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Prague's Traditional Reinvention

A group of pioneers is reclaiming the city’s traditions and channeling them—in surprisingly modern ways—into innovative hotels, restaurants, shops, and galleries.

By Maria Shollenbarger

The cappuccino I’m drinking in Prague’s Grand Café Orient is utterly mediocre, and that’s okay.

This is because the point is really the setting, which is by contrast utterly impressive: the café is on the second floor of the House of the Black Madonna, originally constructed in 1912 as a department store by the Czech Cubist architect Josef Goćár and, as of 2003, home to Prague’s Museum of Czech Cubism, an architectural and design movement that emerged, flourished, and faded away here in the course of about 15 years. After being neglected for decades, the Orient was restored in spring 2005 to its original, rigorously angled splendor. Everything is a faithful replica of what once was: immense polished-brass and silk-shaded lamps are suspended from the glossy, white-beamed ceiling; the ornate geometric woodwork surrounding the mirrored bar is finished to a high shine; the half-octagon banquettes flanking the tables are covered in a perfect reproduction of the original green-and-white upholstery. Once visited almost exclusively by scholars and aficionados of its architecture, today the café is a map-marked stop on many a hipster’s list and the tables around me are occupied by good-looking young locals and a smattering of travelers. Barring their presence, the room is a near-perfect time capsule of a place that existed here, and only here, for little over a decade almost a century ago.

Which is why the sub-par coffee’s not such a problem—considering that the promise of a perfectly good cup lies all around me at any number of Italian cafés or Starbucks-like chains in the city’s bustling Old Town. But the loving restoration of the Grand Café Orient and, equally important, the warm reception it has received from Prague’s own citizens speak to something interesting: a renewed affection among Czechs for their own heritage and traditions, whether of Bohemia or of the 20th century.

And it is a new sensibility, a change from the city’s years-long, full-throttle embrace of foreign cultures and far-flung influences—a preoccupation that was perhaps to be expected in a country whose borders were thrown open so abruptly in 1989. As travelers’ expectations—fed by the burgeoning 90’s phenomena of increasingly affordable airfare and the proliferation of Wallpaper culture for growing numbers of self-styled jet-setters—grew to include the inalienable right to have, say, pitch-perfect northern Italian cuisine or an “it” bag (or a faultless cappuccino) no matter where on the planet they were touching down, so Prague developed by leaps and bounds to meet those expectations. Local entrepreneurs and canny foreigners alike were keen to invest in this new European capital that was evolving so promisingly. By 2001, the city offered cappuccinos in spades and even a few “it” bags and, for good measure, a beautiful new Four Seasons Hotel, set on the Vltava River with the Michelin-starred Allegro restaurant (still the best in the city, serving that pitch-perfect northern Italian, natch).

After watching their city achieve the trappings of global-destination status, however, a handful of creative residents have begun mining Prague’s own traditions—of food, art, design, architecture—for inspiration. And they’ve been subtly but tangibly changing the look and feel of the city ever since.

One of the earliest to see the promise of Prague’s indigenous culture was Janek Jaros, who for almost a decade has been championing Czech Cubism from his downtown gallery Modernista. Set somewhat incongruously among the treacly gift boutiques and garnet sellers along Celetná, a popular tourist road in Old Town, Modernista is Prague’s original Czech design emporium. The fortysomething Jaros manufactures reproductions of furniture, kitchenware, and porcelain by the best-known Czech Cubists, such as Vlatislav Hofman, Pavel Janák, and Josef Goćár (of the House of the Black Madonna), and sources hard-to-find originals for a handful of prominent clients, among them London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. But it’s only in the past two to three years that his local clientele—relatively newly educated about and ready to invest in their own aesthetic traditions—has begun to grow. “Modernista has changed a lot in the last three years, and so has the market. We’re going back to basics, working with locals and expatriates who live in Prague long term.”

Jaros recently collaborated with the designers of the Rocco Forte Collection’s 101-room Augustine hotel, which had its much-heralded opening last May, by helping to source products for its interiors. Housed in a 13th-century Augustinian monastery spread over seven buildings in the picturesque Malá Strana district, the hotel offered Olga Polizzi, the collection’s design director, a chance to delve into Prague’s design history. “What’s unique about the Czech Cubists is that they pushed the ideas of Picasso and Braque beyond what the movement in Western Europe was producing,” she says. “In Prague, Cubism became buildings, decorative objects, printing, textiles. It’s a very important—perhaps the most important—period in Czech art.”

