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Interview: Michal Petrov, Author of Retro ČS

Published on May 21th, 2015 in Interviews

  • Michal Petrov promoting the book at NeoLuxor (photo courtesy of Michal's facebook page)

  • From the book (photo courtesy of idnes.cz)

  • From the book (photo courtesy of idnes.cz)

  • From the book (photo courtesy of idnes.cz)

  • From the book (photo courtesy of idnes.cz)

  

One of of my favorite posts of the past year was on beautiful, visually driven Czech books. Retro ČS by Czech journalist Michal Petrov was one of them. Released in 2013 to great acclaim on the Czech market, it offers a kitschy walk down memory lane for those who came of age in communist Czechoslovakia. 
 

But even for those who don't speak Czech, it's a fascinating compilation of photos from the four decades leading up to 1989 that features packaging, logos, and advertising campaigns for everything from cosmetics to candy, soda pop and toys. 
 

I was fortunate enough to speak with the book's author Michal Petrov, a dedicated collector of ČSSR memorobilia and fellow vintage Czech design fanatic whose personal photo archive is among the largest in the country.
 

KF: How did you get involved in this project?

MP: I always love observing things. When you get used to something, it's hard to watch it disappear. The less socialism mattered the more I clung to these things. But now they are gone, and it is time to get back into the game. I think I have the same motives as Orhan Pamuk had when he founded his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul's Nisantasi. I have a museum of innocence in our home and a very patient wife who tolerates me. 

 
 

 

 From the book (photos courtesy of idnes.cz/)

 

KF: Who was the mastermind behind this brilliant title? 
MP: The answer has two parts: First, there was the successful TV series Retro and I, as the creator of that series, wanted to do a book version. It was originally to be released by a publisher associated with Czech Television. Due to constant personnel changes and the ever-changing editorial policy, the original plan did not materialize. Luckily, Brno-based publisher Jota was interested in preparing a title dedicated to the retro theme. They decided to turn to the creator of the TV show to author it, hence the name. 
 

KF: How did you go about collecting all the fabulous images in this book? 
MP: The publishers of Květy (Flowers), the most popular tabloid magazine in socialist Czechslovakia, allowed me to enter into their archive where I worked for many days with the scanner and the computer. Another important source was unpublished materials from the Museum of Czech Cooperative Assocations (Muzeum družstevnictví DA ČR). I picked-up a lot of periodicals in bookstores, or got them as gifts from people who knew what interested me. Pocket calendars and match labels were invaulable. Today I have in my archive several thousand files. All are digitized and named based on a sorting key. 
 

KF: How long did it take to compile the photos? 
MP: As for the book Retro ČS, about half a year, but that is just an estimate. The work I do filing the archive in general is virtually endless. In addition to contemporary ads and photos I collect retro packaging from food (mostly tins) and old toys. It is an expensive and time-consuming hobby. 
 

  

 

Left: Dairy advertisement (photo courtesy of idnes.cz/) | Right: Milk in a bag (photo courtesy of www.mediar.cz/)

 

 

KF: Did you enjoy the process of finding all of theses fabulous images? 
MP: I especially liked the process of revisiting these memories and sharing them with my wife. I enjoyed researching the marketing campaigns that accompanied these materials such as the ongoing fight between the dairymen and the manufacturers of dairy products (still ongoing!). I enjoyed discovering that in many cases ads for Czechoslovak products had to be accompanied by adverts for similar Soviet products. Besides all of that, I believe the methods of visualization and graphic design [that are featured in the book] are of a much higher level than we would were willing to admit at the time. 
 

KF: Do you have two or three favorite images in the book? 
MP: Yes, I have. It is the complete set of advertisements for Coca-Cola (p 108-109), unique in that this was the original ad campaign for Coca-Cola from the company Fruta Brno, which produced it under license. Then there is the set of commercials for instant food Vitana (p 116-124), included at the last minute thanks to my friend for digging up some of the original ads. Vitana was one of the companies that refused cooperation both on the television series and the book. The dairy industry ad with a little girl with a giant bottle of milk (p 12) and ads for Elida soap (p 150) are also favorites. 

 

 

  

 Page 32 - Ice cream advertisements (photos courtesy of www.kosmas.cz/)
 

KF: Which image reminds you most of your childhood? 
MP: The advertising for ice cream bars with the eskimo (p 32). As a child in Prague, I lived just a short walk from the milk bar and they had this eskimo in the window. And then of course I had lots of toys from those shown on page 186, and memories of the Bulgarian cigarettes BT (p 180) that my parents smoked. Otherwise, almost the entire book is actually my childhood, and therefore insurance against memory loss.
 

KF: Have you done any photo editing for additional books? 
MP: A second edition of the book is in the works and of course the visual component will play a major part. We believe that the images are the thing that captivate the readers most. I will continue mapping consumerism but this time it will focus on durable goods such as furniture, clothes, etc. I am currently really delighted with the advertisements for the Czech textile firm Centrotex.
 

KF: The book has been a big hit, I see it everywhere, even in my own store! Why do you think it resonates with people? 
MP: Thank you, I appreciate it. Your business is well known and it is an honor, because I have the impression that our focus is actually somewhat related. I think the success is based on a variety of factors. First, it takes a wide range of people back to a time when they experienced the best time of their lives. Then there is, for some people, a sense of satisfaction. I hated the regime, to be sure, but I think some of the readers want to look back at their lives under Socialism and know that it was not lived in vain. 
 

KF: Did you imagine, when making the book that foreigners who do not speak Czech would be interested in it? 
MP: Promo art and photos speak a universal language. And because the world was not as globalized and we created unique local products in a very specific artistic style, I think that for foreigners it is something of a trip to Czechoslovakia, a vintage view of a world that was quite interesting. 
 

KF: Who are your favorite Czech designers and artists?
MP: I appreciate František Kardaus, Stanislav Lachman, Petr Nikl, Theodor Pištěk. Artistically, my heart is close to Miroslav Šašek, Vladimír Fuka, Teodor Rotrekl, Jan Saudek. In commercial photography Josef Čáp, who did ads for jewelry companies, is a significant figure. 
 

KF: What do you think in general drives this nostalgia for those difficult times? 
MP: In general, we can say that for 70 years life was simply not easy anywhere in Europe. But the answer to your question, lies in the words youth and hope. In those days there was more time for fun but also confidence in a better tomorrow and belief that the struggle would end.
 

 

 

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