Tucked into a narrow passage off of Prague's Old Town Square is Modernista. Not just an interior design store, it's a monument to a few glorious years in the art history of the Czech Republic. Here, lining the walls of this brightly-lit shop, are vases, tea cups and decorative boxes - all with a surface of earthenware facets. They sit beneath a brass tone chandelier, nearly identical to the 1913 original, with four lightning-bolt-shaped arms. Turn on the switch and electricity seems to rush through each bolt, lighting a shower of droplets. A chair sits next to the shelves of pottery, its legs bent inward at angled joints and its back formed from truncated walnut planes. It's a fitting seat from which to admire the works of a native movement that took Cubism, a genre of fine art, and made it an applied art too.
"There's nothing else like this," says Janek Jaros, Modernista's founder. "It hasn't been done anywhere else." A drummer in his earlier life, Jaros made the move to interior design with the shop's opening in 2001. At that point it was mainly Art Deco furniture for sale. "But then I met some people from the Museum of Decorative Arts," he recalls, "and things fell together." He was granted access to the museum's collection of cubist originals, and knew he had found what he was looking for. One item in particular, Pavel Janák's crystalline box from 1911, convinced Jaros to dedicate his shop to the movement. "In one piece, it's all there," he says of the nine-centimetre-tall container. Covered in 3-D pyramids of glazed white earthenware, its angularity is further emphasised by fine black border lines. "The theories of looking at matter from various angles at the same time, capturing matter in movement - they had all kinds of crazy theories," Jaros says. "And the true merit is the uniqueness of the result."
To reproduce those results, he had to go to considerable trouble. Each design is copyrighted for 70 years after the death of its creator, and, as the movement's three leading applied artists - Janák, Josef Gocár and Vlastislav Hofman - died as late as 1964, a lengthy wait seemed to be in store. Modernista's founder had other ideas. He contacted the Gocár and Hofman families and obtained special permission to produce copies. No descendant of Janák could be found, so the museum's official consent would have to do. Then came careful sketching and co-ordination with a ceramics factory in Brno, which agreed to produce each piece by hand and employ only the original materials. Finally, Janák's iconic box was reborn.
Art experts are not sure why Cubism made a medium jump in the Czech Republic. Neither is Jaros. But he leaves room for some innate Czech inspiration, and in that vein, devotes some shelves in his shop to current Czech designers. A number of original pieces of furniture, dating from the 1930s onward, are also for sale on the Modernista website, and the company has completed a number of interior design commissions in Prague. It is, however, the Modernista shop's selection of cubist pieces that sets it apart. Made in extremely limited quantity, they are priced to match: a cup and saucer fetches 1,990 crowns (Dh398), Janák's crystalline box - 4,950 crowns, and a magnificent, boldly angled display cabinet made of ash - 100,000 crowns. In a time of economic trouble, Jaros admits, business is not at the level he would hope it to be. His small shop will stay small. But when it comes to Czech Cubist decorative art, that is perhaps how it should be. The pieces remain today as they were then, during the period of less than ten years when they were produced: somewhat obscure, visually dynamic, and stylistically singular.