Petr Novotný began working with glass as an apprentice at the age of 15. Today he runs one of the Czech Republic’s most celebrated glass studios from the traditional craft hot spot of Nový Bor. His career has spanned communism and capitalism.After 10 years as a master glassblower for Crystalex – Czechoslovakia’s most important export brand during the Iron Curtain years – Novotný collaborated with some of the country’s design icons such as René Roubícek and Stanislav Libenský, who were given unprecedented freedom to exhibit internationally by the regime.
As the communist restrictions eased in the 1980s, Novotný set his mind on opening his specialist workshop Ajeto for pieces handcrafted for artists and designers. “At the time when we started, a lot of the other companies took to investing in new technology but we still make glass exactly the same way as it was done 200 years ago, using blowpipes and tweezers.”
Novotný’s open-air workshop can seem relaxed: each team of four glassmakers approaches every new commission differently, often making their own tools and moulds to suit the style of the piece. The craftsmen glow in the reflected light from the furnaces that can reach temperatures of up to 1,315c.
The apparent informality – a constant stream of banter amid occasional swigs of beer – belies the hard work. If executed perfectly, the glass becomes an example of what Novotný calls “living glass” – capturing a moment in time and giving a sensation of fluid movement.
In today’s world of glassmaking, the specialised skills are often in the hands of large corporations. Novotný, however, is part of a small international community of glassmakers who preserve the skills associated with heritage traditions and use them to make glass for contemporary designers and architects. “I’m not a glass artist – I am a craftsman. Making glass for artists and designers has been my career from the beginning. We’re not just interested in traditional Czech glass, we’re a place where people come to make the more complicated pieces.”
This sense of integrity is an important part of Novotný’s success as an entrepreneur. The handmade approach means Ajeto cannot compete on price, but the skills are invaluable for designers who come to make prototypes or small-scale commissions.
Among Novotný’s signature commissions is the restoration of the lighting in Prague Castle, the seat of government. The playful sculptures and modernist fixtures that decorate the palace were all blown at Ajeto. Today, most of the work is done for clients from abroad – the US, Italy and the Netherlands being the largest markets. The work ranges from sculpture for American artist Dale Chihuly to commissions for homeware brands such as Driade and Maletti.
A large part of the workforce comes from the region but Ajeto also draws in glassworkers from all over the world who come here to train. The glassmakers have free shifts on the weekend to work on their own designs and can exhibit it in the company’s small gallery nearby.
Passion is as important as age and experience. “You can’t just look at someone’s age and say they’re a glass master. In fact, it’s often better to look out for the young people, when they’re 23, 24. They won’t be anything like a glass master at that point but it’s my job to see potential. To recognise talent and push it forward,” says Novotný.
Ajeto is reaffirming the future of glassmaking in the Czech Republic and Novotný says the focus on quality and craftsmanship is the way ahead for the industry. “You can buy a machine that makes glass but we are lucky because we have young people who think like designers and who want to make beautiful glass. This specialised work is what’s important – it is our future.”
Melting the glass
The glass is melted during the night in a specialised furnace that reaches temperatures of up to 1,315C.
To sustain the elevated temperatures of glassmaking the wooden moulds must have a high degree of moisture.
Blowing the glass
The glassworkers work with the glass in a constant process of heating and re-heating. This requires perfect timing.
Annealing the glass
Cooling the glass is the final step before quality control and delivery. It must be done with care to avoid imperfections.
The history of Czech glass
Manufacturing of glass in Bohemia took off in the 16th century when the nobility freed glassmakers from feudal obligations and allowed them to use the abundant minerals, sand and timber in the area. This Bohemian style of glassmaking incorporated influences from Bavaria, Saxony, Tyrol and Austria and can be seen in Prague’s stunning Baroque architecture and ornamentation. The transition to Communism after the Second World War led to extensive changes. As the area became more ethnically homogenous, the regime encouraged artists and glassblowers to use glass for sculpture and installation.
Petr Novotný’s CV
1952 Born 9 February
1967-1969 Glassmaking apprenticeship at the Apprentice School Nový Bor 1969-1972 Secondary Glass Art and Craft School, Nový Bor
1972-1980 Employed in the Crystalex glassworks Nový Bor
1983 Acquired the title “Art Craft Master”
1980-1990 Pedagogue at the Glass Apprentice School Nový Bor
1981, 84, 87, 90 Participation in the International Glass Symposia Nový Bor
1991 Founds Ajeto
2003 Founding of his own art glass school in Nový Bor
A glass act
The Glass Factory
The Swedish district of Småland had more than 100 glassworks but today only the larger brands remain. The Glass Factory opened less than a year ago in the heartland of the region and gives independent designers the chance to work with glassblower Christopher Ramsey. The workshop is owned by the Stockholm Design Group and supported by the local municipality, Emmaboda.
The Royal Factory of Crystal
Having lain dormant for decades, this traditional supplier of glass to the Spanish aristocracy re-opened 20 years ago. The artisans here have made both the contemporary light sculptures at the Reina Sofía museum and modern Spanish glassware in collaboration with designer Tomas Kral.
Ezra Glass Studio
In the Japanese countryside lies a small workshop in the forest run by Hiroshi Yamano, an accomplished artist and a well-known glass teacher in Osaka. The glassworks opens its doors to emerging artists wanting to engage with the local community and show their working methods.