Helena T. Dunn - Czech-born American interior designer


In November this year the NATO summit will take place in Prague. Although it will last only two days, the whole country - but mainly the city itself - will be preparing thoroughly for the event. The police are bracing themselves for all eventualities: anti-globalisation protesters or even terrorist attack. The area around the main venue, the Congress Centre, will be completely sealed off and traffic and public transport will be limited.

With top representatives of 46 states expected to stay in the city from the 20th to the 22nd of November, Prague's smart hotels too have to make sure everything will be ready for the exceptional and numerous guests. I'm now standing outside Prague's Renaissance Hotel where I'm about to meet Helena Dunn, a Czech-born American interior designer. She's currently redesigning some parts of the hotel for it to be able to receive all those important guests.

"I was indeed born in Prague, I went to school here and I left in 1968 and lived in Holland and in Canada. Eighteen years ago I moved to the United States. I studied 'stavebni prumyslovka', which is more like a lower architectural education - it doesn't exist in the US or in Canada - and it gives you a specialty in drafting and construction. Then I went to Toronto to study interior design. Actually, I always wanted to be an architect but the studies in Toronto would take five years and I couldn't quite take it."

Now we're sitting in the lobby of one of Prague's luxurious hotels which you are about to renovate or redecorate.

"Well, first of all I worked for the Marriott Corporation for seventeen years and one year ago I left and started my own company."

Did you choose Prague or was it by accident?

"Well, it was a very happy accident, I didn't choose it, I was very fortunate to be chosen and I'm very happy to be here, working on this hotel."

Do you keep coming back to Prague?

"I had been here very often in the last few years when I was with Marriott. We were working on the Marriott as well as this hotel in the past and I also come here to visit my family. In this hotel I was involved in conceptual design for the renovation of the guestrooms."

If it's not too personal; what made you leave Czechoslovakia in 1968? Was it political pressure or too little space to breathe?

"Well, it's both."

Maybe you can specify what materials or what kind of design you're going to use in the lobby. Is it going to be Czech material?

"We are trying to achieve a feeling in the lobby for the guests that they are really in Prague and the Czech Republic which I think is lacking in most of the hotels. Some of them are very beautiful but they could be anywhere in the world, so we are trying to bring in a lot of elements of the local culture and especially feature Bohemian glass."

Also Prague is getting ready for the November summit of NATO. You told me earlier that you were also renovating the suites in this hotel for the guests of the November summit.

"Well, first of all there are no suites in this hotel. We are creating the suites. We will have one presidential and two hospitality suites and I think it's going to be a great improvement for this hotel, even in the future, not just for the NATO conference. The suites are actually already sold and they haven't even started the construction so we are under great pressure. We designed it completely new, with the newest materials. Not all the materials are from the Czech Republic but of course, the stone, wood and other items and hopefully a lot of Bohemian glass will be but the furniture is going to come from England. We didn't have enough time to work it out locally."

Do you have any idea who will be staying in those suites?

"No, I was not told. I think that's a secret."

You are an interior designer and you have come to the Czech Republic several times after the fall of communism. What do you think about the changes, in restaurants, in public places - is it changing for the better?

"Definitely, it's changing for the better. And overall Prague is so beautiful. I was always interested in architecture and I lived here for 20 years but when I came back for the first time I couldn't even recognise the city. It got a completely new life, it's beautiful. Well I'm married and I live in Maryland, very close to Washington. I have two children and two grandchildren."

And do your children....

"...speak Czech? No, my children don't speak but I'm trying to improve on it and I speak Czech with my grandchildren. The girl's name is Madlenka and the boy is Lukas."

And are your children attracted to the Czech Republic, do they come here to look for their roots?

"Yes, they come here and refuse to leave. My son stayed here for a year."

Did your children follow in your footsteps?

"Not at all. They saw me working so hard they said they didn't want anything to do with it."

Do you think you would have achieved what you achieved if you hadn't left Czechoslovakia, if you kept living here under communism?

"I don't think so."

Did you ever regret it?

"Leaving? No, but I'm very happy to be able to come back."

What are your plans for the future?

"I started my company only one year ago so obviously, I would like to grow the company and work preferably in Europe in hotel design."

Do you think you will get back to Prague again?

"I certainly hope so."