September 1, 2012
Global Designers Tap Into Traditional Czech Glass Technique
Collaborating with global design partners, the Czech lighting-and-glass manufacturer Lasvit brings centuries of tradition and craftsmanship into the dazzling, digital present.
If you’re seeking the best place to launch a global glass-and-lighting firm, a country the size of South Carolina might not be the first one that comes to mind. But it’s ideal if that nation is the Czech Republic, says Leon Jakimič, the founder and managing director of Lasvit, a company with a growing reputation for bespoke art glass and lighting installations. “Glass has a long history in the Czech Republic,” he says. “Of course, the oldest tradition of glassmaking in Europe is in Venice, but that is blown glass, not crystal. Here, we have both blown-glass and cut-crystal traditions dating from 950 AD.” That long history doesn’t mean that Lasvit is stodgy or stuck in the past, though. “Innovation starts with tradition,” Jakimič says. “We ask new designers to look at old skills, old problems.” Though he’s fluent in the technical details, he tends to speak about glass in almost romantic terms—to rhapsodize, you might say. Blame it on his and his company’s Bohemian roots.
“Lasvit is a combination of two Czech words: laska, meaning ‘love,’ and svit, meaning ‘light.’ So a rough English translation would be ‘love light,’ ” he says, noting that one of Lasvit’s production facilities is located on the site of one of the oldest glassblowing factories in Bohemia. Then again, glassblowing factories are thick on the ground in the town of Novy Bor, where Lasvit has its headquarters, design studios, and main production facilities. The town, population 12,000, has been one of the centers of the Czech Republic’s glass production since the eighteenth century, and is smack in the middle of a region that has long been associated with the craft. A local glass museum housed in a renovated Baroque church showcases techniques and priceless specimens, and there are hundreds of small glass factories in the surrounding hills.
Until recently, this wealth of glass technique and tradition wasn’t an easy resource for global designers to tap. Under Communism, Czechoslovakian businesses were state-owned. Privatization began with the Velvet Revolution in 1989, but it was a slow process, and obstacles to international business didn’t loosen up until the mid-1990s. Lasvit was founded just five years ago, and while its rapid rise surely owes something to the rich cultural history and storied glass artisans of old Bohemia, in practical terms, it has more to do with the company’s commitment to technical innovation, its collaborations with world-class designers, and its smart and flexible business model.
The company is an intriguing blend of old–world craftsmanship, and, in Jakimič’s words, “new–world synergies.” Indeed, Lasvit works with a slew of global partners to create three products: custom architectural glass and lighting solutions, which are made in collaboration with international design firms; architectural product lines from leading designers such as Fabio Novembre and Oki Sato (of the Japanese studio Nendo); and bespoke art pieces for both private homes and public projects. “Crazy” is the word Jakimič uses to describe his company’s growth from a start-up to its current incarnation: ten locations worldwide, including a new office in São Paulo, a Manhattan showroom that’s about to open, and a manufacturing facility in China producing metal and electrical components.
More than a year of work with the designer Ross Lovegrove resulted in LiquidKristal, an extremely strong, customizable glass wall that debuted at the Milan Furniture Fair this year. It was produced using a new technology called thermoshaping, in which heated glass is poured into a digitally created mold. “A sophisticated digital model is the key source of information for creating the molding system that shapes the glass under precise temperature control in a large furnace,” Jakimič says. The result is a customizable glass barrier that distorts and reflects light like a standing wall of water. These “wave panels” are strong enough to serve as a facade.
Research and development are a priority within the company and at the affiliated Lasvit Academy, where both ancient and new techniques for making and working with glass and crystal are taught. “The academy represents a wide range of activities in the field, while finding new talent and supporting designers,” says Lasvit’s Lucie Kubičová.
“We collaborate closely with the Academy of Arts in Prague. Students get the chance to design for us and have a great opportunity to work in a professional environment with the best glass-blowers in the Czech Republic, and to meet designers like Ross Lovegrove.” Students at the academy benefit from the expertise of the well-known designers at Lasvit, while the company is able to leverage youthful creativity and innovation.
Early last year, the United Arab Emirates held a public competition to design two subway stations for its metro system. Collaborating with KCA International, Lasvit submitted a proposal and won one of the bids. “This process took a year,” notes Jakimič, and resulted in an amazing project that commuters fondly refer to as “the jellyfish”—an enormous cascade of blue glass and light in Dubai’s Khalid Bin Al Waleed Station. Officially titled Water, the jellyfish was designed by the Czech glass artisan Jitka Kamenková Skuhravá, who has worked with Lasvit on several major projects.
By almost any measure—of scale, size, complexity—Water is an impressive piece of workmanship. “There are 200 pieces of flat glass and 400 handblown drops in the installation,” says Vadim Horna, the managing director of Lasvit’s Middle East office. While Skuhravá’s forms seem to stem from nature, she says her muse is the glass itself: “I spend a lot of time in the glassworks, and that inspires me. Mainly, I try to finalize the idea in my mind as much as possible. I have to feel that my concept is unique and clear.”
After the initial concept sketches for the metro, Skuhravá worked with the Lasvit team to create a series of detailed architectural and technical drawings that showed the finished project’s precise position in the space, and detailed the dimensions, materials, and qualities of each unit of glass, metal, or wire. For a piece like Water, which has thousands of elements, every phase of the project must be approved by the client. “Every glass component needs to have perfect quality and design,” Skuhravá says.
This monomaniacal attention to detail clearly paid off. The effect of the handblown glass drops cascading from the ceiling is otherworldly—“like a fountain turned upside down,” Horna says. The two textures of blue glass have been combined with fiber optics, creating a dazzling solution to the challenges of lighting an underground space.
For large projects like the Khalid Bin Al Waleed Station, Lasvit oversees virtually every detail in the process, from the initial design sketches, to creating physical models, to preparing an extensive installation manual that catalogs the position of each crystal or glass filament, the principles of assembly for each piece, and each item’s size and color range. “We supervise everything,” Jakimič says. “That’s no small matter when there are thousands of individual elements, many of them handmade.”
While Lasvit’s recent projects seem to have an impossibly heady mix of luxury and cutting-edge technology, Jakimič is quick to recall the most basic element of his company’s success: the makers of Novy Bor. A recent visitor to the Lasvit glassblowing studios, he notes, was most impressed by the camaraderie among the workers there. “These big tattooed guys, they’re like rock stars—but they are artisans,” he says, “with generations’ worth of knowledge in their heads and their hands.”