Vila Atelier Mathé

Vila Atelier Mathé

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

The residence of Eva and Ján Mathé is a rare sighting in the Slovak city of Košice. Its smooth white walls and slender window frames of pine wood strike a delicate balance and respect modernist principles. The house stands out against a blend of gothic domes, baroque palaces of the Hungarian nobility, and socialist residential towers left over from the city’s industrial surge in the second half of the 20th century. 

The Communist Party then controlled all aspects of urban construction and swiftly erected many uniform buildings. Few architects managed to let their individual style shine through in these large public commissions. Most single-family dwellings were based on a standardised design devised by the state. Privately owned villas virtually disappeared. And so the Mathés’ home, which was completed in 1983, is not only a testament to the owners’ impeccable taste but also to their admirable resourcefulness and courage.

The couple—sculptor Ján and paediatrician Eva—were invested in the design of the house. You can see echoes of Eva’s travels to medical symposia around the world; she was particularly dazzled by Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, evident in the villa’s simple layout. An open living area with a fireplace spills into the garden on the ground floor, with bedrooms plus a study upstairs. At mid-level, a generously sized sculpture studio is bathed in soft light. 

The atelier has not been in use since Ján died in 2012, and it’s a trove of the sculptor’s work, spanning models in clay and plaster with bronze casts, as well as wood and stone carvings. The human body had preoccupied Ján since early in his career and increasingly took on an abstract form in his work. His pieces express movement and human relationships in fluid gestures. They are reminiscent of those by the British sculptor Henry Moore or Constantin Brâncuși from nearby Romania. 

Eva, now aged 91, is set on preserving the house as well as the collection of Ján’s artworks. In 2019, the building was designated Slovak cultural heritage. Eva has recently donated it to the city of Košice, which will open the space to the public as a museum when it no longer serves as a home. For now, Eva’s dumbbells under the washbasin in her bathroom are as much part of the place as the hammer and chisel tucked away in the drawer of Ján’s studio. 

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

Did you ever model for Ján?

No, no, no. I didn’t have time for this. I worked night shifts, I was on duty all the time. I was constantly working, he was constantly working. And he didn’t really have models—perhaps in his youth, but later he didn’t have any.

So how did he hone his craft?

He studied anatomy so relentlessly. Basically, he learnt it in the dissecting room where his father worked. There was a hospital built in Košice when Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, and doctors from Czechia came here because there was a shortage of medical staff in eastern Slovakia. The employees were also offered accommodation. Ján’s father was employed there, and so their family lived in the hospital.

First, Ján studied at a Hungarian school, but thanks to socialising with these Czech families, he learnt Czech and later he could go and apply to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.

How was that experience for him?

In the autumn of 1945, Ján went to Prague to do entrance exams, but by the time he arrived, a man at the reception told him that the exams were over. And when this man saw how sad Ján was, he allowed him to do the talent exams. It turned out this man was actually a professor, and he liked Ján’s work, so he accepted him into his atelier.

This professor had a very close connection with Ján because his son died on the last day of the war, and so he treated Ján like his own son. Ján’s surname was a Hungarian one—Máthé. But the professor thought that it was not a proper name, and since he had studied in France, he changed Ján’s surname to Mathé and issued all Ján’s diplomas using this spelling. Based on that, Ján later changed his ID, because it didn’t match his diplomas. Ján loved Prague.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

He finished his studies in 1950, during very turbulent times after the communist coup of 1948. It must have been a really challenging time for artists, who were expected to create pieces in the style of socialist realismbasically propaganda of the communist regime.

He wasn’t part of the Communist Party, so it wasn’t easy, but he didn’t complain. The ‘50s were such tough times. When socialism came about, he became part of this Christian group of well-read people, who stuck together.

He had to wait for his first solo show in Bratislava until 1984, and even that I arranged by chance through some acquaintances. Two years later, the show was brought here. Before then the city of Košice was not interested in Ján’s work, they preferred art by the party members.

