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Library dining room of the Sir John Soane Museum (Martin Charles / Sir John Soane Museum)

Europe's Small House Museums

Sir John Soane's Museum in London and other idiosyncratic house museums in Europe yield pleasures beyond their size

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The coterie of Czech Cubists—principally Gocar, Otto Gutfreund and Bohumil Kubista—first came together in 1911, founding a magazine called Artistic Monthly and organizing their own exhibitions in the years before World War I. It was a time of intense optimism and energy in Prague. This small Eastern European metropolis, one of the wealthiest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, drew on its vibrant Czech, German and Jewish traditions for a creative explosion. Expatriate artists were returning from Paris and Vienna to share radical new ideas in the salons; Kafka was scribbling his first nightmarish stories; Albert Einstein was lecturing in the city as a professor. "It was something like paradise," says Vlcek, looking wistful.

Today, the Museum of Czech Cubism is a shrine to the movement's heyday (1910-19), with the building itself as the prime exhibit. The entryway is an angular study in wrought iron. Inside, one immediately ascends a staircase of Cubist design. Unlike the stairs in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, the steps are thankfully even, but the metal balustrade is a complex interplay of geometric forms. There are three floors of Cubist exhibits, filled with art forms unique to Prague. Elegant sofas, dressing tables and lounge chairs all share dramatically oblique lines. There are abstract sculptures and paintings, bold, zigzagging graphics, and cockeyed vases, mirrors and fruit cups.

While this may not be strictly a house museum, it does have a domestic feel. The many black-and-white portraits of obscure artists in bowler hats and bow ties reveal a thriving, bohemian cast of characters: one sofa, we learn, was "designed for the actor Otto Boleska," another for "Professor Fr. Zaviska." What sounds like a Woody Allen parody of cultural self-absorption captures the idiosyncratic nature of Prague itself, a city that takes pride in its most arcane history. And like all small museums in touch with their origins, unique features have brought ghosts very much back to life. Visitors can now retire to the building's original Cubist eatery, the Grand Café Orient, designed by Gocar in 1912. This once-popular artists' hangout was closed in the 1920s and gutted during the Communist era, but meticulous researchers used the few surviving plans and photographs to recreate it. Now, after an eight-decade hiatus, a new generation of bohemians can settle in beneath Cubist chandeliers in Cubist chairs (not as uncomfortable as they sound) to argue politics over a pint of unpasteurized Pilsener. Finally, on the ground floor, the museum store has recreated a range of Cubist coffee cups, vases and tea sets from the original designs of architect and artist Pavel Janak, and offers reproductions of Cubist furniture by Gocar and others.

After an afternoon immersed in all those angles, I began to notice subtle Cubist traces in the architectural cornucopia of Prague's streets—in the doorway of a former labor union headquarters, for example, and on an elegant arch framing a Baroque sculpture next to a church. Inspired, I decided to track down a Cubist lamppost I had heard about, designed in 1913 by one Emil Kralicek. It took a little wrestling with Czech street names, but I finally found it in a back alley in the New Town: it looked like a stack of crystals placed on end.

I could imagine Sir John Soane—transported to modern Prague—pausing before it in unabashed admiration.

Tony Perrottet's latest book, Napoleon's Privates, a collection of eccentric stories from history, is out this month from HarperCollins.

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