Jan Vaněk and Jindřich Halabala: Two figures who improved the quality of housing in Czechoslovakia

For mankind, housing began as a mere need to take shelter from the rain and cold, but over the millennia it became an important indicator of cultural and social status – both for individuals and for society as a whole. During the twentieth century in what is now the Czech Republic, several designers succeeded in raising the overall standard of housing, both by creating high-quality mass-produced furniture and by leading their industrial enterprises in a modern direction. Among the influential personalities we have to thank for high-quality home furnishings in this country are the famous Jindřich Halabala and the lesser-known Jan Vaněk.

Halabala and Vaněk in every kitchen

Jan Vaněk and Jindřich Halabala both contributed to a change in the general consumer mindset in Czechoslovakia, leading standardised furniture production to surpass that of custom-made furniture and become the type most desired by consumers. Both were also instrumental in Czechs and Slovaks even being able to afford such furniture, as their core mission was quality at an affordable price.

Moreover, their names are both tied to the history of the furniture manufacturer UP Závody, which was in fact founded by Vaněk. It was there that the two men first met – in 1922, during Halabala’s apprenticeship – although they never engaged in any significant collaboration. And when Halabala returned to UP Závody in 1928 to head its Prague shop, Vaněk had already left the company three years earlier.

 

Jan Vaněk – Jaroslav Grunt, bedroom at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in Paris in 1925Jan Vaněk – Jaroslav Grunt, bedroom at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in Paris in 1925, realised by the company Spojené Uměleckoprůmyslové Závody, Brno

Jan Vaněk, founder of UP Závody

Jan Valerián Vaněk (1891–1962) was born in Třebíč into a family that owned a prosperous joinery workshop. He graduated from the industrial school for woodworking in Chrudim and then worked in furniture workshops in Munich, Stuttgart, and Heilbronn. During this period he met a number of important representatives of European modern architecture, which had a decided influence on his future work. In 1911 he took over his father’s workshop in Třebíč and renamed it Uměleckoprůmyslové Dílny (The Decorative Arts Workshops). It was the first furniture factory in the country.

Jan VaněkJan Vaněk

Collaboration with renowned architects

Vaněk entered into cooperation with a number of leading Czech and foreign architects such as Bruno Paul, Jan Kotěra, Rudolf Stockar, Karl Bertschem, Adalbert Niemeyer, and J. M. Olbrich, who designed individual commissions and furniture for mass-production. Because the company was growing, in 1919–1921 Vaněk had a new operational complex built based on a design by Josef Gočár. In addition to the factory, the complex contained offices, exhibition spaces, and the owner’s flat. 

Josef Gočár’s design for the factory of Uměleckoprůmyslové Dílny, Třebíč, 1919–1920
Josef Gočár’s design for the factory of Uměleckoprůmyslové Dílny, Třebíč, 1919–1920


Moving the company to Brno

In 1921, the company ran into financial instability. The solution was to merge with the Brno-based artisan furniture and construction joinery workshop of Karel Slavíček and later with other companies as well. Thus was formed Spojené Uměleckoprůmyslové Závody (The United Decorative Arts Factories), later shortened to Spojené UP Závody, headquartered in Brno. 


In Brno Jan Vaněk continued to collaborate with prominent architects and build an enterprise that provided modern yet affordable furniture for all classes in the country. He considered utility, functionality, and hygienic safety to be the essential qualities of home furnishings. The standardised furniture he envisioned was made from high-quality materials, with a large degree of variability so that it could be adapted to fit the character of the individual flat or house.


After leaving UP Závody

In 1925 Jan Vaněk was dismissed from the company’s management by the Moravian Bank. Together with architect Stanislav Kučera and chief clerk Vilém Hrdlička, he then founded Standard Bytová Společnost, which designed furniture, for example, for the Avion Hotel in Prague and Villa Tugendhat in Brno. In the 1930s Vaněk moved from Brno to Prague, where he worked on expositions, designed public buildings, and championed a modern way of living that everyone could afford.

 Jan Vaněk’s design for the research institute of the Association for Chemical and Metallurgical ProductionJan Vaněk’s design for the research institute of the Association for Chemical and Metallurgical Production, Prague, 1938

 

Jan Vaněk for ÚLUV and Krásná Jizba

The Centre for Folk Art Production (Ústředí Lidové Umělecké Výroby, or ÚLUV) was founded in 1948 through the merger of several brands, including the well-known Krásná Jizba. That same year, after the nationalisation of all large companies and the liquidation of all private workshops and entrepreneurs, ÚLUV became the only safety net for Czechoslovak craftsmen. Thanks to ÚLUV, makers of textiles, furniture, ceramics, clothing, and home furnishings found an outlet for their products in workshops all over the country.

ÚLUV also expanded the network of Krásná Jizba shops throughout Czechoslovakia. Founded in 1922 as a book publishing house, Krásná Jizba had gradually transformed into a cultural centre and showroom where exhibitions of contemporary artists were held, and after the merger with ÚLUV, it began to concentrate fully on sales. Jan Vaněk was actively involved in the activities of both enterprises, designing many pieces of furniture for them, from armchairs to modular bookcases, and for a time he also served as the director of ÚLUV.


