Dušan Jurkovič’s Villa Diary

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I was able to go by car to the villa where Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič lived from 1907 to 1919. It was in a tranquil village near Brno, the capital of Moravia.  The architectural gem had opened in 2011. I did not know much about Jurkovič except that he was responsible for much of the stunning décor in the Coffer Room of the Nové Město nad Metují Chateau as well as the renovation of that chateau’s two-tiered garden.  While visiting the villa, it would become clear to me that Jurkovič was one of the leading architects in the Czech lands during the 19th century and that this house was his most prominent work.

This leading Slovak architect had been inspired by Austrian architects Josef Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann, both of whom, along with artist Gustav Klimt and others, co-founded the Viennese Secession or Art Nouveau movement at the end of the 19th century.  Jurkovič had especially been influenced by Olbrich’s Secession style Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, where Art Nouveau artists lived and worked. One of the Secession features on the houses included the decoration at the entrance with its gold-plated floral motifs. Olbrich’s style mixed British tendencies with central European qualities. Hoffmann’s Hohe Warte Artists’ Colony, launched in Art Nouveau style, was another influence. Jurkovič had originally intended that his villa would become part of an artists’ colony, and he even opened the villa with an exhibition of 119 artworks, many his own, in 1906.

First, I walked through the garden, bursting with color and featuring pergolas and trelliswork. The view of the house from the garden confirmed that Jurkovič had created his own unique style by meshing several styles together. The house was a mixture of English Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and traditional Moravian folk architecture. During the 19th century, the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported European folk art because it united its regions. Folk art would play a major role in architecture during that century.

ImageAs I understood it, the English Arts and Crafts movement had emphasized simplicity and had employed romantic and folk styles. The materials used were also accented. Also British architects often featured a staircase hall, which dominated Jurkovič’s main achievement. The movement reached its peak from 1860 to 1910.

Jurkovič’s villa looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. I expected princes and maidens to stick their heads out its windows. I loved the playfulness of its design as if it had popped out of a story book. It was no wonder that it had been dubbed “the Fairy Tale House.” The villa was made of stone, wood and cork with lime-coating on the exterior and plaster on the interior. It resembled a country house or cottage in England.

At the entrance gate there was a mosaic of two peacocks standing opposite each other. There used to be a mosaic showing a scene from The Shephard and the Dragon fairy tale, but it was destroyed because it had been made on a cork rather than plastered base. The mosaic that replaced it lit up at night. The entrance loggia featured the statue, “The Thinker,” by sculptor Jan Štursa, who had helped define modern Czech sculpture. It was one of the few original pieces that were now in the villa. The house had been renovated to look as it had when Jurkovič and his family had lived there from 1907 to 1919, when the architect returned to Bratislava, Slovakia, where he died in 1947.

Soon it was time for my tour, which had to be booked in advance. My tour guide and I entered the main room of the villa, the Staircase Hall. It was dazzling. I especially loved the folk elements of traditional Moravian architecture, such as the red, white and blue abstract wallpaper on one side. The folk-oriented carpet featured reds and blues, too. The wine red and forest green colors represented in the room also symbolized Moravian folk art. I thought they complemented each other well and gave the place a cozy atmosphere. I recalled that in the Coffer Room at Nové Město nad Metují, reds, greens and browns played major roles.

Ceramics and tapestries also filled the room. The tiled stove was dark green, and the doors took on the same hue. The wallpaper was not the only part of the room to have blues in it. Even the exquisite, wooden table had a stunning, blue tone.  The chandelier, though, was pure Art Nouveau and had featured light bulbs, as the villa had utilized electric lighting.

ImageThe alcove, designed for Jurkovič’s wife Božena, was light and airy in contrast to the dark central section of the room.  I admired the tapestries in the alcove. One showed a log cabin with mountains in the background. The others shared the countryside theme, depicting fields and cross stations. The room was assembled like a gallery of Jurkovič’s work. He had also designed the furniture. I realized that the villa itself was an exhibit with smaller exhibits inside.

Jurkovič’s former study rooms featured a temporary show of furniture designed during the middle of the 20th century. Artists Zdeněk Plesník and Miroslav Navrátil used materials experimentally. Their armchairs were made from bent lamellas, which were fine sheets of material positioned in the shape of gills. The armchairs could be put into several positions. They could function as chairs or as a bed, if all three were placed together. I was surprised to find out that Navrátil had created the chairs on trams. Even now, trams 1, 3 and 11 in Brno were equipped with the style of chairs that he had created. I often took tram 1 to the center, so I had actually sat on a chair that he had designed!

Other spaces that used to serve as a bedroom, children’s bedroom and bathroom were now decorated with pictures of Jurkovič’s other designs, interactive materials and furniture from his other buildings. I found out that he had also designed the interior of the Vesna boarding house in the Czech lands. The bedroom there boasted vibrant hues of greens, yellows and reds. Jurkovič also incorporated a dovetail motif. I saw a stunning wooden chair with a dovetail masterfully carved on its back.

ImageJurkovič would also design a diner and hostel in Wallachian Pustevny in triumphant folk architectural style. The diner boasted an interior with a turquoise hue illuminated by side windows. The walls were covered with pictures of Czech figures, such as the country’s patron Saint Wenceslas and the Radegast pagan mountain god.

Jurkovič’s designs for the Luhačovice spa town were harshly criticized by Brno architect Karel Hugo Kepka and the editorial board of Architektonický obzor journal, which caused his commissions there to cease after 1914. Today, though, residents of Luhačovice are very proud of Jurkovič’s work there. He also designed a house in the Bubeneč district of Prague 6, using concrete instead of wood and constructing an elevated gable.

During World War I he designed about 40 cemeteries for fallen Austrian soldiers in what was then Galicia. After the war he concentrated on war memorials, and in the late 1920s he began to experiment with the functionalist style. Jurkovič moved out of this villa in 1919, after democratic Czechoslovakia was created because he wanted to help reshape his native, reborn Slovakia. So he moved back to Bratislava, where he died in 1947.

I loved the red color with floral pattern of the wooden beams on the ceiling. It had a log cabin appeal and gave the beams a vibrant folk architecture appearance. The entire villa exuded a warmth and coziness that I had also felt at Nové Město nad Metují’s Chateau. 

I was impressed with the tour, but disappointed that only the Staircase Hall looked as it had when Jurkovič had lived there. I understood that Jurkovič had sold a lot of the furniture. The Staircase Hall had such a dynamic quality. It was so vibrant, so cheerful, yet at the same time intimate. I wished that more than a few pieces of the original furniture and ornamentation had been preserved. While the temporary exhibition and spaces documenting Jurkovič’s works were intriguing, the Staircase Hall was definitely the highlight of the tour.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader living in Prague.

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