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Tuesday 18 December 2018

Miroslav Havel

Waterford Crystal founding chief designer who revived a tradition

MIROSLAV Havel, who died at his home in Waterford City on September 5, aged 86, was a historic figure in the emergence of a modern industrial economy in Ireland.

He was the founding chief designer of the Waterford Crystal company, and he held that position for 40 years until his retirement in 1990.

Havel came to Waterford from the then Republic of Czechoslovakia at 25, intending to stay only three months. He was one of the most outstanding students at the prestigious Academy of Industrial Design in Prague, where he mastered glass design, engraving and sculpting.

Charles Bacik, the industrialist who owned the Bohemian glass factory where Havel was an intern, had fled to Ireland -- where he had business connections with Senator Joseph McGrath -- in the wake of the rise of the Communist Party in Prague.

At the time of his arrival in July 1947 at Bacik's invitation, Havel was under the impression that Ireland was a lush tropical land, with a thriving crystal glass industry. What he encountered was an empty field near the centre of an economically depressed Waterford city, with Bacik ensconced in a builder's shed, and the revelation that Havel would be the only "employee" of Bacik's "Waterford Glass".

For the next decade, after the Communist takeover and his blacklisting by the new Czechoslovak rulers, Havel reluctantly remained in Waterford to help Bacik (and later the McGrath family) revive a crystal glass tradition that crippling British excise taxes had ended almost 100 years before their arrival.

Havel supplied not only the sole technical expertise for the task of turning molten lead mixed with sand into glittering heavy crystal, he was also the company's principal engraver and designer.

He spent many months in the basement of the National Museum of Ireland making detailed drawings of the museum's collection of original 18th- and 19th-Century Waterford glass. From these, he was able to adapt the ornate antique designs of the original company to the modernist, functionalist sensibility of the post-Second World War era and to modern production processes. He also shared his command of his craft with generations of Irish craftsmen whom he trained in the lost native arts of glass blowing, cutting, and engraving.

In the mid-Fifties, Havel designed a series of patterns for the company's signature decanter suites, capped by Lismore, which became the world's best-selling crystal glass pattern and is still today the lynchpin of Waterford Crystal's reputation. Later, Havel accepted special commissions from governments, institutions, and individuals around the world who were attracted to the prestige of Waterford's products.

Havel designed the huge chandeliers in Westminster Abbey in London and at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC. He also created a crystal replica of the Statue of Liberty which he presented to the late US President Ronald Reagan. Maestro of Crystal, Brian Havel's biography of his father, describes Miroslav Havel as "a brilliant creative artist who applied himself to the demands of mass commerce while upholding the integrity of his craft".

Havel married a Waterford woman, Betty Storey, and had six children: Brian, John, Mirek, Elizabeth, Clodagh, and Julie. All survive him, along with 11 grandchildren.

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