Three glass knots
The tricentennial of world's oldest functioning glassworks
Posted: July 4, 2012
These pieces show the colorful possibilities of glass.
On the western reaches of the Krkonoše Mountains in the north Bohemian town of Harrachov is the oldest functioning glassworks in the world - and the only one with its own microbrewery to slake the thirst of the artisans working under sauna-like conditions.
To mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of this glassworks, which also boasts the world's oldest operational glass-cutting room, with original equipment powered by a water turbine, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague is displaying hundreds of glass objects that emerged from the Harrachov furnaces from the Baroque period to the present. The exhibition's title, "From the New World to the Whole World," refers to the historical name of the settlement: Neuwelt in German, Nový svět in Czech. (The town's current name dates from the 18th century, named for the counts of Harrach who owned the dominion.)
The glassworks was established on this site during the rule of Austrian Emperor Charles VI. It outlasted the Habsburg monarchy and survived the upheavals of two world wars and two totalitarian regimes with only short disruptions. Four years after the revolution, the glassworks was privatized in a direct sale to businessman and glassmaker František Novosad, and he has refashioned it into an enterprise that remains loyal to its centuries-old tradition while evolving to meet today's economic challenges.
With the Czech glass industry in a long slump, its traditional handmade products under constant threat from cheap machine-made glass from Asia, Novosad has found new export markets and focused on tourism, and added to the premises a restaurant that offers its own beer and from which visitors can watch the craftsmen at work; more recently he added a hotel and a beer spa where people can literally soak in the locally made brew. Next to the glassworks is a glass shop and a museum with some 5,000 exhibits that cover the entire history of glassmaking in Harrachov.
at Museum of Decorative Arts (UMPRUM) Ends Sept. 16. Ulice 17. listopadu 2, Prague 1-Old Town. Open Tues.10 a.m.-8 p.m. (free entry after 5 p.m.) and Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
On the site of what is now called the Novosad and Son Glassworks, a glass factory was operating by 1712. In 1764, it was purchased by the count of Harrach and passed down to subsequent generations of Harrach counts until its sale was forced in 1943. It came under state control in 1945, when Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš nationalized German-owned businesses and expelled Germans from the Czech lands (some of the skilled German specialists were allowed to stay on and train new glassmakers).
In the early days of the glassworks, it was known mostly for decorative tableware of chalk and colored glass that was then further refined with cutting, engraving, gilding and painting before making its way to the wealthy tables of Europe.
By the 19th century, further decorative techniques were developed, such as the layering of colorless and opal or colored glass, partial matting and threading with colored glass. The first half of the 19th century represents the glassworks' apex of achievement, both technically and artistically. It developed glass imitating precious and semiprecious stones, including ruby and topaz, along with a popular rose-colored glass. The period was also distinguished by the decorative glass-cutting techniques, especially the brilliant cut, which appeared in numerous variations.
With the rising popularity in the middle of the 19th century of English glass, which itself was often inspired by the art of Greek and Roman antiquity, the glassworks in Harrachov conformed to that style. Toward the end of the 19th century, when a fascination with the decorative arts of the Far East swept across Europe, it moved its production in that direction.
At the turn of the century, the art glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany from America and Émile Gallé from France became highly influential, and the Art Nouveau style brought to Harrachov glass an abundance of floral motifs and undulating shapes along with technical innovations in acid-etched glass.
Whimsy was introduced into the repertoire by the glassworks' longtime glass designer Rudolf Schwedler, exemplified, for instance, by his topaz giraffe-shaped carafe from 1934 and a set of stemmed beverage glasses inspired by human body shapes from 1955. Today, the glassworks continues to seek out unique designs by cooperating with renowned Czech designers such as Rony Plesl and the Olgoj Chorchoj Studio.
With more than 500 pieces on display, this exhibition is as comprehensive as one is ever likely to see apart from Harrachov's own museum. About 200 of the pieces are from the Museum of Decorative Art's collection and the rest from Harrachov and other Czech collections. What is particularly noteworthy about this show is the years of intense scholarship that went into its organization. This research has resulted not only in this exhibition but also in a hefty scholarly tome. The Czech version of the book was issued in connection with the exhibition opening, and the English version is due out in the coming months.
Research presented big challenges because nearly all of the glassworks' historical documents were destroyed in three major fires, in 1827, 1862 and 1946. One exceptional survivor is a sample book from the early 1780s, which is on view in the display cases upstairs (it was stored in a library in Vienna).
The glassworks in Harrachov has responded lithely to the changing fashions in decorative glass over the centuries while continually inventing and refining techniques. It has incorporated influences from all over the world and in turn has sent them back out into the world - as Bohemian glass.
In the 21st century, it has managed to continue its production of hand-blown and hand-cut glass mainly through finding new export markets and diversifying into tourism, marrying its three-century tradition with commerce, culture, recreation and beer.
"It is our responsibility to ensure that it last for further generations," Novosad says.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at
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