FROM 1910 to 1925, a small group of Central European architects launched an ambitious movement that sought to create a whole new vocabulary for architecture and design.
The architecture, furniture, and decorative objects they created are the subject of the exhibit "Czech Cubism: Architecture and Design" at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design through July 25.
Czech Cubists set out to create designs that were uniquely Czech - representing the fullness of their national identity. They wanted their work to encompass the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic essence of their times through a design language practical enough for everyday objects.
The intellectual intensity of these visionaries combined Utopian instincts with practical inclinations. Josef Gocar, whose work is widely represented in the show, adroitly translated the complicated Czech Cubist theories of the group into actual objects.
The results hold up remarkably well. While a lively couch by Gocar sits comfortably uptown at the Cooper-Hewitt museum, it could just as easily be trucked downtown and sold at a top furniture gallery tomorrow.
The exhibit was organized by the Museum of Decorative Arts and the National Technical Museum in Prague and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. It traveled in Europe and North America before its current and final stop in New York.
Czech Cubists were inspired to action by the radical changes thrust on Europe at the beginning of this century. In the scientific world, man's understanding of atoms, quantum theory, and of matter itself were being buffeted by a series of new discoveries.
The material world gradually revealed that it was not as solid as it seemed to be. And the Czech Cubist designers sought ever more control over matter. In 1912, Pavel Janak wrote that man was continually delving deeper into matter "by means of science to discover its measure, physical properties, chemistry and so on. [Yet] our hearts demand that we explain its origin, reason, and place in the universe ... by lending it form."
The idea of "ordering the chaos of matter" inspired new forms. Czech Cubist creations were not ethereal, however. Everyday objects such as couches, wallpaper, and a coffee service were produced.
Josef Chochol wrote of the "emotion, fantasy, and excitement" that drove the creativity of his times. Looking back at Czech Cubism from the vantage point of 1930, Karel Taige agreed that it was "more mythology than architecture."
Milena Lamarova, who is a curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, looks back with a little more perspective: The furniture is "impressive for its uncommon expressive strength, which seems to propose a new perception of space - a desire to persuade us of the possibilities of a new choreography of kinetic relationships between person, object, and space."
Viewers of Czech Cubist work at the 1914 German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne knew they were witnessing something new and exciting: "The tempestuous exhibition of the Association of Czech Accomplishment shows that a powerful fermentation is taking place," a critic wrote.
Due to the intervention of two world wars and the limited cultural exchange possible afterwards, that fermentation did not really spread.
Czech Cubism has seen some interesting reverberations in the recent Post-Modern movement, however. And with continuing research and re-discovery of European roots, Czech Cubism will no doubt be resurrected in other ways as well.