Americans in Prague

A second wave of expatriates is now playing a vital role in the renaissance of the Czech capital

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Much of it was concentrated in Prague's thriving Jewish community, which reached 55,000 inhabitants, or one-fifth of the city's population, on the eve of World War II. Though Jews lived throughout Prague, the community remained especially identified with the original Jewish neighborhood of Josefov, just north of Stare Mesto, or Old Town, a district that dates to the 12th century. Two-thirds of Prague's Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. Currently, only an estimated 5,000 Jews remain in Prague. By 1900, Prague's aristocracy had begun to move into the Josefov area. Today, its Art Nouveau apartment buildings—with their curvilinear facades and painted statues of mythological figures—recall the affluence of the early 20th century.

Feldman finds sources for her glass designs in unexpected nooks and crannies of early 1900s Prague. "Inspiration can come from anything—old postcards, fabrics, children's books and toys from decades ago," she says. Aided by her new guidebook—Prague: Artel Style—visitors can explore some of the venues that most fire her imagination. In Mala Strana, the district at the foot of Prague Castle, a tiny shop, Antiques Ahasver, sells early 20th-century linens, folk costumes and jewelry. For porcelain place settings and figurines, there is Dum Porcelanu, in Vinohrady, a trendy eastern neighborhood named for the vineyards that once grew there. Prague's best hat shop—Druzstvo Model Praha—is on Wenceslas Square, site of the largest political demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution.

Most intriguing of all is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the House of the Black Madonna in Stare Mesto. Though Cubism originated in Paris in the early 1900s, nowhere was the movement more passionately embraced than in Prague—in art, architecture and interior design. The museum itself, considered a masterpiece of Czech Cubist architecture and completed in 1912 by Josef Gocar, specializes in paintings, sculptures, furniture and ceramics of the 1920s and '30s.

Feldman, who is from Scarsdale, New York, moved here in 1994 as a representative for an American shampoo company. But she soon quit. A collector of glass since her student days at Bard College in upstate New York, Feldman became enthralled with fine Czech objects from the pre-war period. Glass artisanship remained at a high level even under the Communists because—unlike literature, painting or sculpture—it was considered ideologically innocuous. "The talent survived, but glassmakers lost a sense of how to reinterpret designs to make them fresh and appealing to markets abroad," says Feldman.

The glass artisans did not readily accept her earliest design suggestions, which included fruit bowls and flower vases whimsically decorated with bubble patterns—bublinka, or Czechified bubbles, as Feldman calls them. Older artisans were even more dubious about her shellfish and sardine motifs. But her designs became bestsellers abroad. At first, Feldman worked out of her apartment in Vinohrady—with the nearest phone three blocks away. But the Czech Republic offered advantages unavailable in Western Europe or the United States. "Here, I could go to a factory or workshop and ask them to make just one sample of a glass object for a hundred dollars or so," says Feldman. "Back in the States, that would have cost me thousands of dollars."

She called her new company Artel, after an early 20th-century cooperative of Czech artisans who rejected assembly lines in favor of well-designed, functional handmade objects. At her first trade show in New York, in 1998, Feldman came away with just 30 orders. Today, Artel sells in 26 countries, with the United States, Great Britain and Japan as the largest markets. One client is Rolls Royce, which buys custom-made Artel glasses and whiskey decanters for the bar in its top-of-the-line Phantom sedan. She also designed a set of tumblers in collaboration with Sol Lewitt, the American minimalist, who died this past April. "The city itself had nothing to do with my moving here," Feldman says. "But in retrospect, we are a great match. I'm a very visual person, and every single day in Prague is a feast for the eyes."

And ears. Despite a population of only 1.2 million, Prague supports three major venues for opera and dance, the Prague State Opera, the National Theater and the Estates Theater, and two major concert halls. There are a dozen or so chamber music performances in Renaissance and Baroque churches every day. Several nights a week, audiences sit on the carpeted, marble stairway of the National Museum and listen to a string quartet.

Mozart loved Prague. In Vienna and other European capitals, his operas were performed for royal and aristocratic audiences. But here, the audiences were mainly merchants, tradesmen, shopkeepers and artisans who reveled in the humorous gibes that Mozart aimed at the nobility in works like Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Either or both are likely to be scheduled every week at the Estates Theater, where Mozart himself conducted the 1787 première of Don Giovanni.

But not all of Prague's music is classical. In the 1920s and '30s, the city was the capital of jazz in Central and Eastern Europe. Even in the Communist era, Prague's rock groups exerted a stronger emotional hold on their fans than bands elsewhere in the region. During the harsh repression that followed the Prague Spring of 1968—the brief reform movement headed by Communist party leader Alexander Dubcek whose slogan was "Socialism with a human face"—a band called Plastic People of the Universe became a favorite of dissidents. It was the arrest of its members in 1976 that helped spark the movement that culminated more than a dozen years later in the Velvet Revolution.

Today, Prague is once again a capital of popular music, and at its vortex is an American, Tonya Graves, and her band, Monkey Business. Graves, 37, was born in Peekskill, a New York City suburb. Her father is a Baptist minister and her mother a nurse. In college, she sang some blues and hits by the Grateful Dead. Strictly amateur hour. Her presence in Prague is accidental. Literally. Injured from walking through a restaurant's glass door in New York, she was awarded enough compensation to afford a long vacation in Europe.

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