words: Alex Wiltshire
Comicbook artist, advertising model, magazine editor, comedy scriptwriter, saviour of the Czech porcelain industry. And he’s only 29.
Maxim Velcovsky is the most prominent in a new generation of designers from the Czech Republic, not least because of his spectacular hairstyle. He is still recognised all over the country for a series of mobile phone adverts he modelled for as a student.
Velcovsky's work fuses the Czech Republic's rich design heritage – such as the glass and porcelain it's famous for – with its enthusiastic take-up of a modern consumer economy since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. He’s best known for his porcelain pieces, such as Digi Clock, a traditionally florid white clock case with a digital readout rudely stuck on the front. In another work, Waterproof, a pair of vases in the shape of wellington boots, the wellington concept is twisted to hold rather than keep out water. His work tends to have a wry and faintly obstinate air to it, using familiar forms and giving them contradictory new functions or identities.
We meet in Velcovsky’s large flat, at the top of a tenement in the hilly suburbs of western Prague. He shares it with his brother, and has nearly finished renovating it, adding bedrooms that he likens to a tree house in the roof space. We sit at his kitchen table drinking tea selected from an impressive range of varieties. Velcovsky speaks quickly, his English words running over each other, but engagingly. He has an opinion about everything, and a desire to communicate it. He explains that reverence for consumer culture runs deep in his generation. As children, he and his friends interpreted democracy’s freedoms as the chance to drink Coca-Cola and eat McDonald’s hamburgers (they used to collect cans of Sprite from the rubbish bins outside the Western embassies), while his parent’s generation longed for freedom of speech and travel.
In Velcovsky’s work, this reverence is tempered by a cynicism about consumer culture’s wasteful excesses, an expression of the tension between this new disposability and socialist-era thriftiness. It’s particularly evident in his series of porcelain and glass pieces modelled after disposable food and drink containers, such as Coke XL, a porcelain cup replicating the bottom half of a plastic Coca-Cola bottle (also available in a traditional Czech tableware “onion” pattern). “The world is flooded by baguettes in plastic wrappers, plastic cups – [the pieces] are a reaction to fast food becoming a tradition,” he says. He recently finished a project called Ikeana, a set of instructions on how to adapt standard Ikea furniture for new uses. Although the social critique isn’t particularly hard-hitting, as Velcovsky says, “It’s enough to start a conversation.”
Velcovsky studied ceramics at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague because he felt ceramics would give him the freedom to combine sculpture, graphics and painting. “I always thought that it’s nonsense to divide, for people to be artists and applied artists and fine artists,” he says. His father is an artist but Velcovsky preferred the idea of mass production. Hanging out at art openings as a student, he decided that art was insulated from the rest of culture.
Soon after graduating three years ago, Velcovsky became involved with Qubus, a small design production company established by designer Jakub Berdych. They didn’t have anywhere in Prague to show their work so they opened a small shop. Qubus now produces, distributes and sells most of Velcovsky’s work. Although it doesn’t make much money, he enjoys the freedom it gives him to design what he likes. “I’m the responsible one,” he says. “I can’t blame the manufacturers for not selling my stuff.”
We leave Velcovsky’s flat to visit Qubus’ shop in Prague’s historic centre, taking a dirty Soviet-era tram and walking across the Charles Bridge. As we go, he points out the many souvenir shops selling cheap glasswork and ceramics as quality Czech produce, but probably made in China. Velcovsky’s interest in reusing old porcelain forms is partly a kind of nostalgia for a prouder past, when Czech porcelain factories were world famous. The theme is evident in a recent series of animal-shaped moneyboxes, whose kitschy forms he took from old ceramics catalogues. They only have one hole in them, the money slot, so to extract your savings you have to break the box, forcing the question: which has more value, the decorative knick-knack or the cash inside? The pieces are about rejuvenating familiar but defunct designs: “It’s so they can influence people’s lives again; to shout, "This is the shape that you grew up with – now it’s back again."
A Czech porcelain company manufactures Qubus’ designs, but it took Qubus two years to convince the company to work with them. Young designers such as Velcovsky find local manufacturers extremely conservative. He recently proposed an idea to a factory for a breakfast tableware set using Russian doll forms, but he doesn’t think that it will be taken on. “I just feel that they’re not courageous enough to make it. They don’t look for new ideas from young designers. The biggest porcelain factories are based on just one person’s designs.”
Velcovsky isn’t only concerned about the lack of support for young designers: he says it is also seriously endangering the Czech porcelain industry itself. Currently based around producing cheap, kitschy products for the Russian and German markets, the industry is being threatened by low cost but increasingly high quality Chinese imports.“
My idea is to save local manufacturers by trying something new,” he says. “Sometimes it’s really hard because you don’t get help in return. So I have to show that it works.”
Qubus’ manufacturer now realises that new designs can represent viable business: “They asked us to think about their collection too, so I now also work with them on their home stuff,” says Velcovsky. “It was fantastic because I realised that Qubus was a criticism of a system.” He has had further success with a more progressive Czech firm called G Benedikt, helping to develop a system for making moulds with computer-controlled equipment, a technique rarely used by Czech porcelain companies.
Velcovsky doesn’t restrict himself only to porcelain. He’s the deputy editor and design editor for Blok, the Czech Republic’s first fashion-arts-design-lifestyle magazine. When we meet he’s working on getting an interview with designer Konstantin Grcic. He draws comics, with text by a young Czech writer called Michal Hvorecky, and he’s just submitted the script for a pilot episode of a sitcom about a factory, which sounds as if it was inspired by his own experiences. The modelling he did as a student extended to advertising campaigns for PlayStation, Findus in Scandinavia and Sony Ericsson in Japan. “It was a strange experience,” he says. “I felt a bit like I was the object to be sold, which happens in the design world quite often too!”
And he has begun designing for mass production – he is currently working on a koi carp pond heater and a dehumidifier for different Czech companies. He found them almost as conservative as the porcelain factories – part of the challenge is for them to learn to work with external designers instead of employees. But they’re also teaching Velcovsky a lot. He was recently asked to design a plastic mineral water bottle but found that the owner of the company, who made his fortune in the turmoil after the revolution, knew exactly what he wanted already. After three months of meetings, the project was shelved, though Velcovsky was ultimately relieved to be clear of it. “Sometimes you don’t know who you’re working with,” he says. “It was quite a surprise when I heard he had been given eight years for tax evasion.”
It’s getting late and it’s time to close up Qubus. There have been few visitors to the shop since we’ve been there. Velcovsky says that Czech society still doesn’t offer much of a market for design-orientated goods – most of Qubus’ sales are from abroad. “We don’t have a design environment,” he says. “The mentality is to get two chairs for the price of one at the supermarket. You can’t really see the design shops in Prague and most of them import from abroad. You don’t see many shops with the work of young local designers – it’s a pity.”
Perhaps a problem is that these young Czech designers, having lived most of their lives since the revolution, are different from the older generation. “We’re inspired by new things,” says Velcovsky. “It’s a new time. Young designers surf on the internet, they buy design magazines, they’re inspired by what’s going on in the world. They’re inspired by the things they look at, like in the supermarkets.” As a result, he says that there is no “typical” Czech design now, though his own work is closely tied to the Czech Republic – its industry, its heritage and its new milieu. But it’s hardly surprising that Velcovsky’s work expresses the profound changes he has witnessed in his homeland. As he says,“The mottos on our buildings, which before the revolution proclaimed 'With The Soviet Union Forever’, have been replaced by slogans like 'Always Coca Cola'.”