MEET THE ARTIST: Karen Feldman of Artel Crystal
Our previous profile told the story of Zuzana Korbelarova who moved from Prague to the United States. We shift in reverse gear with the following profile of Artel’s Karen Feldman, an American who moved from the United States to Prague.
The Artful Hand Gallery has carried Artel crystal since the company’s 1998 launching in Prague. Its founder, American, Karen Feldman, fell in love with Czech glass, and after failing to find a job in the industry, decided to create her own company.
Each piece of Artel is truly a work of art as they are mouth blown of 100% lead free crystal and the designs are hand engraved on a wheel. Artel combines traditional Czech craftsmanship with contemporary aesthetics, and the designs range from bold geometric patterns to artful depictions of flora, fauna, and sea life.
With some fantastic collections of Artel on order this year we thought this would be a good time to share a bit of their story.
AHG: Karen, you founded Artel in 1998 with just $2500 in savings, and in the early years of the post-Communist era in the Czech Republic, you initially had to make do without a phone or fax machine. What path led you from New York to Prague and the founding of Artel? And in particular, what was the inspiration for the founding of Artel?
Karen: I came to Prague in the autumn of 1994 to oversee production of a shampoo company. While I knew nothing about this industry, I could be trusted and at that time that was the most important qualification. I worked in Prague for a year, before the owner of the shampoo company transferred me to Arizona. Arizona, I found, was not my cup of tea. Realizing there were lots of opportunities in Prague I decided to move back and look for a job. I wanted to do something creative, and for me art glass was the an obvious choice as you saw it in every shop window in Prague. Initially I reached out to Moser, the most famous glass company in the Czech Republic, even offering myself as a free intern. I never heard back and I made the decision to start my own company; at the time it oddly seemed easier than finding a job in the industry.
AHG: When did it become clear to you that Artel was a great success and that you had created a new luxury brand?
Karen: Wow, what a compliment! To be honest, after over 20 years in business, I still find it amazing to be in the market as a new luxury crystal brand. That said, we really do fill a niche in this industry as we are highly creative and our crystal tends to be very graphic in design. I realized early on that we were doing something unique in the market. If I must pinpoint the real moment I realized our place in the market it was when Rolls-Royce phoned asking us to produce a drink set for their cars. When my office told me who was on the phone I thought it was my father playing a practical joke on me.
AHG: Have you had any mentors?
Karen: I don’t have a mentor. I have always been a very independent spirit and I simply trust my instinct. That said, I’m inspired by many artists and designers throughout history, among them, Albrecht Durer and William Morris.
AHG: What is life like for you in Prague, and what do you love most about it?
Karen: I love living in Prague and I consider it home as I have lived here for over 25 years. The city is very inspiring and beautiful and is filled with some of the most interesting and diverse architecture in the world. I love walking around and looking at the ornately decorated buildings; it never gets old and you always see something new. I love to shop, and it always surprises me to hear the common refrain that “there’s nothing to buy in Prague” because I can assure you, based on personal experience (and the often precarious balance in my bank account) this statement is absolutely untrue. Prague has been the source of some of my most unique acquisitions and many of Artel’s motifs have been inspired by fabulous finds acquired here. Another aspect of Prague I love is the quality of life. I can live in a house only a 10 minute walk from the Prague Castle – dreamy. I can get a reservation at the best restaurant in town just a night or two in advance vs. needing to book months in advance. On short notice you can decide to go to the symphony or the opera and the tickets are very affordable. I can buy an annual metro pass for $169, nearly the same price for one month on the NYC subway. I also love that the city is visually very fancy, like a beautiful box of petit fours. Meanwhile the people are much more casual. I simply cannot imagine having a better quality of life anywhere.
AHG: I should point out that you wrote an award winning insider guide to Prague titles “Prague: Artel Style”, with the last edition printed in 2013. I think it is still available online, and your recommendations enhanced our trip to Prague in 2017, including a stay in a beautiful hotel which was converted from an historic monastery. Do you anticipate coming out with another revision?
Karen: Sadly, no. No one under the age of 50 reads guidebooks anymore. Everything is online.
AHG: Are you ever homesick for America? Is there anything you miss about it?
Karen: A good bagel! To be honest, in normal times I usually spend the Summer in New York and visit the US another one or two times per year, so I don’t really miss much. In the early years of living in Prague I definitely felt like I needed to make sacrifices by choosing to live there, but I no longer feel that way – as everything is more and more accessible.
AHG: You describe yourself as “quirky” and the New York Times cited your collections of some unusual things like Communist era inflatable animals, Japanese anime figures, and “broucci”, traditional Czech figures of fairylike insect people. Any other examples of your quirkiness?
Karen: Well, my senior thesis exhibition as a Fine Art Photography major at Bard College involved photographically documenting the transformation of my skin color resulting from eating two pounds of carrots daily for 40 days. I graduated with honors … and jaundice!
AHG: How do you see Artel evolving during the next several years? Do you have any specific goals?
Karen: I always find this question difficult to answer. I hope we will continue to fill a niche in the luxury crystal industry. Working on limited editions and collaborations for artists and designers will help us fulfill that goal. I always want Artel to remain very special, hence my goal is not to grow the business exponentially, but instead focus on continuing to be the best at what we do – creating highly graphic crystal, hand made by the best artisans in the world.
AHG: Thanks Karen! I always enjoy telling your story to our customers and introducing them to the beauty of Artel.