Eva Jiricná: 'I had to survive and I had to do my best'

The Czech architect found herself in London and then unable to return home, thanks to the Russian occupation. Struggling to establish herself she has made her way to the top, often via her signature glass staircases, to be at the pinnacle of her profession

Words by Amanda Birch

‘I met Trump once,’ chuckles Eva Jiricná tantalisingly at the end of our interview. An architect honoured with an abundance of prestigious awards – from CBE, RA onwards – and known globally for her meticulously detailed interiors and exquisite highly engineered staircases, Jiricná is disarmingly modest and doesn’t name drop to boast.

She mentions the President of the United States only because the story is linked to one of the many Joan & David shoe stores Jiricná has designed over the years.

‘Joan & David were in their 60s when Joan asked me if I would like to design a shop for them in Trump Tower, off 5th Avenue,’ recalls Jiricná. ‘So we prepared a model and drawings and I travelled to the USA for a meeting at Donald Trump’s office. The meeting room was plastered with full size photographs of Trump shaking hands with important people such as kings and sportsmen. Trump kept us waiting for an hour and a half. Then, a secret door suddenly opened and Trump looked at us and said, “I’ve given it [the shop] to Ferragamo, off you go!”‘

Among Jiricná’s projects are two in her Czech home town of Zlin, including the University Centre (2008)Among Jiricná’s projects are two in her Czech home town of Zlin, including the University Centre (2008)

Jiricná is too discreet to pass a judgement on Trump, but she does confess to meeting his ex-wife, fellow Czech Ivana Trump twice, adding with a wave of her hand: ‘That was enough. I have no desire to meet her again!’

Stylishly elegant, Jiricná’s diminutive frame and apparent fragility are deceptive. She exudes a vigorous energy, stamina and steely determination that is inspiring. It is amazing therefore to learn that Jiricná is now 79, but unsurprising that she shows no signs of slowing down. However, she has eased off a little by passing the baton to her former associate Georgina Papathanasiou, the founder of Jiricná’s new London practice Atelier A&D [Jiricná is an honorary director]. Jiricná continues to run her Prague office AI-Design.

Retail therapy in a Joan & David shoe shop in the Trump Tower, New York CityRetail therapy in a Joan & David shoe shop in the Trump Tower, New York City

For more than 20 years Jiricná has divided her time between London and Prague, which she confesses has been difficult. Interestingly, most of the projects in her birth country have been new build, like the Orangery at Prague Castle, the uber-stylish Hotel Joseph and, in her home town of Zlin, the recent library building for Tomas Bata University and the Cultural and University Centre.

That extends to her current projects in the Czech Republic, including her glass ‘sculpture’/ cafe situated on a historic terrace housing the National Gallery in Prague and Oaks Prague, a major residential development in collaboration with architects John Pawson and Richard Meier. Jiricná has obviously relished the change from interiors to buildings. ‘For about 35 years we’ve done many shops, which were published and appreciated,’ she says. ‘But I’m always more interested in buildings.’

Another project in Jiricná’s home town, this time the Cultural Centre (2011), ZlinAnother project in Jiricná’s home town, this time the Cultural Centre (2011), Zlin

Jiricná seems unperturbed by the fact that she is often mistaken for being an interior designer rather than an architect; she is more famous for her innovations in shop design and pioneering staircases rather than for her buildings. ‘You know, I don’t give a damn,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t do things to be famous, I do things because I enjoy doing them and because it makes sense. I’ve had a good life and met lots of people I’ve worked with and worked for and from whom I’ve learned a tremendous amount.

As I’m nearly in my 80s, can I complain? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a building or whether it’s a table, it makes no difference to me.’

It’s incredible to think that Jiricná’s career could have easily taken a different path. A passion and aptitude for chemistry meant that Jiricná was determined to become a scientist.

But a mix-up in subjects meant she couldn’t study chemistry at university, only physics. In spite of a talent in this other science, her heart wasn’t in it. Then a friend suggested architecture. She says she wasn’t influenced by her architect father, although he did teach her how to draw and she treasures his advice.

Residential design, with a flat for Joseph, in Sloane Street, LondonResidential design, with a flat for Joseph, in Sloane Street, London

‘When my parents started to get worried about what I was going to do, I announced at dinner that I was thinking of trying architecture,’ recalls Jiricná. ‘My mother said: “Oh for God’s sake!” and my father said, “If you decide to study architecture, you will become an architect’s wife and you will never get anywhere”.’

Jiricná did qualify as an architect in Communist Czechoslovakia and she also become an architect’s wife. However, the marriage ended soon after Jiricná joined her husband in London in 1968 for a work placement at the Greater London Council (GLC). And as Jiricná has proved throughout her long and productive career, her father had no need to be concerned about any lack of success for her as an architect. She adds that she remains fascinated by science and still reads Nature magazine.

Soon after Jiricná’s arrival in Swinging Sixties’ London, the Soviet tanks rolled in to her home country in 1968, signalling the end of the Prague Spring and making it impossible for Jiricná to return to her homeland. The work at the GLC began to dry up, although she says that the council probably would have kept her on.

‘I needed money to live because I was supporting my brother [he also happened to be in England before starting university in Czechoslovakia and couldn’t return either], I needed to pay for my bedsit and I wanted to learn,’ says Jiricná.

