Phenomenon. The Staircases of Eva Jiřičná as an art form

TECHO was one of the many to congratulate the first lady of Czech architecture on her eightieth birthday, and present her with a gift. As an expression of respect and as thanks for our long-term cooperation we, together with the company Artefakt, renovated a magnificent staircase that is now a dominant feature of the exhibition marking her eightieth birthday at the Prague DOX centre.

This subtle staircase constructed from stainless steel and glass was designed by Eva Jiřičná and her team for the now defunct Joan & David store in Paris. The store was on one of the most prestigious shopping districts in Paris on the rue du Faubourg St Honoré.

The recently published book by Czech publicist Petr Volf, Phenomenon, presents this work of Eva Jiřičná and gives a general overview of the theme of staircases and their design. Take a look at the photos from the book launch, a unique video of this event, and also a text telling the unusual story of this original work and its fate.


The story of a staircase

If we were to select clients that gave Eva Jiřičná repeated opportunities to create interesting staircases then in addition to Joseph Ettedgui we would have to mention American couple Joan and David Helpern

From the mid-1980s to end of the 1990s Eva Jiřičná designed interiors for over fifty Joan&David stores – mainly in the United States, but also in Europe and Australia. It was for the Helperns that she designed the legendary staircase for the Paris store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, right in the heart of the luxury fashion district.  

The firm Joan&David was officially established in 1977, and they made contact with Eva Jiřičná in the mid-1980s when they decided to expand to make the most of the success of their sales outlets. “One day I received a call from lawyer Michael Lichtenstein who told me he was working for a small firm making shoes and that the owner, Mrs Helpern, had seen my stores for Joseph and would like me to design a shop for her. I said I would think about it. I admit that I was not enthusiastic because the display of shoes is not normally a very attractive sight. However, the very next day he called again and asked if I would fly to New York. I didn’t say no. They sent me tickets, accommodated me in a very nice hotel on Fifth Avenue with a view over Central Park. Mr Lichtenstein later collected me from the hotel and took me to their office, which was just across the street. To my surprise I learned it was a large company with its own production facilities and the sole owners were the Helperns. We agreed a basis for cooperation very quickly. They knew what they wanted and were clearly determined. However, I never imagined at the time how many projects we would do together,” remembers Eva Jiřičná. 

Joan & David Helpern

The first Joan&David stores by Eva Jiřičná were delivered in the years 1987 to 1988 in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and London, when the turnover of the company was around a hundred million dollars. The firm’s product range expanded to include handbags, hats, scarves – and also men’s shoes. The greatest development of the company took place in the early 1990s when it established itself across the United States with the opening of thirty stores. This included stores in New York (on Fifth Avenue), New Jersey, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Denver and Seattle. For Eva Jiřičná it meant constant travelling between Europe and America and a very high workload, which, however, provided unique experience on working with different types of building into which it was necessary to insert an autonomous environment with its own regime and character. 

Paris

Constructing the Paris store for Joan&David on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, close to the Elyse Palace, was a sign of the company’s success and also marked the culmination of cooperation between the Helperns and Eva Jiřičná. The staircase in the store was one of the defining interior architectural features of the 1990s. It was not easy to push through because officials at the building office, without whose permission it is not possible to commence construction work, insisted that glass is not a suitable material. 

In Paris a staircase where glass would play a role as a structural element was unknown at that time. In the capital city of a country of bold architects such as Gustav Eiffel and Auguste Perret, they were afraid of the unknown. They argued that it was not sufficiently safe because they considered glass to be a fragile material, and they were also unsettled by the somewhat strange notion that through the transparent staircase it would be possible to look up the skirts of customers. Even when they were informed that the glass items would have a Perspex layer attached to the bottom (eliminating the danger of falling glass if a step breaks) and that the surface of all twenty-four treads necessary to bridge the gap between the first and second floor would be sandblasted, which reduces the risk of slipping and the undesirable transparency, their negative position remained unchanged.

The main supporting element of the entire staircase comprises a central metal mesh that was fixed to the ceiling with just two anchoring points. The inside edge of the treads is attached to the fine central structure and the outside edge is attached to the very subtle truss structure that entwines around the entire staircase.

