We can’t remember exactly when we first came across Prague based creative collective Okolo, but certainly by the autumn of 2014 we were very much liking what they were doing: April 2014 seeing the exhibition Okolo Offline at Depot Basel and in September Okolo Offline Two – Collecting at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden, both of which in their own gentle ways guided the visitor into and through the Okolo world.
Keen to better understand that world we met up with Okolo co-founder Adam Štěch…..
Formed in Prague in 2009 Okolo a.k.a. Art Historian Adam Štěch and Graphic Designers Matěj Činčera and Jan Kloss have realised a wide portfolio of magazine, book and exhibition projects, across creative genres, both under their own initiative and in cooperation with a wide roster of international partners including Domus, Phillips de Pury and Zlin Design Week.
Aside from the Okolo blog, a project which began as much as an online agglomeration of thoughts and impressions as it did as a documentation of the group’s activities, among the earliest Okolo projects to catch our attention was an ad-hoc series of Okolo magazine special editions which explored creativity in locations such as Vienna, Liguria and Lausanne. Our attention being attracted not only by the fact that they were very nicely produced objects, but for all that they were objects seemingly devoid of any mandate other than finding interesting themes. Existed almost as much for themselves as for the reader. But were glad you were there. Of late it has tended to be in context of exhibitions that we experience Okolo, generally small touring showcases displayed at design weeks/festivals, and which although always very different, are always unmistakably Okolo.
We met up with Adam Štěch at the Okolo gallery in Prague to discuss Okolo’s origin’s, work and Czech design past and present, but began by asking about his decision to study Art History….
Adam Štěch: During my final years at secondary school I became increasingly interested in art, I remember, for example, the first time I saw Impressionist paintings, that I really liked them and wanted to understand more, which then led me deeper into art. And so when deciding what to study, art history seemed the logical choice.
smow Blog: And why then the move to design, was there a specific moment or ……..?
Adam Štěch: While studying my plan had been to specialise in modern art, but over time my interest moved ever more towards architecture, and then onto design. Why that should have been I’m not sure but I think it was because architecture and design are more connected to the real world, to that which surrounds us. In addition, my older brother used to collect things, for example Swatch watches or Sony Walkmans, so popular consumer goods with a strong design element, and my father is a very keen photographer with a collection of vintage cameras, and so design has always been present, even if I wasn’t always aware of it.
smow Blog: Which means you graduated in Art History with a Design History thesis or….?
Adam Štěch: Exactly, my graduation project was about the Czech designer Zbyněk Hřivnáč who designed the interiors of many representative buildings in the 1960s and 70s such as Czechoslovakian Embassies and government agencies. However the realities at the University meant that it all took a lot longer than it should have, design simply wasn’t a subject, and for example my supervisor is a very good Professor of modern art, but knew nothing about design, nor did anyone else, and so everything that I learned about design during my studies came from self-study and my own initiative.
smow Blog: And then how did this interest in design develop into Okolo?
Adam Štěch: In 2006 I got to know Matěj, we met at the skate park where we both rode BMX. I was already studying, he was still in high school with plans to study graphic design, we became good friends, had similar views and both had a desire to express ourselves, wanted to try to explain to others what we were passionate about. Initially we started with the idea of working on three platforms – publications, exhibitions and products – although we quite quickly realised that the sales and distribution of products wasn’t our strength and so decided to focus on publications and exhibitions, and launched Okolo at Designblok 2009 with our first magazine.
smow Blog: Which brings us nicely to the name, why Okolo?
Adam Štěch: To be honest, I was looking through the dictionary for a good name and stumbled across Okolo, which means “around” in Czech, but also “kolo” is bicycle, and “o” is about, on, of, and so Okolo can be taken as meaning “around the bicycle”, which at that time was a major interest for us, not just riding BMX but BMX design.
smow Blog: Which if we’re correctly informed was also the subject of the first exhibition……
Adam Štěch: ……exactly, our first exhibition was called BMX Visionaries and was devoted to the design of BMX components. We staged it in a local BMX shop and our aim was to present BMX design as a completely orthodox industrial design discipline, as mundane industrial products but with their own identity, and in addition to show how fashion was influencing BMX culture. That was 2009 and I think that then design in context of BMX was at its peak, and that the components were largely colourful anodised metal we arranged them like a mosaic on the wall.
smow Blog: An then having launched how does one go about establishing such a project as Okolo, what were the next steps …..?
Adam Štěch: For Designblok 2010 we presented an exhibition on lighting designs by Antonín Hepnar, a designer, artistic craftsman who made a lot of interesting wood lamps in the 1970s and 80s, but who was then completely forgotten after the Velvet Revolution. And so with our exhibition we were able to bring him to a new public, which was very satisfying, and for which we received the main Designblok Award which was also a good recognition of the project. Shortly after that we were invited to Łódź Design Festival in Poland where we presented an exhibition of Czechoslovakian table lamps from the second half of the 20th century, which was the first time we properly explored the history of design, where I undertook basic research to find objects and designers.
smow Blog: Which raises the obvious question of how important were design festivals in the early years?
Adam Štěch: Apart from Prague and Łódź, we initially also exhibited in Bratislava and Vienna, so here in Central Europe, but then very quickly we moved further afield, for example London Design Festival, and during these festivals we met a lot of interesting people which allowed us to develop a solid network of interesting contacts and collaborators, a network that still exists, and in addition presenting at the festivals was very helpful in terms of gathering experience.
smow Blog: Experience that you’ve consolidated over a number of projects, how is the project development process/work division with yourselves?
