ritratto eva jiricna designer

Design Icons – Eva Jiřičná

by Evi Mibelli

“The architect’s job is not to create beautiful architecture, but spaces where people can live well and in harmony.”

Her name is a flag bearer of the status of successful women in the world of contemporary architecture. A career that took its first steps in her beloved Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) when, due to a series of circumstances, she found herself outside its borders, only to return 22 years later. Eva Jiřičná, born in 1939, comes from Moravia, Zlín, on March 3rd.

Congress Center, Zlín, Czech Rep. Photo/ Richard Davies.
zlin congress center

For those who may not know, Zlín was the town that gave birth to who we might call the Adriano Olivetti of Central Europe: Tomáš Baťa, the footwear entrepreneur who turned it into an avant-garde industrial city at the end of World War I. He applied the principles of Taylorism and developed a production model that combined profit with principles of social solidarity.

Houses, schools, hospitals, and public services for his employees were born, and this legacy would find new life thanks to the project by Eva Jiřičná who, in 2008, took on the task of creating a university and cultural complex, among the most prestigious built in recent years internationally.

To the left, the interior of the Congress Center hall in Zlín, Czech Rep. Photo Richard Davies; to the right, detail of the facade of the Congress Center in Zlín, Czech Rep. Photo Richard Davies.
interior and facade of the zlin congress center

Her father, an architect, moved to Prague with the family when Eva was just 4 years old. As she herself recounts: “My training was of a technical nature. I loved chemistry and intended to study chemistry at university. But I had a furious argument with the teacher just before the final exams, so I took the exam in Physics instead.

I passed with flying colors but had no idea what to do next. On the suggestion of a schoolmate, I thought of enrolling in architecture. The idea was not particularly well-received by my family, mainly because my father told me it was a world dominated by men. I enrolled out of spite. And it was unconditional love.”

On the left, Tomas Bat’a University Center in Zlìn, Czech Republic. Photo Ivan Nemec; on the right, entrance hall of the Tomas Bat’a University Library in Zlìn, Czech Republic. Photo Ivan Nemec.
tomas bat university center and library atrium

She earned a degree in Architecture at the Higher Technical School of the Czech Technical University in Prague and later specialized at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, working under the protective wing of Jaroslav Fragner, a functionalist school architect. In 1963, she started working as an architect at the State Property Administration UBOK. Essentially, in the world of prefabricated buildings typical of real socialism.

On the left, outside Hotel Josef, in Prague. Photo Ivan Nemec; room detail Hotel Josef. Photo Ivan Nemec.
hotel josef prague

Meanwhile, the European climate is full of ferment, new ideas, cultural passion. These are the years when Prague breathes socialism with a human face. It is in this context that Eva Jiřičná is offered the opportunity to do a one-year internship in London at the Greater London Council. She obtains the visa and permission to leave the country and on July 31, 1968, flies to Great Britain. Only three weeks later, on August 21, 1968, the Warsaw Pact troops invade the country. It is the end of the Prague Spring.

I found myself in London, far from home, receiving communication from the Embassy that I was persona non grata, with my visa canceled and my passport expired. Essentially, they invited me not to return to my homeland. At first, I thought it was a joke, but for 22 years, until 1989, I could not return. With me, my brother who was in London, in one of the classic cultural exchanges between students. For me, it meant drawing a line under the past and starting from scratch. I rolled up my sleeves and dedicated myself 7 days a week to work, to architecture, to creating a future for myself.”

Steel and glass staircase, Hotel Josef, Prague. Photo Ivan Nemec.
hotel josef prague spiral staircase

steel and glass spiral staircase detail hotel josef prague

In London, Eva, a young and brilliant architect, found herself frequenting the coolest artistic and design scene. She met, within a few months, Richard Rogers, Jane Drew, and James Stirling becoming their friend and colleague. She socialized with artists like David Shalev, Eldred Evans, Paul Riley, Pentagram co-founder Phil Crosby, and Archigram co-founder Peter Cook.

