Antonín Hepnar worked up his relationship to crafting and wood already as a small child in the workroom of his father. He further refined his woodturning skills and his sense for material at the High school of industrial art in Prague - Žižkov. His final school project was - today an iconic - lamp called Toadstool (Muchomůrka in Czech) In 2010 he received an award for an extraordinary benefit to the art community for his exhibition “Retrospect of light” that he co-authored together with the artistic group OKOLO at Designblok fair.
Interview with Antonín Hepnar:
JM: So when did first designers start appearing in Czechoslovakia? Or better put, when did artists-designers become first recognized? Tapio Wirkkala wrote in his memories that in Finland, the first designers became more known and recognized in 1950s. He was part of the first generation of designers as we understand them.
AH: I have to admit that I never really liked the word designer, I never really understood it. I created artifacts that I thought of as home furnishings or lamps. I understood it as of art crafting. To this day I don’t really understand where the tipping point is - where crafting becomes design.
JM: Woodcutting has so many options for making things - such as toys, puppets, bowls, wooden jewelry, but also lamps. How did you get to lamp design?
AH: One of the indivisible parts of my school were also lamps, standing, table, wall, ceiling lamps. And even my final school project was a lamp. Somehow these lamps and fixtures just found their way to me. Communism brought with it a lack of all sorts of different items, and in home furnishing area this was mainly about lack of fixtures. I only had two hands, so I never managed to produce a huge line of table lamps, but I was lucky that the lamps I did design and that were on offer in Dílo Gallery [“Work” as in “Creation”] were an easy sell.
JM: Your home is partly furnished with items that you designed and created. Did you ever try out your creations at home before you finalized them?
AH: I would surely be a bad alumni of my school if this was the way how I did it. All designs I ever made progressed through a certain evolution. Their function was always clear, and understanding whether I chose and made the right shape and form, that couldn’t be reached by “trying it out”. This is something time only tells. I would never know while designing lamps or any artifacts into which interior the object will go. If I designed a lamp only for myself that would be a different story - I would know where the lamp will be located, what it should be shedding light on. However, these lamps were always sold in shops, and I could never tell who will the end buyer be and where and how they will place them, so there was no point trying them out at home.
JM: You had an atelier in Kaprova Street in Prague. That must have been a great atmosphere to go working so close to Old Town Square.
AH: Of course, I used to live at Národní Třída at the time, so it was very near. And I used to work with UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague) and their students would come over to me. Especially during the time of final exam projects I helped creating their objects that had wooden base. Hence UMPRUM employed me a little to help these students.
JM: How did gallery Dílo - the one where you also sold your lamps - function?
AH: The gallery was a part of Czech Foundation for Fine Arts, which held a monopoly over craft items sales. So if you wanted - like me - sell your lamps, there were different commissions at the Foundation, like interior design commission comprised of architects approving the designs.
JM: So how was it with forms and materials? For instance with lamps by Josef Hůrka who designed for Lidokov and Napako, some types of lamps had been clearly influenced by Western designers. Where did you get your inspiration from?
AH: I was clearly inspired by the lathe with its inexhaustible shape options.
JM: For instance, how did the table lamps designed and created from two hemispheres with wooden bases?
AH: From previous socialist production of some production cooperative I had plastic hemispheres. So somehow I got two huge sacks of these plastic hemispheres that I had in my attic. And the longer I walked around these sacks, the more they were calling out for me: do something from us! So I realized why not put there a slant leg and voilá, they became lamps. Just after 1989 I had this exhibition at Dílo Gallery on Můstek - it was the largest gallery of Dílo and I didn’t sell even one of these lamps, even though I had there at least 5 different variants in different colours. So I thought to myself that this design was no success. But suddenly couple of years after, these became a hit.
JM: Were you ever interested in designing industrial production in larger series?
AH: Before 1989, everything was produced by local production cooperatives. I never had a producer that would buy my design. Even when I was young, woodcutting was in recess. In entire Czechoslovakia, there was only one school in Tachov for woodcutting. Even if I created some special design for industrial production, there was no one who would know how to produce it. In addition to that, with the artistic commission of Czech Foundation for Fine Arts it was only allowed to create 5 original pieces.
JM: You also happened to work on the hotel Praha equipment, how was that experience? How did you land such an exclusive order?
AH: I started working with hotel Praha only when it was nearly finished. Architect Pavel Grus from ÚBOK visited me and asked me for cooperation on standing and table lamps for the hotel’s reading room. We created these lamps and then they also asked to create circular reliefs for large doors. These reliefs were abnormally large with a diameter of 1,2 meters, made out of walnut wood which was really hard to get at the time. I had to create them on a very large lathe at the ČKD cooperative. They were meant to look like circles created on the water by a falling stone. I guess they must have liked my work because after some time, the comrades contacted me again. Next to the reading room there was a bowling room with a thick glass wall. One of the guests who probably played bowling for the first time, managed to break the wall with the bowling ball. Comrades were scared that if they remade the glass wall, the entire story might happen again and the shards might hurt someone, so they came up to me: “Hepnar, the glass has to go. Create a wooden wall!” Just after I created it I was asked also to produce a dividing wall between kitchen and dining room. This was the last piece I created for hotel Praha.
JM: Thank you for the interview!
Photo: Dita Havránková