and provides no prospect of democratic organization and self-determination, emancipation or a good life for all.”
We have already mentioned that in addition to technological innovations, efforts to revive traditional methods and develop new products with specific historical references are also being made in the sphere of artistic production. Many Czech designers find inspiration in the relevant forms of creative expression of the past and adapt them to reflect the needs of the present. They borrow traditional patterns, classic shapes and archival objects, and modify, deform, deconstruct, and recontextualize them, thus changing their meaning and the way we perceive them. The Qubus and Hidden Factory studio designers certainly know how to use old elements and adapt them to a contemporary style.
They work with the famous “Blue Onion” pattern in a nostalgic yet very unorthodox way. The same pattern has also been reinterpreted by the master of Czech design Jiří Pelcl in his Bohemia Cobalt tea set specially designed for mass production at the Český porcelán factory in Dubí. František Jungvirt takes vases of important Czech manufacturers, such as František Jungvirt takes vases of important Czech manufacturers, such as Bohemia Crystal, Egermann and Moser vases which. vases which our grandmothers frequently displayed in their kitchen cabinets as something possessing a sacred significance, and unashamedly covers them with spray paint or adorns them with funfair decorations. Daniel Piršč takes the art of appropriation even further and borrows the forms of Neoclassical vases and amphorae, which he flattens to make them look as if they had been run over by a steamroller, but retains their usability. With a telling artistic gesture referencing the era of the 1950s and 1960s (when porcelain figurines were immensely popular), Antonín Tomášek tries to draw attention to the imminent ecological crisis as the most urgent threat to planet Earth. Instead of vintage representations of fish, he places plastic bottles and discarded toothpaste tubes on the pedestals; the decorative object becomes a form of social critique.
Intentional modifications do not only pertain to forms and patterns, but also to techniques and technologies, and questions of whether and why we are willing to keep traditions alive. The conceptual glassmaker and designer Lukáš Novák has, for example, revived lithyalin, a forgotten glass-making technique popular in the early 19th century, and this work has had great impact on the Czech glassmaking scene. Lithyalin glass objects are opaque and distinguished by their typical, multi-colored marbled effect imitating the appearance of precious stones. His use of this technique in creating vases and subsequently light fittings of modern shape made the aesthetic popular once again. The same is true for Rony Plesl’s use of uranium glass, as well as multimedia artist Elis Monsport’s work based on “conventional” glass engraving. Although Moser cut-crystal vases continue to be synonymous with superior craftsmanship, the use of this traditional handcraft technique in modern collage-like objects and art mirrors, coupled with the fresh interpretation of the original cuts, allow us to see them with new eyes. They suddenly no longer appear like museum exhibits but become very contemporary.
If the boundaries of applied and independent art often cease to exist for the designers who create them, then visual artists do not observe them at all. A certain irreverence for materials or techniques during the creative process can make the works tip over into a whole new category. This is, for instance, the case of Jakub Nepraš: In one of his works, he used waste materials from glassworks to produce molten glass on which he projected a digital animation from below. Glass for him thus ceases to be a means for producing something functional, but simply becomes a material medium to be perceived visually, its form no longer particularly important. On the opposite end of the spectrum of innovative glassmaking and appropriation is the work of Jakub Petr, who opted to involve artificial intelligence in the production process. Among other things, he created a robotic station that uses a unique spinning technology for producing fibers of molten glass. The station creates a parabola of molten glass using centrifugal and gravitational force, so the glass thus “forms itself,” without the direct intervention of the artist but only based on the programming of the speed controller. The process is similar to the cutting and polishing of telescope mirrors used in astronomy.
Such examples provide further evidence that innovation can migrate from one field to another, if only we pay it proper attention.