After working for the Greater London Council, Eva Jiřičná finds work as an associate architect at the Louis de Soissons Partnership and dedicates herself for 8 years to the Brighton Marina Project, a marina project of enormous proportions both in construction and urban planning.”It was a crazy experience. I found myself managing a construction team made up only of men. I never understood how I managed it.”

From there, her career took off. She meets Joseph Ettedgui, a fashion and luxury entrepreneur for whom she designs his apartment and later, the chain of Joseph stores. And it is thanks to the realization of the first store that the doors opened to another of Eva Jiřičná’s most known works, namely the design of the interiors of the Lloyds Building by Richard Rogers (1984).

Restoration and reconstruction of the Gothic Church of St. Anne, Old Town, Prague.
restoration of Gothic church of S Anna in Prague

London becomes her home and in 1976 she officially becomes a British citizen. She designs for Harrods (1985, 2006), the jewelry area for the Victoria & Albert Museum (2008), the shop for the Royal Academy of Arts (2001), she realizes the bus terminal for Canada Water Station (1999), the interiors of the nightclubs Brown’s and Legends (1987-1991), the stairs for Somerset House in London (2014). In 1985, she opens her London-based studio, Jiřičná Architects, together with Kathy Kerr, working on architecture, interior design, and furniture design projects.

In 1989, following the “Velvet Revolution” with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eva returns to her home country and opens a second office with Czech colleague Petr Vagner: AI-Design Studio, in the capital. She wins prestigious contracts such as the new Orangery at Prague Castle (1998), the aforementioned Cultural and Congress Center in Zlìn (2008-2011), the modern design boutique hotel Josef (2015), the restoration of the Church in the medieval convent complex of S. Anna (2004), in the Old Town of Prague, the reconstruction of the Věžák Tower in Ostrava (2023), the residential center in Žižkov-Prague (2021), and numerous private houses and villas.

A distinctive feature of her architectural language is the interiors characterized by simplicity and minimalism, where details and her extraordinary steel and glass stairs stand out, for which she is often cited as one of the foremost experts. Authentic sculptural pieces where the steps are transparent, and everything seems to float in the air. It was this element of her work that caught the attention of Steve Jobs, who was working on the idea of launching Apple flagship stores in the USA.

When he started working on the concept of Apple stores, Steve Jobs called me to San Francisco. He wanted a glass staircase, and I was one of the few people who could, according to him, design what he had in mind. Abbiamo lavorato insieme diversi mesi. It was a complicated experience, to be honest. At a certain point, I declined.”

Left: Internal staircase showroom Joan&David, London. Photo AI DESIGN; Right: Staircase inside Somerset House, London. Photo AI DESIGN.
eva jiricna spiral stairs

Eva’s style is one where technology and innovation marry with a search for detail, where light, transparency, and lightness are always protagonists. Spaces that exude elegant sobriety and an attention to living beautifully, to the sense of openness.. Her return to her homeland as a professional represented an important redemption for Czech architecture, which for decades had suffered from dramatic impoverishment of skills and research.

When I returned to Prague, I found myself having to teach the workers how to work again. Every technical aspect was a problem. At the beginning, with the first commissions, I brought the work teams from London. With mentoring and my willingness to bring my people back to knowing how to do things as it was in their most prestigious tradition, I believe I made my important contribution to the rebirth of this country and to bringing back enthusiasm for beauty. Also because the role of the people who bring your projects to life is something that is not so obvious. These are the people who confront what we architects put on paper, which is often difficult to achieve. Often they do it in terrible conditions: rain, mud, wind, cold. It’s hard physical work. They show understanding when it’s most needed, and if you listen, they’ll teach you a lot.”

In 1991, she was appointed Royal Designer for Industry by the British Royal Society of Arts (RSA). She was appointed CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours in 1994 for services to interior design and was elected Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. She received the prestigious Jane Drew Prize in 2013 for the leading role of women in contemporary Architecture. At 85, she is still active, remaining true to her motto: “There is no perfection because the best project is always the next one.”

Private apartment, Prague, 1999. Photo AI Design.
private apartment eva jiricna

Private apartment Eva Jiricna, 1999, Prague.

Cover photo ©Tomáš Třeštík- courtesy asb-portal.cz

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