Cross Club

The cool Holešovice club that plays host to this year's Prague TV Monster Ball

Off the beaten track of Prague's club scene is an emerging Picasso of lighting design.

It's 1am and I am standing in front of a small stage on which Austrian electrojazz band Weenwoodoo is playing with enthusiasm. They make a fine sound, but that's not why I have been gradually making my way to the stage. I have been mesmerized by a strange object suspended from the ceiling just above the lead singer's head.

It is a revolving metal cylinder, about eight feet long, speckled with colored lights that blur into lines of shifting acidic color as it spins. To clear my head I turn to my right and find myself transfixed by a more openly surreal object: a glass-fronted box in which vinyl records have been stacked on plate racks. A frothing liquid suggests this is a dishwasher - except that it is also a fully functioning stage light. In the Cross Club, the bands have to compete for attention with the light fixtures.

Located a stone's throw from Nádraží Holešovice on the ground floor and basement of a rundown housing block (the club's staff and their cats live upstairs), the Cross Club began life as a private hangout, with a strict "friends only" policy until just over a year ago. Now having acquired all the permits and licenses required by Prague's fastidious bureaucrats, word on the club's varied program of DJs, bands and, on Sunday nights, new Czech theatre is spreading.

The club's grungy origins are still detectable in the upstairs bar area, where the snuggest of snuggeries is reached by a precipitous flight of steps that is almost a ladder. Past the foosball room, where an immense sprig of dried teazle plants slowly rotates, is perhaps Prague's chillest lounge area, where students wind down in the late afternoon and a stupendously bizarre object glows a fiendish red while fizzing silently, like some monstrous cocktail served up by Satan himself.

A quiet afternoon visit is recommended if you have an eye for art and design - the Cross Club is also the default exhibition space for a collection of audacious, robust and often witty designs and inventions, most of which emit the light that gives the club its unique atmosphere. Every one of them was designed and built by an electrician from Turnov who has never been near an art or design course.

František "Fanda" Chmelik, a friend of the club's manager, was initially asked to do the basic wiring but quickly made the space an outlet for his bursting energy and creativity. As well as producing an endless stream of head-turning contraptions, Chmelik has created more subtly beautiful lights, often incorporated into murals or mosaics.

"I have so many ideas per minute I should have an entry in the Guinness Book of Records," the 30-year-old electrician says, and on a quick wander through the labyrinthine rooms one can almost see Chmelik's mercurial mind at work. He takes up a theme, exhausts its possibilities then abandons it for another. In the bar area he has seized upon the shapes of church-organ pipes; in the next room they have been inverted and turned into miniature wall-mounted tables, with a single pipe providing a spotlight for the ashtray. Like Picasso (who famously made a cow's head from a bicycle's handlebars and saddle), Chmelik likes to take familiar objects and reinvent them. One of his most successful designs involves marrying a fish-shaped glass plate with a lemon squeezer. A whole shoal of these graces a corridor in the basement.

Chmelik claims never to have attended an art exhibition, but he is clearly receptive to the world around him. He cites nature and technology as his chief inspirations and says he is happiest rummaging through Libeňský scrapyard - where, he says, "my rusty and sometimes a bit greasy muse lives."

Humble as their origins may be, Chmelik's creations are not mere fixtures but works of art, thanks largely to the happy accident of his being involved in the Cross Club from the beginning. Here he has been able to work in an uncritical atmosphere of absolute creative freedom - and he continues to do so, with new designs appearing almost daily.

But there is another aspect of Chmelik's success as a designer, which he reminded me of when I asked him about that lounge light filled with glowing, fizzing red liquid. I wondered if it was safe to have water and electricity in such close proximity.

"I never use water," he replied patiently, "only non-conductive oils." It is his thorough training as an electrician that enables him to push the boundaries of lighting design safely - a reassuring thought as you are jostled by a dancing throng in the Cross Club basement, hypnotized by one of his creations.

Prague Directory Listing for Cross

This article originally appeared in the Czech Business Weekly.

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