Known for her work on Rome’s polished Hotel de Russie and the renovation of Rocco Forte’s London flagship, Brown’s, Polizzi committed herself to integrating local design traditions into the Augustine’s interiors. The results are a testament to how an international hotel brand can achieve an authentic sense of place in one property. Few European hotels can match the Augustine, with its still-active ecclesiastical libraries and 18th-century frescoes, for pedigree (the Mandarin Oriental, Prague, just blocks away from the Augustine and also housed in a former monastery, is one). Some of the textiles in the rooms are faithful reproductions of archival Cubist and Modernist designs; others are more playful interpretations of them. Hofman’s signature armchairs and dining chairs were purchased in bulk from Jaros, so that most rooms have one (along with a selection of tomes and catalogues on Czech Cubist theory and objects). Porcelain pieces—vases, boxes, tea saucers—line bookshelves. A sinuous reclined chaise longue by another significant Czech Modernist, the Brno-born architect Adolf Loos—whose perfectly preserved Villa Müller in Prague’s green StĹ™ešovice suburb is open to visitors—appears in some of the suites. All of this interacts dynamically with rough stone, pitched chestnut beams, somber portraits of saints, and biblical scenes from the order’s private collections that Polizzi had restored and hung in the stairwells. The effect: two vernaculars sharing Czech DNA but separated by six and a half centuries. “The rigor of Cubism, of its aesthetic, lends itself well to this strict environment,” Polizzi says. “And they’re both quintessential parts of the city.”

Across the river on the edge of Old Town, just down the street from Jaros’s Modernista, an American expat named Karen Feldman is busy reinterpreting one of the city’s other great artistic traditions: hand-etched glassware and crystal. Feldman left San Francisco for Prague in the early 90’s and soon developed a keen interest in, and collector’s eye for, top-quality glass workmanship. In 1999, she founded ArtÄ›l, which produces contemporary glassware hand-engraved by classically trained artisans (many descended from generations in the same trade). She started the business in the bedroom of her apartment; a decade later, her products—characterized by bold or abstracted interpretations of traditional motifs, and the occasional tongue-in-cheek one (swirling goldfish; underwater scenes, jellyfish and sea horses included)—are sold at Barneys in Tokyo and at Paul Smith in London and New York City. In the ArtÄ›l boutique on Celetná, rows of symmetrical spotlighted alcoves are filled with highballs and flutes. Glass cases lining the walls hold tableware and jewelry, including charming gem-toned sunburst rings and pendants. There’s a deftly edited selection of vintage objects along with contemporary pieces produced by young Czech design entrepreneurs, such as Maxim Velćovský, of the firm Qubus, a definitive presence on the Prague creative scene, and Olgoj Chorchor, a collective whose work is sold at Moss in New York City.

“There’s definitely new interest among many Czechs—particularly, perhaps obviously, younger ones—in their aesthetic history,” Feldman says. She talks of Velćovský, a provocateur and dandy, whose Qubus atelier, a warmly lit and cheery space behind massive iron-studded wooden doors, is a few blocks away. He similarly plays with traditional craft techniques made thought-provoking with healthy doses of irony. (Feldman quotes him as telling her he’s “selling up parts of his childhood” with his design output, which includes porcelain sculptures—a pair of rain boots; a bust of Lenin; a bowl in the shape of the old Czechoslovakia—embossed with the traditional Bohemianzwiebelmuster, or blue onion, pattern.)

She also cites Prague’s premier fashion designer, Klára Nademlýnská, who plays up her Paris training over any professions of Bohemian inspiration, but in whose structured, uncomplicated designs one occasionally sees a flourish of peasant-style embroidery or a shape (a shepherd’s hood, for example) that speaks to a memory of some regional sartorial history. (Certainly the total disinclination to serve that prevails among the lissome, unsmiling girls in her shop on Dlouhá street is a holdover from the old country.)

Feldman takes me one night for a dining experience she says is a 21st-century Czech phenomenon that draws, as so much does these days, from the past. La Degustation Bohęme Bourgeoise (or Degustation, as it is known), was a revelation for Czechs as well as visitors to the city when it opened in Old Town three years ago. Executive chef and co-owner OldĹ™ich Sahajdák assembled a nine-person team comprising some of Prague’s top internationally trained talent, variously poached from the city’s best restaurants (sous-chef Marek Šáda came from Kampa Park; chef du pâtissier Lukáš Pohl was formerly at Café Savoy) and lured home from abroad (sommelier Kristýna JaniÄŤková has worked at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London). Their mandate: Revive and add a contemporary twist to the haute cuisine traditions of late-19th-century well-to-do Bohemia.

