American designer Karen Feldman merges her talent with Czech know-how to build successful crystal glass business

30-04-2015

ARTĚL Glass is a luxury crystal glass company that offers original collections handmade by Czech artisans. Established in 1998 by American designer and entrepreneur Karen Feldman, ARTĚL Glass now has three design stores in Prague and a growing number of customers around the world.

Karen Feldman, photo: Miroslav KrupičkaKaren Feldman, photo: Miroslav Krupička Company owner Karen Feldman recently visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about what brought her to Prague, what led her to establish a glass company and engage in a broad range of cultural activities.

“I originally came in 1994 and I came because another American, who was already living here, had started a start-up shampoo company and he simply needed somebody who he could trust to help him –and I qualified, not that I knew anything about shampoo. So I moved over and worked with him.”

And you stayed here?

“I stayed here for about a year. He moved me to Arizona, which was not my cup of tea, and I decided to move back independently, because I felt like there were still opportunities here. So I came back about six months later.”

And what did you do then?

“When I got back I thought I wanted to get into the glass industry, I’d studied fine art photography in college, and I wanted to do something that was creative yet business oriented and so looking around and observing it seemed that glass was the business to be in. Originally I wrote very enthusiastically to Moser asking to be a free intern so I could learn about the glass industry –which is very American –and needless to say they never got back to me. So I decided the best answer was to start my own glass company, not knowing anything about glass, but I felt that this was something that could be done and that there was this great history and all of this talent here. And so I started a glass company.”

ARTĚL?

ARTĚL.

It’s a very nice name ARTĚL …it was an association that specialized in hand-crafted art and design back in the 1920s and 1930s. Did you know about this association and take something of their original ideas?

ARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav KrupičkaARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav Krupička ‘’How I got the name was that indeed I had learned about the association. There was a magazine back then called Glass magazine I think and they had written an article about Artěl and some of the glass designers and I loved the fact that what they wanted to do was functional items of high design which was very much what I wanted to do. Originally I didn’t really realize how important the group was and I took the name thinking that it sounded European but that an American could actually pronounce it. I have never actually done anything with Artěl and with their designs – I just simply, very naively thought that it was the perfect name that represented what I wanted to do and that an American –who was originally my target audience – was going to be able to say it.”

It is a nice name and sound a little strange even to Czech ears …

“I know it does –because of the haček .”(diacritics)

Do you design the glass yourself or do you use other designers?

“I primarily do all of the designing but much more as a creative director so I come up with the ideas, the themes I want to produce, sort of the overall look and feel, then I typically work with a master engraver who interprets what I want into the techniques that we will use to produce it. Originally we only worked with engraving. Now we use lots of other techniques – we do painting, cutting, sandblasting –and so for each motif we try to decide what the best way to go about it will be. But in terms of the designing I would say I do about 99 percent of it. We have an American who designed a collection for us –David Wiseman –that’s our Glacier collection and it is done very, very well, but for the most part I do it, because we are very graphic oriented, I would say we are very non-traditional in the types of designs that we do.”

And are you successful?

“Knock on wood, I would say that we are successful, it has put a roof over my head and what I would say is that people really enjoy ARTĚL because we are different from the traditional luxury crystal. So we bring a very fresh perspective and fill a niche in the market. So, typically, our customer is certainly wealthy, the glass is expensive, they tend to be older, not a first-time crystal buyer and often they are buying it for a second house or a boat or something additional –they are not buying us as their first set of crystal, typically. But what they love is that the designs are so original and that there are so many different colors that they can chose from and that they basically can make their own set of glasses because they can build a product by choosing a shape, choosing a motif and adding a color and everything is made to order –we do not hold any stock – it really is being made for the customer which I think is a very unique experience.”

And who are your customers – is it foreigners, tourists or Czechs?

ARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav KrupičkaARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav Krupička “It is everybody. We sell in over 26 different countries around the world, we definitely have tourists who come to our stores (we have three stores in Prague) but we also have locals and Czechs who come to buy from us as well. I think our Czech market is growing. For a long time Moser was the go-to company and now people are evolving in their taste and their openness to something else and so we find more and more Czechs turning to us when they need to buy something special. But really our customers are all over the globe - they are in North America, they are in the Middle East, they are in Asia and they are in Europe.”

I visited one of your shops and very much liked the interior – did do design it yourself?

“I did not. I have worked for a long time with a team –Věra Korandová who does interior design and her husband Petr Václavek who is an architect. They as a team have designed all of our stores as well as all of our trade show booths and indeed I agree with you, I think that they bring a little something unique to each of the different properties that we have, something that is unusual, that becomes a conversation piece for people who visit.”

