Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s

I love old junk. No, I'm not a hoarder (although I get a perverse kick out of stepping inside the homes of people who are), but I have an unhealthy obsession with furniture, musical instruments, clothing, and random household objects from the 1950s and 60s. The cool, retro-modern designs, the atomic patterns, the abstract and oblong shapes, and the sleek lines and pastel shades were incredibly forward-thinking for their time and just oozed so much character, and look infinitely more inspiring than many of the various cheap and bland designs that have come to define the ensuing decades. That's why I always loved going into the numerous thrift stores, junk shops, antique shops, garage sales and flea markets back in the US to rummage through and gawk at this kind of crap. Those who know me well are familiar with the collection of vintage 50s and 60s furniture that I'd amassed in our apartment back home, in my attempt to give our place the vibe of a mid-60s cocktail party where everyone is wearing skinny ties or thick cat eyeliner, with an Astrud Gilberto record playing in background.

So, I was quite dismayed to discover after being in Slovakia for a while that I had yet to see a single shop that sells stuff from this particular era, much less a shop that sells anything used; nor do I ever really see it in people's homes. In fact, there seems to be a complete dearth of this kind of thing here. The Eastern Bloc churned out just as much cool looking crap as the US, but tracking any of it down today appears to require some serious archeological digging. Whereas back home you can find this stuff relatively easily in various types of shops, here in Slovakia you actually have to go to a museum to see it. That, or get to know some really old people who never threw out their pre-Prague Spring furniture sets. 

So, that's why I thought it worth mentioning this groovy exhibition currently running at the Slovak National Museum, which we visited back in May, that depicts everyday life in the 1960s in communist Czechoslovakia. The exhibition features five rooms filled with Eva Zeisel-esque tea sets and dishes, old film posters, rock instruments, camping gear, vintage scooters, and model replicas of a typical 1960s living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. I was drooling pretty much throughout the entire exhibit. Of course, for Terezia, it instantly brought back all kinds of childhood memories. 

Here's a bit of what we saw:

As a general rule, I hate tea, but these tea sets could potentially derail my lack of interest in the stuff.

A typical set of camping gear. In the post Prague Spring government clamp-down known as "normalization", it became difficult to travel abroad for vacations, so a lot of people opted for camping instead. This is a typical camping set up that people would bring along to car-camping campgrounds. 
A cigarette machine cool enough to almost make me want to take up smoking. 
A lovely old Jawa scooter.
I dig the Burns-ish looking guitar on the bottom right. That red hollow body bass that's two guitars over to the left of the Burns-ish thing is also quite nice. 
That orange guitar on the right has to be the shittiest looking Rickenbacker knock-off I've ever seen.  
One of the weirdest looking basses ever made. It could probably double as a paddle. 
A groovy little organ. A friend of mine remarked that it was clearly designed to be played by a woman wearing a short skirt.
I love the alternating yellow and white cupboard doors.
I would readily exchange our modern kitchen for this. 

Unfortunately, very little progress has been made with Slovak bathrooms
Notice the cool, wall-mounted ray-gun style hair dryer. If I had one of these I would stand around on a street corner all day and pretend to zap people with it.  
Have you ever seen such an awesome assortment of overhead light covers in one place? I would kill to have one of these, and I don't even like overhead light!

But that's not all. Last year, the Slovak National Gallery had a room that they'd done up to resemble a communist-era living room. According to an article I read, however, the curators literally had to scour the country to track down all the items, and they were even making pleas to the public for any donations so they could complete the collection. I couldn't help but think that in the US you could easily throw a room like this together after a single weekend spent combing Portland, Orgeon's myriad thrift and antique shops.

And this raises the question - why do I have to go to a museum just to see this kind of junk? Why is this stuff so elusive here? From what I can gather, it seems that a lot of people
(at least in bigger cities, like Bratislava) just threw it away the first chance they could, especially after communism ended and a hyper-capitalist tsunami of contemporary consumer goods flooded the markets. People were eager to get their hands on anything that was new, and to toss what they saw as outdated, old communist-era junk like a baggy of weed in a drug raid. 

For example, several weeks ago an elderly person in an apartment in our building died, and when this person's family came to empty the place out, there was a massive pile of nice 60s-era furniture and other knickknacks which was thrown into a dumpster by a crew of workers. And it was in pretty good condition, too (although I didn't check to see if it reeked of stale frying oil). I guarantee that if you'd put this same pile out on the sidewalk in San Francisco, most of it'd be gone within a day, and any thrift store or junk shop would've been happy to pick it up and resell it. Since our apartment here came furnished, we didn't have room for any of what we saw, but we did manage to snag this cool framed thing of a sunflower carved out of bamboo.

At any rate, during communism, it was also extremely difficult to remodel/upgrade/update one's kitchen, or any other room for that matter. But as soon as communism went out the window, many 1960s-era kitchens were worn down and, no doubt, coated with a thick film of grease from years of frying everything under the sun. So, in the last two decades lots of people remodeled their homes, and, in the process, replaced anything and everything that was old. Now many people's homes look like they were lifted straight from the Ikea showroom.

I also suspect that some people just don't want to be reminded of what was for many not a very pleasant time under the communist regime. But then I have met plenty of people who are quite nostalgic for that era, so who knows. 

You do occasionally stumble across old detritus from bygone eras. I've certainly spotted many people cruising around on old, janky bicycles that were built to last like Soviet tanks. And I have had the pleasure of entering the homes of a few older people who did have a lot of older furniture and random junk, but it was usually a bit older and/or from the 70s or 80s, and therefore less stylish than the modern looking stuff that really took off in the 50s and 60s. I've been told that I could probably find a lot of interesting stuff in the attics or cellars of homes of people in their 70s or 80s.


But in general, stuff from the 50s and 60s doesn't seem to be valued very highly here. The people visiting the museum exhibition seemed genuinely amused to see some of this junk, however. And at least the museum was able to keep a handful of items from ending up in a landfill or something. 

Click here to see the full set of photos from this exhibition!

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