Author: Martina Fineder, Thomas Geisler
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, June 2006

Martina Fineder and Thomas Geisler are working as design theorists, curators and exhibition organizers. Both teach at the Institute of Design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Karel goes shopping
... and a thousand windows open up.

Czech products in the 1960s and 1970s between reform and normalisation.

During the 1960s and 1970s in what was then known as Czechoslovakia you could purchase all the consumer articles available on the international market. That is, if you were Karel Gott, a member of the political elite or, through your sporting achievements, had contributed to the image of the planed economy state. The official products that the broad masses had to make do with in daily life were produced almost entirely by the state. But in contradiction to the usual clichés, in the private sphere communism did not result in uniformity but led to innumerable individual and inventive departures from the norm.
In the years immediately following the war Czechoslovakia had certain economic advantages over Germany and Austria, as war damage there had been (comparatively) slight. This advantage existed until the economic subsidies of the Marshall plan began to take effect in the zones of Europe that were occupied by the Western Allies. The quality of the first Skoda automobiles produced after the war was in no way inferior to that of cars produced by Western manufacturers.
But during the course of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that the nationalisation of industry and the ageing of the production plant were leading to increasingly greater production shortages. The goods produced no longer met modern requirements, not least of all because workers in state industries were offered no motivation. Making state products that functioned better was not in their own interest to. And so many of the objects produced back then have survived in the memories of those who had to use them less on account of their aesthetic qualities and more because of their flaws. In this context designer and architect Jan Nĕmeèek recalls Plastimat, a plastic canister that he selected for the catalogue Czech 100 Design Icons (published by CzechMania on the occasion of the exhibition Czech 100 Design Icons, Stilwerk, Berlin, 6 – 30 May 2005) because it was designed in the 1960s as a "practical companion for leisure time activities". Nĕmeèek remembers that, "The canister had an extendable neckpiece meant to allow it pour better but ironically this spout sent the liquid everywhere except where you wanted it."

Skoda was a cult
Although under communist rule there were research institutes devoted to design and domestic furnishings, the results of their activities rarely directly benefited native consumers. "They cost billions of Czech crowns but the results were never applied. From a present day viewpoint this is hard to understand. Because there was full employment nobody bothered their head about the fact that this research produced no useful results", recalls Czech design theorist Lenka Žižková, "Whatever was produced in the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic was exported to the Soviet Union, and was not available in the country where it was made. What the native citizens needed in the shops was irrelevant, exports to the brother state were of primary importance." And therefore those items that did find their way to the local population almost inevitably became cult objects. Every new Skoda model became a highly desirable icon, merely because there were hardly any other cars.
The catalogue Czech 100 Design Icons shows hundreds of icons of Czech design and style and is an attempt to provide an objective documentation of Czech design history. Representing the Sixties you find the Skoda Felicia, the Telefon T 65 H, the television LOTUS – which, despite the lack of different channels, was nevertheless equipped with a remote control – the PVC toy cat with an accordion body and an iron with an enormous surface area, the ETA 211. The Seventies are represented by the L39 Albatros, a single motor jet plane – allegedly also flown by James Bond. The Skoda 110 R and, of course, Botasky sports shoes, represented by the model, Classic are also included. This sports shoe made by the Botas Company became so popular that the brand name is still used in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as a synonym for trainers of all kinds. However, more trivial items that look as if they were not designed at all because they were adapted or homemade have not been given a place in Czech 100 Design Icons hit parade and survive only as part of oral tradition or in private collections.
In terms of taste for many years people in Czechoslovakia continued to orient themselves on the 1950s and so kidney-shaped tables or organically shaped, blow moulded glass vases, or coffee and tea services with triangular decorative elements, generally in Fifties pastel shades of yellow, blue and green remained fashionable until the 1970s. "We all painted those kinds of triangle on our walls and believed we were keeping pace with the world", Lenka Žižková laughs, looking back. "The plastic objects from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that we had were less colourful or shiny than those in the West because the materials and technologies were not of the same standard as those on the other side of the Iron Curtain." 
The transistor radio with the programmatic spaceship name MÍR (peace, world) seems also to have been designed in the spirit of the 1950s. It was a must for every "private space station" and was a constant companion during camping holidays, whether on the River Vltava or on the Black Sea coast. Jan Nĕmeèek remarks: "You could only receive the two stations of the state radio. If you pulled out the antenna very far you could also hear the forbidden station Radio Luxemburg. But after an hour at most the fun was over and the radio began to produce an appalling noise." The rounded white casing and handle and the loudspeaker cover in crochet-look meant that the radio resembled a lady's handbag and there is little about it that suggests Soviet pioneers in outer space. However the pattern of the cover does look somewhat like pre-cast panel facades of the high-rise buildings later to become popular– and therefore in one sense it did point towards the future. 
It is interesting to note that numerous designs from the 1960s are listed under the category "Brussels Style". Their Fifties aesthetic was a direct reference to the Expo58 in Brussels, where Czechoslovakian designers and products won over one hundred medals. At this show, where two different world ideologies met, the intention of the Socialist countries was to offer visitors from the capitalist world an opportunity to "objectify" their opinion about socialism.