And where do you produce the glass –is it in Czech glass factories around the country?

“Everything is sub-contracted, we do not own a factory ourselves. We use several different manufacturing plants to produce the blank glass for us. Different factories have different talents and so we decide –based on their talents – what shapes they will do for us –everything comes to our warehouse for quality control and then we send it out for decorating whether it is to add color, whether it is engraving or sandblasting and each time it comes back to us to get controlled again, which allows us to really control the final quality that’s passed onto our customer.”

I noticed that you also organize exhibitions in your shops in Prague, what kind of exhibitions do you have and do you work with selected artists?

“Well, actually we only do exhibitions in our Plátnerská store, which is the store we opened most recently, about a year ago. And for the exhibitions I try to find local artists, not exclusively Czech, who are young and talented and give them a chance to have exposure in Prague in a gallery setting. So, basically, it is a new idea for us and what we are showing is very diverse – it can be photography and mixed media, painting and so it has been really fun, the exhibitions change every six weeks, we have had artists from all over the world, including Czechs, and hopefully it is something that we will continue to do in the future. One of the upcoming exhibitions at the end of the year, which I am going to personally carry, is a retrospective of the toy company Směr which I am a huge fan of and so I want to share with everybody in Prague this wonderful small company which is so iconic and some of their great designs. I am currently working with them to put together a collection to show, so as you can see it ranges even to toys –in terms of what we are willing to share with everyone.”

Right, now back to Prague and you very nice guide book called ….

“It is called Prague ARTĚL Style.”

It is very nice, very funny, not a typical guide to Prague I would say….

“No, it is not.”

It was first published in 2007 was it not?

“Yes, the first edition was published in 2007 and the second in 2013.”

And what led you to write it?

“Well, what happened was that I knew I was going to be opening up a retail store and so the original idea was to simply have a small add-on purchase, small Xerox of my suggestions because people were always asking me where to shop, where to eat and so on. What happened was the store got delayed and a good friend of mine, an editor in New York, who had lived here agreed to edit the book for me and encouraged me to make it into a real book and my graphic designer had designed books for MoMa so I already had this team that was very supportive of the project….they encouraged me and since I had extra time –I did it.”

I love the section about beer and pubs –do you drink beer as well?

“You know, I do not drink beer. I am a terrible, terrible American living in Prague who probably has had fewer beers than the number of years I have been here. So I had a friend who worked with me on the second book Scott Ross who did most of the research for the beer section as he is a committed beer drinker and takes it very seriously. That was a new section that we added to the second edition of the book.”

And I also liked your pictures and photographs –the retro photographs, where did you find them? They add a special feel, a special aspect to the book….

“Thank you, I appreciate that as it is very true to my heart. Lots of the images were things that I already owned in my own collection of things that I buy, but additionally I turned to the CTK press agency to research and find a lot of images as well. I love it –I think it gives a great sense of the history of the country and sets a very different tone to the book than what you would typically find in another and yet I think it shares with the visitor what they are going to find here in a certain way –or how it used to be. So I do indeed find that it adds a very charming aspect, an unusual aspect to the book.”

Yes, it is really very nice. You suggest a lot of places to go and places to eat –did you visit them all?

ARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav KrupičkaARTĚL Glass, photo: Miroslav Krupička “I visited every single place. I have not gone up in the hot air balloon personally, although I have met the owner, but beyond that I have gone to every single place, which I think is part of what makes the book successful -in that people who are reading it feel as though they are visiting Prague with me and that, whether they like my opinion or not, I am giving them a very clear opinion of what the experience is going to be like. And so I think they feel very confident about whether this is for me or it is not for me –in terms of making their decisions, such as which room to stay in –you know all of these little details add something extra that, as you said, make it a very unusual guidebook.”

And very personal, which is nice. Do you still have time to go sightseeing in Prague, do you still discover new places?

“I have to say I had a daughter about two years ago so I am kind of on a Sabbatical, I have not had so much time to investigate new places, although I have had the opportunity to investigate new places that are for a younger audience. So at this time I am contemplating doing a Prague ARTĚL Style for Kids which I think is another segment that is not really being met. Whether it will happen or not I am not sure but it is burning at the back of my brain as a possibility.”

And do you feel at home in Prague now, after 20 years?

“I think you are always a visitor. But in many ways I feel at home, this is where I live and I feel that I understand a lot about the country, but I think that, inevitably, you are always a visitor in a foreign country. So it is a weird mix. I feel like my eyes are still fresh to things that are unusual to me and yet normal to you –and that is part of what I like about living here. I think that it makes each day interesting versus monotonous.”

30-04-2015