All meetings regarding permits were attended by Eva Jiřičná in person; as she speaks French fluently she did not need an interpreter. But even this totally open approach did not help. Also ineffective was a presentation of similar glass staircases directly in London. The campaign continued in North East England. The next step was to take the official on a visit to the Clifford Chapman Metalworks in Washington near Newcastle, where the staircases were made. They observed tests of the safety and strength of the balustrade and treads. Naturally, Eva Jiřičná was also present to assist with and observe the tests from close up: “They constructed a wooden rig – a pendulum impact tester – with a fifty-kilogramme leather impact bag. We prepared part of the glass balustrade, which we put into a frame. Then the impact bag was swung and impacted against the balustrade, which remained intact. We repeated this with a screw. A huge impact again, but nothing happened because the glass was toughened. We took a kilo-weight metal ball: it impacted as if from a cannon – a small scratch was the only result. We continued with tests on the treads and they took the weight of three people. They just bowed and then returned to their position.”

After all the failed attempts at testing to destruction Eva Jiřičná finally received permission, but on condition that support was added to reduce the bending under a three-hundred kilogramme load. For this purpose a folded metal plate was developed to which the treads were partially attached. The main supporting element of the entire staircase comprises a central metal mesh that was fixed to the ceiling with just two anchoring points. The inside edge of the treads is attached to the fine central structure and the outside edge is attached to the very subtle truss structure that entwines around the entire staircase. The supporting elements, required by the increased safety requirements, looked from below like the backbone of some unknown creature. Its proportions and shape are so precisely selected that the beauty of the glass sections are allowed to show through and together it all creates a dazzling effect. The vertical and horizontal steel elements have a very subtle effect, as does the refined handrail. Nothing is overdone. 

Eva Jiřičná
Architect

I do believe quite strongly that one should not use more materials than absolutely necessary to make a building. When we design certain types of staircase, we try to achieve the minimum weight by using structural principles which allow us to go so far. I feel responsible for wasting materials, for using more of the earth’s resources, but not for the time it takes to make things that are complicated for people to build or manufacture.

The staircase remained at the prestigious address of 6 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the 8th arrondissement of Paris until the spring of 1998. At this point Joan and David’s marriage had reached a crisis point, as had the shoe business when prices suddenly became uncompetitive in comparison with those using a cheap workforce in Asia. The consequences proved fatal for both the long marriage and the company. /Note: In 2000 the company filed for bankruptcy protection and was sold for 16.8 million dollars to the Maxwell Shoe Company./ The store was closed and its place was taken by Prada. They enlarged the store, created a new interior and disposed of the old – the staircase was no longer required. Prada wanted to start from scratch. There was a danger that the staircase would be destroyed. In actual fact, another stage of its existence started. 

Paris – Prague – Kladno

At this point Jiří Kejval, founder of the firm TECHO, stepped in. When he learned that the staircase, which he knew from photographs in various design magazines was to be removed he immediately turned his mind to the possibility of saving it. “I remember it like it was today,” says Jiří Kejval over twenty years later. “Eva arranged access. We had a week to remove the staircase from Paris and bring it to Prague, otherwise it would be destroyed. I agreed with Leopold Bareš of Sipral, an expert on special constructions, that he would get his best people to dismantle the staircase so it could be transported. This was done. The staircase was then taken to our factory in Hostivař.” Here the staircase became almost legendary and had to be moved several times due to the space it was taking up. For twenty years it collected dust.

Jiří Kejval waited until the time was right. He knew the value it had from the perspective of international design, and not even for a minute did he entertain thoughts of getting rid of it, as many of his subordinates recommended. His patience has finally borne fruit. During the second half of 2018, the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, which Kejval has supported since its inception, decided to organise a retrospective exhibition of the work of Eva Jiřičná to mark her eightieth birthday. 

Things started moving. The staircase was to be the focal point of the exhibition. At his own expense Jiří Kejval arranged for the reconstruction of the staircase and it would be donated to Dox. In November 2018 the staircase was on the move again. Its first “journey” was from Washington in England, where it was made, to Paris. Its second journey took it to Prague Hostivař, and the third to Kladno, where the firm Artefakt is based. Pavel Růžička, who was given the task of breathing life back into the feature, has worked with Eva Jiřičná for many years and in the Czech Republic is the recognised expert on the construction of her staircases. He constructed the first, a spiral, in 2002 for the Hotel Josef in Prague, and to date he has handled dozens of similar installations. This time, however, he found himself in a different position because his previous projects had been new creations – he had not before been confronted with a reconstruction.

