Adam Štěch

Autor

Adam Štěch
Tschechische Republik

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them


From a global view of history of design, the Czech design scene still remains at the edge of historical periods and styles. Despite that fact, some great Czech designers have found themselves in an international context in the past. Ladislav Sutnar and his postwar graphic work in the USA or Bořek Šípek and his variations of postmodernism during the late 1980s most likely represent the most famous Czech design examples. However, a lifetime work by Zbyněk Hřivnáč and his colleagues can be viewed as more international in regard to international style than anything else. Paradoxically, his work remains totally unknown even in the Czech Republic.
 

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Alfa Café, Zbyněk Hřivnáč and Jan Šrámek, chandeliers by René Roubíček, Prague, 1965; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Zbyněk Hřivnáč, who was born in 1932 close to Opava, Moravia, belongs to a group of creative minds that could participate in designs from the large architectural and interior commissions of the former Czechoslovak state between the 1950s and 1980s. Until recently, he has still been hidden in the anonymity of the large architectural offices, which were directly controlled by the state, as was usual at the time of the communist regime. His contribution to Czech modernist design and architecture is more complicated when we realize that Hřivnáč behaved as an independent artist in some projects. However, in other projects he is presented as a collaborator with some of his more famous colleagues, such as Jan Šrámek, Karel Filsak, Jan Bočan, Karel Bubeníček, and many others. In any case, the work of this group of architects and designers, headed by architect Karel Filsak, who accumulated great personalities to create a powerful group of designers and artists, is seminal for Czech design and architecture during the 20th Century.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Czechoslovak Embassy in London, architecture and interiors by Jan Bočan, Jan Šrámek, Zdeněk Rothbauer, Oldřich Novotný a Zbyněk Hřivnáč, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Czechoslovak Embassy in London, architecture and interiors by Jan Bočan, Jan Šrámek, Zdeněk Rothbauer, Oldřich Novotný a Zbyněk Hřivnáč, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Hřivnáč debuted as an interior decorator during the latter half of the 1950s, when he worked on the interior of the famous International Hotel in Prague, which was built by architect František Kadeřábek in the eclectic style of Soviet Realism in 1956, directed by communist art propaganda. Nevertheless, the political and art situation soon began to loosen, allow the designers to start working in the more democratic style of mid-century modernism, establishing a tradition of great Czech pre-war functionalism. The interior mastery of Hřivnáč unfolded in a series of smaller interior projects for Czechoslovak Airlines (ČSA), which belonged to the most prominent clients of Czech architects and designers during that time. The projects of the travel offices in Prague, Sofia, Warsaw, Berlin, or Belgrade constituted a strong group of artists (as mentioned above), which worked together on the big "gesamtkunstwerk" where architects, designers, decorators, and artists all collaborated together. Zbyněk Hřivnáč became a great creator of furniture and fittings. The unique symbiosis of all these arts resulted in a form of light modernism and decoration. 

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Armchair for Czechoslovak airlines office in Belgrade, design Jan Šrámek, Zbyněk Hřivnáč, 1970s; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Zbyněk Hřivnáč collaborated heavily with architect Jan Šrámek during that time. The creative duo stands behind the designs of unique and mostly atypical pieces of furniture, lightning, and other objects. After all, designers very rarely designed objects for serial industrial production in those days. Most of the realizations are unique pieces for concrete architectural or interior projects, which were produced in state-directed workshops and factories such as Kovona, Umělecká řemesla, Napako, Dřevopodnik Holešov, or OPMP Mimoň. From the several projects between Zbyněk Hřivnáč and Jan Šrámek, we should mention one above the rest. Alfa was a large and representative café and bar in Prague, which was finished by Hřivnáč and Šrámek in 1965. The main features include sculptural wooden chairs made out of bent veneer or crystal-shaped ceiling lighting created by master glassmaker and artist René Roubíček, who was one of the best collaborators with Hřivnáč and others. Through organic-shaped chairs and the whole interior setting, we can see influences by period Italian design or organic sculpture.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, interiors by Jan Šrámek, Zbyněk Hřivnáč, chandeliers by René Roubíček, sculptures by Eva Kmentová, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

The 1960s and 1970s are the most significant in large international projects of building new of Czechoslovak embassies all around the world. Zbyněk Hřivnáč collaborated on some of them in creating interiors. Primarily, there were new embassies in Brasilia and New Delhi by architect Karel Filsak, in London by Jan Bočan, as well as Washington, where Hřivnáč and Šrámek created delicate subtle interior decorations inside an eclectic historic building. However, in most of the projects, including the Czechoslovak mission of OSN in Geneva, the new brutalist architecture of raw concrete of Karel Filsak met the monumental and geometric, sometimes futuristic, shapes of Hřivnáč and Šrámek`s furniture and fittings. The interiors are crowned by fine art objects from many prominent Czech artists during that time. A specific creative style and approach was born, causing this group of architects to work on other commissions, such as the IHC hotel in Prague or the Mackintosh-inspired renovation of the classical Beneš villa for official state recreation.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Czechoslovak OSN Mission in Geneva, interiors by Jan Šrámek, Zbyněk Hřivnáč and Oldřich Novotný, architecture by Karel Filsak, Karel Bubeníček a Jan Šrámek, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

At the end of the 1970s, Hřivnáč joined a gigantic team of creatives to design interiors for the Communist Party Hotel Praha, which became the largest decoration project of the period in the former Czechoslovakia. Many prominent as well as lesser-known designers joined the project, which was designed purely for the communist political elite and never to be used for commercial business. A gigantic amount of money was invested into the construction of the building, which was designed by a group of architects including Sedláček, Todl, Paroubek, Navrátil, and Černý. The interiors feature opulent decorations that became synonymous with communist, not ethical, luxury. Despite this, in the forms of furniture, lightning, artwork, and other fittings, the world trends of design during the late 1970s are so evident. After all, the entire work of Hřivnáč and all architects since the 1950s have joined international trends of interior design. During the 1950s, we can see some similarities with French decorators such as Jean Royer, Jacques Quinet, or Raphael; later, it was the brutalist work of Afra and Tobio Scarpa or Michel Boyer, whose forms found some echoes in the work of Hřivnáč and Šrámek.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Armachairs for Czechoslovak OSN Mission in Geneva, design by Jan Šrámek, Zbyněk Hřivnáč and Oldřich Novotný, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

It is very interesting to see how international design styles of the second half of the last century behave in the different parts of the world, given the totally different conditions for its origin. As a whole, it is a wide flow with centers and periphery. Despite the work of Czech designers during the 1960s and 1970s representing this periphery of those days,  it brings an interesting and original view on modernist design and its interpretation in a wider, international context.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Armchairs for Czechoslovak OSN Mission in Geneva, design by Jan Šrámek, Zbyněk Hřivnáč and Oldřich Novotný, 1969; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Due to some health problems, Zbyněk Hřivnáč retired at the end of the 1980s. His occasional work after the fall of the Iron Curtain never highlighted his talent as an interior designer again. This is true not only because he was working in the specific conditions of the communist regime within his own rules, he was also only one of several great architects joining in a powerful organism of creative designers that never again worked together.

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Interiors of Beneš Villa, design by Karel Filsak, Jan Šrámek, Karel Filsak ml. and Zbyňek Hřivnáč, 1975 - 1976; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive

Zbyněk Hřivnáč - One of Them
Chair for IHC hotel in Prague, design Zbyněk Hřivnáč, 1980; image courtesy of Zbyněk Hřivnáč archive