The seven-course meal we enjoy is filled with dumplings—pheasant dumplings are served with wild poultry soup and quail egg, and barley dumplings come alongside poached beef oyster blade. It’s also gratifyingly refined, with traditional sauces reinterpreted as essences (and, yes, foams) and spectacular, almost architectural presentation. Equally refined are the room itself, with its low, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and the open kitchen, tiled in black and white and squadroned by an enfilade of grinning young sous-chefs who look to be having the time of their lives.

When queried on Prague’s changing visual arts scene, Feldman and Jaros—who are, as it happens, two of the city’s most articulate ad hoc ambassadors—both urge a visit to Dox, the buzzy contemporary-arts center that opened in October 2008. One of the first exhibits in this sprawling 1920’s metal factory (redesigned by the contemporary Czech architect Ivan Kroupá) was the enormous installation called Entropa, by Czech artist David ÄŚerný. A 40-foot-high mosaic suspended on a pipe system, with steam whistles and moving parts, it’s a wild sort of map of the 27 EU member states: Romania is a Dracula-themed park; the Netherlands a flooded plain dotted with half-submerged mosques; Italy one enormous soccer pitch on which players run chaotically in all directions. It was commissioned to be exhibited at the European Council building in Brussels for the duration of the Czech presidency, but generated so much controversy that it was dismantled and sent back to Prague—to the mixed dismay and amusement of art-savvy Czechs, who could have told any well-meaning Eurocrat that ÄŚerný, a self-styled enfant terrible and Prague celebrity, was not the guy for such a serious-minded job. (In the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, he painted a Soviet tank cotton-candy pink and affixed a huge raised middle finger atop it.) Post-controversy, ÄŚerný admitted that the 27 artists he’d listed as collaborators—one from each EU country—were all fictitious; the work was entirely his and that of two associates.

Entropa is provocative, and definitely Czech, and Dox couldn’t have gotten luckier to land such a piece within months of opening, notes Leoš Válka, the gallery’s director. In a city of slightly twee costume, crystal, and folk museums, the sprawling, multilevel Dox is a pioneer, not only because Válka chose to set it in Holešovice, a still-grimy grid of blocks to the north of the city that’s populated by students, immigrants, and aspiring artists keen on the cheap rents of its early-20th-century buildings. “The idea behind Dox is to place Czech artists in a world context, across the contemporary disciplines—visual art, architecture, new media, design,” Válka says. It’s a new format for the city, and one that potential supporters are still acclimating to. “We haven’t got the history of privately funded activities, of philanthropy, and the government’s still coming up to speed with how to manage its grants,” he explains. Nevertheless, he adds, “our timing’s been extremely good; people here have been traveling, they’ve gone and cultivated perspectives on [contemporary] art elsewhere in the world.” They’re ready, in other words, to appreciate their own contemporary artists.

Feldman has also recommended a tour of the three-year-old Lobkowicz Palace Museum, which enjoys a rather more rarefied position high above the city in the Prague Castle complex. It was opened in 2007 by William Lobkowicz, a charming Boston native who also happens to be a prince by title of what was for five centuries Bohemia’s most powerful and wealthiest family. Its fortunes having been dispersed and its landholdings seized not once but twice, first by the Nazis, then the Communists (his grandfather, Maximilian, fled Czechoslovakia in 1948), they are now being meticulously traced, gathered, and catalogued by Lobkowicz and his wife, who have lived in Prague for 20 years.

The museum is stunning, a world-class collection lent intimate dimensions by its placement in the family’s residence (a late-Renaissance palace, overlooking castle vineyards and the rooftops of Malá Strana) and by a thoughtful audio tour written and presented by Lobkowicz himself. Masterpieces like Peter Brueghel the Elder’sHaymaking and two galleries hung entirely with ancestral portraits by the likes of Velázquez are the marquee attractions. But equally captivating—to Lobkowicz as well as to visitors—are the smaller dramas, such as hand-scrawled sheaves of music from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, a jewel-like ladies’ salon with 200-year-old murals of exotic birds, and case after velvet-lined case of family porcelain, much of it painted in the same blue-onion pattern that Qubus’s Velćovský has twisted ever so slightly to his own creative purposes.

Lobkowicz’s love for his adopted city is palpable, his investment in it total, and his perspective on it unique—that of both an outsider and a member of its most established society. This is likely why the view he takes of things is a long one: It’s great that there’s a renewed enthusiasm for the country’s own culture manifesting itself, he explains, but in the two decades he’s lived here, he wasn’t particularly worried about it disappearing—global onslaught or no. “Prague has always been a mosaic; it’s maintained an open-minded energy for a thousand years,” he says. “The city is never going to lose itself.”

Maria Shollenbarger, a London-based writer, is a frequent T+L contributor.