The components of the Staircase are spread out on pallets in a large workshop on the edge of an industrial district of Kladno. Many of them were damaged during the rushed disassembly in Paris when they had to be cut; other parts where scratched, and during the long storage the stainless steel had lost its lustre. Anyone seeing these scattered parts would have trouble imagining the staircase in all its former glory. 

Pavel Růžička’s team of six first had to carefully sort the parts so the position of each part could be determined from the plans. Then the individual parts had to be joined together – welded where they had been cut. Some parts and components, such as all the glass treads, needed to be remade. It required imagination and the application of all their practical know-how, and even so there were still areas of uncertainty that had to be consulted with the architect. In parallel a visualisation and spatial projection were created. Then they could start to do a trial rebuild of the staircase. After this test it was again dismantled and prepared for its next journey.

When Pavel Růžička speaks about Eva Jiřičná, he describes their meeting in a similar spirit to Jiří Kejval; it was also an exceptional event for him that influenced his professional trajectory. 

Pavel Růžička
Owner of the company Artefakt

It is an honour for me to be able to work with her. Eva looks for the best possible solutions and also makes sure that all interested parties are satisfied. This is a very valuable approach. Eva is very down to earth and modest – she never plays on her fame. If I come up with an idea she listens and gives it consideration. She is a perfectionist, so we understand each other in most cases.

Sculpture

The most recent journey of the staircase took place on 14th March 2019, when it was transported from Kladno to Prague Holešovice, and the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, considered the most important private art institute in the Czech Republic. Whilst the reconstruction took five months, the new installation was achieved in just four days. It was all completed on the night of Sunday 16th and Monday 17th March. It is evidently the first time in this country that such a modern and progressive staircase has been placed in an exhibition as a separate exhibit, reaching up to the roof of the main gallery space, touching it gently with the ends of its steel threads.

It has been deprived of its primary function as it cannot be climbed - it is just there to be admired by visitors; this, nevertheless, enables us to fully appreciate its quality. The staircase looks like a constructivist sculpture, like an iconic work that exhibition curator, Leoš Válka, together with Eva Jiřičná and her studio AI DESIGN arranged on a glass pedestal emphasising its fragility. It gives the impression of levitating, which although an illusion precisely characterises the appeal of this architectural phenomenon. It acts like a magnet; people are drawn to it by an attractive force. In an environment where it can speak for itself without being disturbed by the mundane demands of standard use, its merits are clearly displayed. 

Petr Volf
Author of the book

It is said that architects are often present in their work as they leave their metaphorical imprint on it. If we examine the staircase in detail from different points of view and distances we come to the conclusion that it can be deemed, in its own way, a self-portrait of Eva Jiřičná. In it we see the same strength, delicateness, elegance, desire to overcome obstacles, gravity – and above all: ability to resist the passage of time.

Staircase CV

  • Client: Joan and David Helpern Inc., 4 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA
  • Location: 6, Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, Paris 75002, France
  • Architect: Eva Jiřičná/Eva Jiricna Architects Limited, 7 Dering Street, London W1R 9AB, Great Britain
  • Structural design: Mathew Wells, Techniker Limited, 71 Harberton Road, London, N15 3JT, Great Britain
  • Production: Clifford Chapman Metalworks Limited, Washington Tyne and Wear, Great Britain
  • Design: 1994
  • Installation: 1995
  • Years in use: 1995-1998
  • Transport to Prague: April 1998
  • Stored at: Techo, U Továren 770/1b, 10200 Prague 10, Czech Republic
  • Reconstruction: Pavel Růžička, Artefakt, Dubská 851, 272 03 Kladno
  • Reconstruction: November 2018 - March 2019
  • Reinstallation: 14th – 17th March 2019, Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, Poupětova 1, 170 00 Prague 7, Czech Republic
  • Unveiled to the public: 21st March 2019 at 19:00 at the official opening of the multimedia retrospective of Eva Jiřičná’s work 

Specification

  • Total height of staircase: 7625 mm
  • Total weight of staircase: approx. 2000 kg
  • Number of steps incl. landing: 25
  • Tread width: 1037 mm
  • Tread depth: 354 mm
  • Step height: 157 mm
  • Balustrade height: 1000 mm
  • Dimensions of upper landing: 1037 mm x 1476 mm
  • Staircase angle: 29.3°

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