Communist-era woodturning from a master Czech craftsman
by Adam Štěch
American artists like J. B. Blunk, Wendell Castle and Jack Rogers Hopkins are established heavyweights in the world of design and certainly represent the "haute couture" style of woodworking, but Czech master craftsman and turner Antonín Hepnar continues to work in relative anonymity behind the former Iron Curtain from his studio in the small village of Čakovičky near Prague.
Working in the art of woodturning since the 1950s, Hepnar is a unique creative mind in a local design scene traditionally associated with glass and porcelain. According to the artist and designer, wood is the most important material in our lives. "Man is born into the wooden cradle, sits on the wooden chair his whole life, and dies into the wooden coffin," says Hepnar.
Thanks to his philosophy and love for wood, Hepnar has created various turned objects throughout his career. His vases, bowls, candlesticks and lamps, as well as large sculptural objects or realizations for architecture and interiors have been produced exclusively on the spinning axis of the lathe, a primitive and genial machine with seemingly never-ending possibilities.
Hepnar was a very productive artist during the former Communist era through the '60s, '70s and '80s, making functional and decorative home accessories for the only Czech design gallery at the time—Dílo. Inspired by Baroque, modernism and folk art, his objects represented traditional craft with a modern edge. He sold well—and very quickly—due to the lack of quality aesthetic objects available at the time.
After a series of exhibitions devoted to Hepnar in Prague, his work has become well-known and now, the master craftsman is at work once again. Next to his own re-issued editions of popular products, such as his lovely 1950s Amanita lamp, or the striking abstract owl decorative sculpture from 1983, he continues to discover new possibilities in the world of woodmaking. His latest "Bosáž" series of bowls made of very thin turned wood and deformed by steam is a handcrafted gem.
Antonín Hepnar sells his work in the Prague-based DOX by Qubus concept store.
Images courtesy of Jaroslav Moravec, Matěj Činčera, Antonín Hepnar archive and the Phillips de Pury Archive.