Jindřich Halabala, the most famous Czech furniture designer


Jindřich Halabala (1903–1978) is among the most famous furniture designers from the inter-war and post-war periods, and his importance extends far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. He was born into a family of joiners, and in the years 1918–1920 he learned the family craft at home. He then studied woodworking in Valašské Meziříčí, after which he entered the School of Applied Arts in Prague, completing his studies in furniture and interior design in 1926.

Jindřich HalabalaJindřich Halabala


Jindřicha Halabala’s role at UP Závody

In 1928 Halabala became the manager of UP Závody’s Prague shop in Palace Lucerna, and a mere two years later he moved to Brno to take over as head of the company’s studio at its  headquarters. Until 1946 he held various positions there, and he played a pivotal role in UP Závody’s development. Halabala became the closest partner of chief director Vladimír Mareček. He was responsible for production, he created many furniture designs, and he was in charge of advertising. Halabala and Mareček’s common goal was to create high quality products with affordable prices and to achieve maximum efficiency in the mass production of furniture. As a result, UP Závody became a supplier of affordable furniture to the widest strata of the population. In the 1950s, UP Závody was nationalised, but the “Halabala” furniture still retained a high standard of quality and function.

The domestic culture of Czechoslovakia grew in a large part due to Halabala’s designs, which combined functionalist values with art deco style and the skill of local craftsmen. His recognizable and affordable pieces, which were produced at UP Závody in the series H and E, could be found in almost every home, and they now represent Czech design at auctions around the world.

 

The evolution and impact of UP Závody

 UP Závody Berlín

To this day, we still draw on the aesthetics and functionality of design from the interwar period. It is making a comeback in both public and private interiors, it is appreciated by professionals, and designers are replicating its techniques. While Biedermeier and art deco were still popular just after the First World War, architects and theorists were already beginning to call for change. Moreover, the housing crisis demanded solutions in the form of smaller apartments and cheaper furnishings, and so simple, functional design had an open door.

Practical, functional, comfortable, hygienic, easy-to-store, machine-made furniture became the ideal. Inspiration came from around the world, including Vienna with Adolf Loos, Germany with the Bauhaus and Werkbund, France with Le Corbusier’s architectural purism, the Netherlands with the neoplasticism of the De Stijl group, and Russia with the social ideas of collectivism.

 

UP Závody and manifestations of modern design

After Jan Vaněk took over UP Závody, in the first half of the 1920s the company produced primarily historicist furniture. However, for Vaněk, one of the most pressing issues with regards to housing was the need for an efficient, hygienic interior with functional, unadorned furnishings. He therefore advocated for the production of standardised products that would differ only in details. With UP Závody’s introduction and expansion of industrial furniture production, they irreversibly changed the shape of Czechoslovak domestic culture as well as public interiors.

The salon of Brno-based builder Stanislav Neděla’s castle in Tulešice, furnished by UP Závody, 1935The salon of Brno-based builder Stanislav Neděla’s castle in Tulešice, furnished by UP Závody, 1935


This practical format soon grew popular with the public due to its easy and understandable combinability, the possibility of making simple modifications and additions, trouble-free maintenance, and, of course, its affordable price. According to Vaněk’s predictions and wishes, there was soon a greater demand for standardised furniture than for custom-made furniture.


The beginning of mass production

After Jan Vaněk’s departure from UP Závody, Vladimír Mareček took over management, and the company gradually shifted toward the production of standardised furniture with smooth shapes. Mass production was launched in full in 1927 with an order of cabinets for the Brno University of Technology. Over time, the company also added more factories, sawmills, and forests around the country, thus becoming less dependent on suppliers and allowing them to expand their offer with parquet floors, doors, and doorframes. UP Závody was thus able to fulfil complex home furnishing orders by itself.


Jindřich Halabala and his knack for marketing

Jindřich Halabala became the head designer at UP Závody in 1930, and during his tenure he and Vladimír Mareček advanced both the form of the products and their promotion. Their advertisements presented the furniture in interiors complete with accessories such as carpets, chandeliers, eyeglasses, and nightclothes. While from today’s perspective this may seem like an entirely ordinary approach to marketing, at that time it was quite a novel idea.


Modular wardrobes and immortal seating furniture

One of UP Závody’s innovations was modular furniture. The models for their first line of furniture that could be easily combined were an escritoire with legs and a narrow cabinet on a pedestal, both designed by Jan Vaněk. They also made tables, seating, accessories, and kitchen furniture, the most successful of which was the popular line of kitchen cabinets called Universal. Some of the older furniture models such as the Modela sofa or one Morris chair – a kind of armchair with an adjustable, reclining backrest – remained in production for many years.

Furniture renovated by Nanovo

 

armchair Jan VaněkA wooden armchair designed by Jan Vaněk in the fifties

 

Table with chessboard Jan VaněkTable with chessboard Jan Vaněk 

 

footstool created by Jan Vaněk Jan Vaněk footstool

 

Wooden armchair Jan VaněkWooden armchair Jan Vaněk

 

Armchair Jan VaněkJan Vaněk armchair

 

Úluv floor lampÚLUV floor lamp

 

Newspaper rackWooden newspaper rack