Bořek Šípek : A relationship with objects

As a designer, his works are in the possession of kings, emperors, and politicians. As an architect, his projects are admired from Europe to Asia. But is Bořek Šípek’s genius appreciated in his homeland?

In the seventies you graduated from architecture in Germany, where you emigrated. In the eighties, your name was already well-known around the world – you proposed designs for Vitra and the Italian furniture company Driade. How do you explain a Czech succeeding amongst such fierce global competition?
Luck sometimes played a part, but there must also be something more. After I moved from Germany to the Netherlands, I concentrated more on design than architecture because it was the only thing I could finance on my own. At that time there was something very fashionable in design: the Memphis Group in Milan. All the young people were producing designs that looked like they were from Memphis, and I was probably the only one who was making something different. This is likely the reason why I excelled so suddenly.

Even now, in a time of great interest in minimalism and clear lines, you take a certain delight in exuberant shapes and ornamental decoration. You even gave a name to your style – neo-baroque. Is it your intention to be different from others or are you just doing what you like?
People say that my work is avant-garde, but although I don’t consider compartmentalizing to be important, I think that the avant-garde should influence trends, monitor what is happening and sometimes add something that pushes it all in another direction, and this is what I’m trying to do.

Where do you draw inspiration?
From everywhere. I travel around the world with open eyes, and I draw from the behavior of people, from experiences and emotions. I’m interested in how love, falling in love, and a relationship with an object comes into being. I enjoy finding out how it is possible that an object engages someone so much that it’s impossible to live without it. For example, the handle of a door can only be functional. But I can design it in such a way that when I open the door I will stop and look at what it is in my hand. And by doing this, a different kind of relationship occurs between me and the object. I’m trying to establish this kind of relationship and I enjoy searching for this.

It’s fashionable these days to have something from Šípek at home or in the office. What kind of people are buying your works?
I’m not interested. It’s impossible to clearly define the clientele. My clients are foreigners, Czechs, the rich, the poor. Sometimes I am surprised at the amount of enthusiasts who want a certain object even though it’s too expensive for them. They save their money and are more appreciative of it in the end. But of course – and I’m not too pleased about this – there are snobs who buy my artwork just because they should. I only appreciate it the moment I glance at my bank account (laughs).

Why do you create art then?
For culture. In philosophy, we learned that luxuries are what differentiates human beings from other animals. But I don’t perceive of luxury as some false symbol, for me luxury means that we go to the opera, we buy nice clothes, read poetry and surround ourselves with nice things. These are luxuries, and that’s why I do it.

In 1997, you moved back to Prague and your reception wasn’t the best. The current director of the National Gallery allegedly called you a kitsch artist. How do you explain such disparate responses to your work?
It’s based on the fact that there is a lack of tolerance in the Czech Republic. This can only be acquired through experience. If I only eat sausage and cabbage, I would declare other food to be bad. Czechs were insulated for a long time and their choices were terribly limited. This, in turn, limits the ability to make up your own mind, because when you don’t have anything to base an opinion on you won’t create one. The result is intolerance towards those who come from somewhere else or do things differently. And as far as Mr. Knížák is concerned, I don’t take his comments too seriously.

You worked for former president Václav Havel over twelve years. His workroom, the entrance to the second court of the Castle, an art gallery and the little bridge in Chotkovy sady all carried your signature style. With the arrival of the new president, everything by Šípek is being removed from the Castle. Do you not find yourself caught in the middle of a dispute between the former and current president?
Certainly. It is a huge mistake by Klaus not to build his presidency on himself and to always compare himself to Havel. On the other hand, I have to say that it doesn’t bother me too much. Substantial things remain there.

In addition to being an architect-designer and glass artist you are also an entrepreneur. You are co-owner of the Arzenal gallery and restaurant, Ajeto glassworks, and also recently of Šípek Bistrot and French restaurant. What made you enter the business world?
I like to jump from one thing to another. Change is relaxing for me and I get inspiration from it. But I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur; I just do the things that I would like to see exist. Take certain delicacies, for example. In Prague there are not too many shops where I can buy what I like, so I established my own bistro. So, in fact, I am doing it for myself.

A life in numbers
1949 Born on 14 June in Prague
1974 Graduated from architecture in Hamburg
1977 Completed philosophical studies in Stuttgart
1980-1983 Was senior lecturer of architecture at Essen University, received a German award for architecture, produced designs for Vitra, and started to cooperate with an Italian furniture firm called Driade, which he has worked with ever since
1988 Awarded the French Order of the Knights of Art
1990-2002 Worked as chief architect at Prague Castle
1991 Became the co-founder and co-owner of Ajeto glassworks
1998 Opened the Arzenal gallery and restaurant in downtown Prague
2002 Solo exhibition entitled DesignNomad at Prague Castle
2004 Opened Šípek Bistrot and French restaurant; created costumes for the opera Nagano

Are you prospering?
I don’t pay too much attention to that. I haven’t gone bankrupt yet (laughs).

You are the founder of Studio Šípek and Šípek Associates. Which projects are you working on now?
Studio Šípek is devoted to design and Šípek Associates to architecture. At the present time, we are working on a design for a hotel in Bangkok containing a shopping center and some restaurants. An opera hall in Beirut is in negotiations and, in the Czech Republic, a couple of small residential construction projects are under way.

What do you think of urban development in the capital city, in the form of various commerical buildings in the suburbs of Prague?
It is catastrophic; they are sucking the life out of the city. It almost seems as if Prague is enclosed within one gigantic fortress. I don’t think this is the effect of capitalism, but rather human stupidity. It is probably a desire to attract investors here, which is understandable in a way, but no one is capable of offering them something suitable anyway. There is nothing much to do about it though, maybe protest, but it wouldn’t help. The worst thing is that those centers are always crowded, which means that people who go there probably see some sense in them. They don’t know that there could be something better in its place. Also, the state is not too interested in people possessing better judgement, or opportunities for choice. The state likes it when it can influence the masses. However, despite all my reservations about this phenomenon, I think that Prague is becoming a very interesting city, although far from ideal.

What should be done for Prague to approach that ideal?
Most importantly, it shouldn’t be like any other city, it should be its own. For example, small shops are typical in Prague. Compared to Vienna, Prague is a lot more beautiful because here everything is on a smaller scale, more intimate. This is a beautiful reality that Prague should try to maintain, not only from the point of view of architecture, but also lifestyle. And large supermarkets don’t fit in to this ideal.

What are you most proud of to date in your life, and what do you consider to be your biggest defeat?
I never evaluate the past and I don’t make any plans for the future. Everything negative that has happened to me I use in order to go on to somewhere else. So in the end I see all the bad things positively, anyway.

You like disguises. Once you came to a concert put on by your partner Leona Machálková as a gypsy. You also like to cook, and allegedly do it well. Do these “diversions” help you to relax?
I really like to put on disguises and perform. It was interesting when I came to the concert as a gypsy that they didn’t want to let me in, even though I had a ticket in my hand. It’s in these ways you can learn a lot about life from the other side. And cooking? I adore it! It is slowly becoming my second vocation. It is excellent relaxation for me.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Quiet, workaholic, melancholic.

How would you like people to remember you?
I would hope that people who are close to me would remember some pleasant times we had together. And that those who don’t know me would remember something nice I’ve created.


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