neděle 30. listopadu 2014

Espresso Cups

Blue and white is always a good combination

I have always liked cafés and then coffee. Since high school I have watched the café scene in Prague change and evolve. In the last few years there has been a lot of emphasis on the quality of the coffee itself. This post though is about coffee cups.
The epitome of bourgeois taste- flowers, gold and a nice round shape ,all done by hand.
Ever since I got a coffee machine I started a new collection of coffee cups, they are sometimes referred to as šapo perhaps from the French chapeau indicating the shape of the first cups or mocca cups in Czech. Almost all my cups were originally part of whole coffee sets which were broken over time and eventually dispersed. They are most often found in antique and charity shops and accompanied by random pieces from the original ensemble. I tend to steer clear of high end antique shops which partly specialize in selling these as collector’s items for display as I have a strict rule of using all of mine.
Again flowers imposed on a historical form.

 Drinking from a different cup everyday gives me welcome variety and is also a responsible way to give old objects a new lease on life. Because these pieces of china are often vintage at the least, they cannot be put into a dishwasher making them undesirable to most but also relatively affordable.

This cup has an interesting detail inside.

As I only drink small strong espressos they are generally small cups that can hold a maximum of 120ml liquid. Most of them are much smaller though and quite dainty, some just big enough for a ristretto. The cups I drink from are mostly of local origin as production of such delicate items has only recently resumed but on a far smaller scale. I doubt that porcelain production will ever again be such a strong industry as it was in the interwar period and under communism. This might also be due to a change in lifestyle as few people want coffee sets for their wedding or have a place of pride in their homes for such things.

Just big enough for a ristretto.
Art nouveau revival allegedly  by Jaroslav Ježek
Most of the cups I use date from the early 20th century to the 1980’s.Almost all were mass produced but a few are hand painted or were made by a renowned designer. Some are also from very thin porcelain making them not only delicate but almost disposable and that is why I tend to try to buy more than one if available. 

The decoration on the cups varies tremendously from geometric patterns to art nouveau stylizations but I am always amused by the pieces that were made from the approximately the 60’s-80’s which reference historical styles albeit with an element of the period. Many therefore have shapes popular in the Biedermeier period or stylized decorations taken from folk art .The result are always an effort of middleclass aspiration in porcelain.
A very gay one

 It was in the 19th century with the economic growth of the middle classes that the production of items such as these cups too off in this part of Europe. Since I started buying these small objects I have noticed two very prominent characteristics that have been used by porcelain decorators in all periods, the first is the use of gold to decorate the cups, and they are often completely golden or at least have a gold painted handle or inner band. My guess is that gold for many in some unconscious way elevates the item to a festive one.

I am not sure this cup was ever meant for drinking.

Another prevalent characteristic is the use of flowers and floral motives in decoration not only these cups but porcelain in general. I have seen birds, animals and sometimes towns depicted but never a car for example. Given that porcelain cups were most often bought by and for women I think that florals are a sensible choice.

This piece has a beautiful  hand painted  detail of Prague.
I have banned Czech pink porcelain but otherwise in the same way I choose a tie or socks for my day, I choose my espresso cup.

neděle 16. listopadu 2014


A rondo-cubist doorway- Palác Akropolis
 The last two decades have brought not only democracy and a new country but also a lot of new construction both residential and commercial. There have also been fierce debates about what is being built.. While it is less common today see Cinderella inspired chateau villas there is still the general notion that contemporary Czech architecture is not particularly tasteful. Maybe as a reaction to the stuffiness and aesthetic confusion of the 90’s young Czechs most often prefer “minimalism” a style in fact older than their grandparents..The prevailng inclination towards “minimalism” often translates to slightly sterile contemporary interiors from a big manufacturer.

A rondo-cubist villa
The debate about design aesthetics has been part of Czech society since the founding of the country right after WWI. Although the interwar period is most seen from a functionalist/Bauhaus perspective there were other styles of building as well.
A specifically Czechoslovak style was Rondo-Cubism also known as the National style or Czech Art deco and is based on circles, semi circles and rounded ornamentation. As a result it has also been referred to as croissant art deco.

Detail of  semi detached houses

         This style is a softer version of cubism  and art deco. Originally conceived as an architectural expression of the newly established Czechoslovakia, it was meant to be a style which would give the new country an aesthetic identity.

In part the crispness of   rondo-cubism and art deco was a reaction to the loose organic forms of art Nouveau which was beginning to be seriously outdated by the end of the Great War. Both art Nouveau a and art deco though often drew inspiration from nature or the far East, which is most often seen in the applied arts.

One of the few houses with the tricolor scheme.

The   two main advocates of rondo cubism were architects Josef Gočár and Pavel Janák who looked to old folk architecture for inspiration. The style was meant for the masses of the new country in contrast to art deco which sought to present glamour and sophistication to the urban elite. It is therefore not very common to see items of everyday use made in this style. Although not very popular with architectural establishment of the day who saw the style as somewhat vernacular   it was popular with the public in the interwar period .Evidence are middle class villas and  some apartment houses in bigger towns and in Prague.

The detail of an original  wooden fence.
Right after WWI Gočár and Janák were able to secure commissions from state institutions which was crucial in introducing the style to the wider public. To further emphasize  the patriotic nature of rondo –cubism  they  intended for all rondo-cubist  public building to be painted in the Czechoslovak national colors of red blue and white  a combinational that works surprisingly well and gives the facades a three dimensional aspect. The Legions Bank or the Adria Palace in Prague are the best known examples.

The façade of Palác Akropolis

Rondo cubist nesting tables
Image courtesy of :


    Over the last few years there has been growing interest and scholarship in rondo-cubism as many of the buildings are being repaired though few have kept the original tricolor facades. A good eye and a stroll from Vinohrady to  Vršovice  will give those interested an opportunity to become more familiar this art- deco offshoot.
I often wonder what architectural style the post communist Czech Republic will be remembered for.

P.S –My photographic skills are not the BEST.