Peering at the West
However, in the Sixties it did not prove possible to continue the great successes of the Expo58. In fact for the most part the achievements of earlier years were merely copied. In addition, the transition to more modern methods of production was sluggish. "In the Sixties there was a certain period of disillusionment and sadness", says Jan Nĕmeèek, "Avant-garde and independent thinking were no longer required, neither in product design nor in other areas of art."
The design icons of this period reflect above all a longing for a more varied product culture and for personal freedom. Many objects appear to be an expression of these needs. The sideward glance at products from the "golden West" was a source of ideas and an impulse at one and the same time. This did not only start to happen when the planned economy began to fall apart and shortages became increasingly acute. In fact it seems as if the citizens were quietly demanding their unwritten right to consume. 
Films that could be imported from the West generated objects of desire such as blue jeans and other brand name articles. "Anyone carrying plastic bags with Western logos was regarded as hip", recalls the Czech artist couple Ondøej Kohout and Eva Vones, looking back at their youth in the Sixties and Seventies. "Politically involved intellectuals longed for more contemporary media, above all for technically more advanced radios so that they could stay in touch with the outside world." After the suppression of the Prague Spring uprising in 1968 Czechoslovakia, under the watchful eye of the Kremlin, became one of the most conservative states of the East Bloc. This phase of "normalisation" was also expressed by stagnation in the field of design where essentially little had changed since the Sixties. A symptomatic example of this dreariness is also to be found in the catalogue Czech 100 Design Icons. An illustration of a run-down children's playground has the caption: "children spent their happy normalisation youth on metal play frames beside pre-cast high-rise housing blocks." Lenka Žižková knows that at that time factories produced tons of the same pieces of furniture. "At that time 100,000 apartments were being built annually, and these apartments had to be furnished. You can still find the built-in wall units and the three-piece suites from back then in our housing estates today."

Improvised private design
The increasing impoverishment of the official world of goods led to a true flourishing of improvisation in the private sector. Objects were copied, repaired and adapted gor private use. "A large proportion of the population had a dacha, a small hut where they could pursue their hobbies and carry out repairs. These were in a sense a symbol of private freedom. At attempt was made to make the best out of the little available. Materials and tools were generally stolen from the workplace because you could not buy them anywhere", explains Ondøej Kohout. "Unfortunately most of the do-it-yourself products were tasteless", adds Eva Vones. "And then there were the refuse tips for bulky items where, despite everything, you could often find wonderful things." In addition fashion magazines from the West provided instructions on how to make clothes as well as design ideas for the apartment. "Naturally the girls wanted to look pretty. We sewed a lot ourselves, generally using the patterns in Burda", explains Eva Vones. "When you started working on your clothing then you inevitably began to include your personal environment. For example I sewed the covers and the canopy for our pram myself.“
The exhibition Design und Plaste (Design and Plastic), curated by Milena Lamarová and shown at the Prague Arts and Crafts University in 1972 awakened new longings. In particular plastic products made in Italy became a source of inspiration for the appearance of functional objects and were seen as an expression of a modern lifestyle. Although it should be said that the effect on the broader masses was relatively limited. On the other hand a heat-resistant glass teapot by Czech manufacturer Kavalier became an internationally successful export article. The revolutionary thing about Adolf Matura's creation was less the design and more the completely automated manufacturing process. This design classic can still be found today in Czech, Austrian and German households. Whether it be the Kavalier glass teapot, the Botasky classic trainers, the Plastimat canister or the hand-made pram hood, whether design icon or do-it-yourself product, when seen in the context of tales from everyday life these items can provide us with a feeling for the material culture of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s. And, to end with a song by Karel Gott, "A thousand windows open up".


Special thanks to the witnesses Ondřej Kohout and Eva Vones for their personal memories as well as the two Czech colleagues Žižková Lenka and Jan Nĕmeèek.