Adam Štěch: Mostly I have the ideas for the projects, not always, sometimes they arise form conversations, but the once we have decided on a project I create a concept, do the research, write the texts and Matěj and Jan are responsible for the design, layout, but also printing, budgeting etc…. and so we complement each other very well, each can bring his strength to the project.
smow Blog: And in terms of developing exhibitions do you have any ideals, concepts that you always aim for, any goals?
Adam Štěch: We use Graphic Design quite a lot in the space, Matěj and Jan are very good at approaching graphic design as a spatial concept when constructing the scenography, and generally for us it is important to always connect interesting facts and information with a compact, contemporary installation and graphic design.
smow Blog: Since 2014 you’ve had a gallery space here, was that always part of the plan or………?
Adam Štěch: I always wanted to have a small gallery, however since moving here we haven’t had time to properly establish it as such, but what we have staged are very limited exhibitions, mostly devoted to European product design. We all teach at Scholastika, a private design school here in Prague, and from time to time organise an international guest lecturer, and the next day have an exhibition of their work here in the gallery, with a small party at the opening. We’ve had, for example Big Game, Maarten de Ceulaer, Lex Pott, Michael Anastassiades, Studio Swine, Sabine Marcelise, but all very DIY, we have no budget for the production and so the designers bring objects with them, even if just what will fit into their suitcase, and then we create an exhibition concept around that which they bring…..
smow Blog: …….Michael Anastassiades must have a very large suitcase…..
Adam Štěch: …..no, no, thankfully he was able to persuade Flos to organise the lamps, and Flos CEO Piero Gandini came to the opening, and so despite the relatively small, informal scale it was quite a large event.
smow Blog: Which brings us nicely to Prague, is Prague a creative city does one feel there is a lot happening here?
Adam Štěch: Ever more, over the past decade one can see that certainly in context of design the scene is growing and getting stronger, which one sees through for example the increasing number of studios debuting at Designblok, and the good thing here is that it is not so competitive, people help one another. But also in terms of fashion things are growing here in Prague, Prague Fashion Week has established a good international reputation and also art is also getting better and better.
smow Blog: Can you explain why that is?
Adam Štěch: I think its part of a natural development, that since the Velvet Revolution Czech design has gone through a period of emancipation. When I started to be interested in design, so ten, twelve years ago there were only very few professional designers in the Czech Republic, and now there are as I say ever more. What I think has also helped is that we have a new generation of Czech, those in their 30s, 40s who have bit of money and who are looking for interesting objects and are thereby supporting younger Czech designers.
smow Blog: And coming back to the question of the role of festivals, has Designblok played a role in that, this, development?
Adam Štěch: In its first years Designblok only had a handful of exhibitors, and so it has grown together with design here, but most importantly I think Designblok have played an important role in helping explain design as part of everyday life, and one sees that in the fact that there are lots of families at Designblok, that many treat it as a family day out which creates not only a unique atmosphere but makes design something normal.
smow Blog: And are you happy in Prague, is it a good base?
Adam Štěch: For us it is very good to be based in Prague and to collaborate internationally. We’re very central here, rents are still cheap, and there are few very good, high quality printers where we we know we can get that which we require.
smow Blog: Changing tact slightly when you consider Czech design, can you see a red line from historic until contemporary Czech design?
Adam Štěch: There used to be almost a cliche that Czech design and architecture was based on a modernist rigidity, was a very cold, very rational style, Rostislav Švácha one of the best Czech architecture historians published a book who’s title can be translated as meaning “rigidity in Czech architecture”, but these days contemporary Czech design is as multi-layered and diverse as every where else. What has however remained is the prevalence of smaller craft industries, so glass, porcelain, textiles, such industries have a long tradition and for example Czech glass is booming again after a period where it wasn’t doing so well. And then there are things such as toys or jewellery which are less about a specific material but also have a very long tradition
smow Blog: And coming back to Okolo, where do you plan the future? More books, more exhibitions……..?
Adam Štěch: Currently our primary focus is the curation of the 28th International Biennale of Graphic Design in Brno, which opens in May next year, and which is not only a huge project, but is also the first time we have developed an exhibition on graphic design. We use graphic design all the time, but generally to present product design, and so that is the first challenge. In addition it is not just an exhibition but a large scale event with a conference, a few smaller exhibitions and so that is currently Okolo’s primary focus.
smow Blog: And for you personally, where do you see your work going…….?
Adam Štěch: My interest is increasingly moving towards modernist architecture, for all in exploring and documenting relatively unknown regional architects, I was for example in Australia in July visiting Modernist works and am planning trips Morocco and South America, and it would be good to realise a project in that context. At London Design Festival, for example, we had an exhibition at the Brompton Design district called Objects of Refinement featuring custom made interior elements found in modernist buildings and interiors, I like architecture when it meets design, so for example private houses where the architect was also involved with developing the interior and that is definitely my focus at the moment.
smow Blog: But not that you’re going to go Art-Architecture-Design-Architecture-Art…
Adam Štěch: No, no, I’m very much at home with design and architecture, this is my passion and what I want to share.
Full details on Okolo can be found at http://okoloweb.cz/