After a number of interviews, Jiricná landed a job with the Louis de Soissons Partnership. She recalls her interview with the senior partner David Hodges: ‘David asked me if I knew anything about modern architecture and I said, I hoped so because this is why I came to England. He then said, that was really good because he hated it!’ Jiricná stayed with the practice until 1979.

Tiffany lamps and a technically daring glass staircase for the Tiffany Galleryat the New York Historical Society Museum & Library (2017)Tiffany lamps and a technically daring glass staircase for the Tiffany Gallery at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library (2017)

She largely worked on the ambitious Brighton Marina project, which she describes as “a tremendous learning experience” and one of the most challenging and exciting projects she’s ever been involved with. “I went from a person with zero experience to the key person in the practice who brought in other architects, now famous in their own right, such as Peter Cook, Christine Hawley and Ken Yeang,’ she says. Soon after Jiricná left de Soissons, a chance meeting with two key individuals, namely Coco, who at the time was married to fashion legend Joseph [Ettedgui], and architect Richard Rogers, led to a particularly creative period in Jiricná’s professional life.

Rogers had seen a timber staircase she had done for a Kenzo shop and invited her to handle the timber interiors at Lloyd’s of London headquarters. Meanwhile Jiricná had met Coco at an event and when Joseph’s wife learned that Jiricná was an architect asked if she would do some modest alterations to their home. ‘I did the work, but Coco hated it because I had done a modern design, which she didn’t like,’ says Jiricná. ‘But Joseph loved it.’

From this small commission, Jiricná then designed a flat for Joseph in Sloane Street in parallel with a Joseph shop in South Molton Street. Both projects were an immediate hit and gave Jiricná the confidence to tackle interiors.

She admits that she learned a huge amount from Joseph, who was very fussy and meticulous about every detail. He also taught Jiricná the importance of interiors, she says. ‘The Joseph shops were fantastically successful not just because of my designs, but because Joseph was so terribly good at merchandising and he had a really good eye,’ says Jiricná. ‘Working for Joseph was definitely a high point in my career; I would never have known anything about retail if he had not imparted his knowledge to me. We were a team and he was equally obsessed about detail as I was.’

Scores of Joseph shops followed, including the high-profile Brompton Cross, which was the first of the bigger Joseph stores. It was also where Jiricná designed the first of her many signature glass staircases, the material being a strong favourite of hers.

‘Joseph cried with happiness when that shop opened because for him to be this little guy who had started cutting people’s hair in the King’s Road to eventually buying a Conran shop, well, he felt he had made it,’ says Jiricná.

Brompton Cross was also where Jiricná introduced the wildly popular craze for Italian polished plaster finish. The idea for this wall finish emerged because Joseph wanted an opulent Italian palazzo aesthetic for the shop. Jiricná discovered an Italian former film director who had turned his hand to doing traditional Italian fresco, using marble powder with different textures and shades of colour added.

This finish was used at Brompton Cross and Jiricná continued to employ this effect on other projects, including her own flat. ‘The beauty of the finish is that the walls don’t need to be repainted, it’s a permanent finish,’ says Jiricná. ‘The guy who originally did it became an artist and now sells his stuff in galleries in Bond Street and grew into a big superstar. Incredible, eh?’

Jiricná’s glass staircase at Somerset House has prompted many enquiries to the fabricatorJiricná’s glass staircase at Somerset House has prompted many enquiries to the fabricator

Alongside the shops, including Harrods’ Way-in department and other private commissions, Jiricná ventured into the world of nightclubs, designing Covent Garden’s Browns and the Eighties’ Legends. The latter is another of Jiricná’s favourite interiors. It includes a staircase she collaborated on for the first time with structural engineer Tim Macfarlane, whom she loved working with.

Jiricná also branched out into the demanding field of galleries and museums, most notably the Bollinger Jewellery Gallery at the V&A Museum, which she is currently updating 10 years on, and the stunning Tiffany Gallery at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, completed last year. The gallery features a crafted glass staircase that is, to date, Jiricná’s most technically daring, she says.

Despite confessing that she is a terrible businesswoman, there’s no doubt that her work has influenced a generation of architects and designers. Asked how she feels about this accolade, Jiricná answers with a characteristic shrug and modesty: ‘That’s very difficult for me to say. I’ve been criticised for being too fussy on detail, but an attention to detail can resolve so many aesthetic problems and can create an interesting interior. I know people have been influenced by my staircase at Somerset House because the person who made it has had many enquiries, and when I started doing glass staircases lots of people started doing them too.

‘The shops I did for Joseph were a job for me. If someone had asked me to design a factory I would have put in exactly the same amount of energy. I had to survive and I had to do my best. I was happy because my professors in Prague were brought up by the modern movement between two world wars and that desire to be precise, minimal and make a clear statement in my design relates to what I was taught.’

Looking back on her achievements, what are the highlights? ‘I’ve had so much fun!’ laughs Jiricná. ‘I came to England with absolutely nothing, with no relevant experience and a miserable knowledge of the language and I was allowed to work here for 50 years of my professional career. To return to my country and teach in Prague for 13 years [she is head of the department of architecture of the University of Applied Arts, Prague] and pass on skills and knowledge I acquired to people who lost so much during those dark years of Communism.’

Then, almost as an afterthought, Jiricná adds she would like to be remembered as ‘somebody who tried, and who loved doing what she’s been doing’.

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