He was such a humble and modest boy. He didn’t collaborate with political players; instead, he collaborated with architects who gave him opportunities. You know, each building had a certain percentage set aside for an artistic component. And the architects would invite him to use this dedicated budget.

So how did this work? Every public-art piece had to be signed off, right?

Yes, you can see plenty of models in the studio that were made for this purpose. Every time he was asked to make a piece, he had to prepare a proposal. A commission arrived, and they said, ‘OK, you can make a 1:3 model’. Then they came back—we were all jittery—and they said, ‘Alright, make a 1:1 model in clay’. And then again, they came back and said, ‘Fine, cast it in bronze’.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

But he also worked on independent creations. I really like his smaller abstract sculptures. You were showing me some pieces that resemble an enlarged timepiece mechanism. Ján’s approach to form was quite analytical, he didn’t just rely on abstracting from nature, he was also interested in geometric models.

His friends were mathematicians, and they had a formula to match this sculpture. Ján used to say that every abstract sculpture should have its mathematical formula. They’d come up with all sorts of things to entertain themselves. For instance, they brought a helix model they had been working on and Ján rendered the shape with an artistic vision. Pieces would rotate, and one piece would perfectly fit into the crevasses of the other piece.


Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

The studio in this house is so perfectly formed. I’m curious about the spaces where Ján modelled before. When he came back to Košice after his studies, he shared a studio in an old mill with some legendary local artists. But how did he get his very own studio space?

His friend, the architect Ján Gabríny, was building residential blocks, and these buildings were typically designed with a pram storage room. And Ján transformed the pram storage into a maisonette atelier. It was partly underground, and thanks to the high ceilings, he could produce large sculptures. Ján was very close with this architect; he emigrated to the USA in 1968. There was this camaraderie, they helped each other without relying on the state or the political party.

Is this also how you found the architect of your home?

Yes, Michal Baník was also our friend. He commissioned Ján to make the sculpture Fruit of Life V for a housing estate in Nad Jazerom neighbourhood, to the south of the city.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

Tell me more about the process of designing this house. How did you get involved?

You wouldn’t believe all the sketches and formulas that I put together to influence the architecture of our house. For instance, the kitchen: I wanted more of a roof overhang along the terrace, and I felt it was very important. But they told me, ‘Ah, it’s too late, we can’t make that happen because the kitchen wall is already built’. And I said, ‘So what? Extend it by 60 centimetres. If someone comes here with a machine gun, this is where I’ll stand, and they won’t get me’.

I stuck my nose into everything. I calculated the dimensions to make sure they were balanced. I used the golden ratio and proportions of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City in my calculations. This way I changed an ordinary house into something special.

Where does your passion for design and architecture come from?


I have always had an appreciation for certain rules and orderliness: order in my belongings, order in mathematics, order in relationships—that’s what I cultivated with Ján. It was never a disadvantage that Ján wasn’t a doctor and that I wasn’t an artist. I used mathematical formulas in my profession and, as I say, he implemented them in his artistic practice.

Did you get inspiration on your travels to medical symposia too?

Oh yes, I loved Alvar Aalto’s huge conference building in Helsinki. I was there on the summer solstice, I remember it very clearly. One evening, I was walking towards the sea in a long dress and my colleague Stewart Cameron with his wife approached me and he asked me, ‘Are you going to say yes tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘Stuart, how can I say no to you? Of course, I will’. But I didn’t really know what he was talking about. And the next day, my name was on this huge board in the Finlandia Hall. The assembly was voting for a new representative of the European Society for Paediatric Nephrology. And I was so shy, I stood at the back getting ready for everyone to laugh at me for putting my name forward. But then I looked up and saw I got the most votes. So my beloved Alvar Aalto played a huge role in my life.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

What other features in the house were important to you?

Outside, the fence is made of exposed concrete and wood planks. And the planks are arranged with three- to four-millimetre gaps so the fence breathes. It’s a small difference, but so important. There are no flowers, no decorations in the garden. It reflects modernist principles. The sculpture outside is the only thing that can be here. It was enlarged based on Ján’s model a couple of years ago. 

Or look at the staircase here. They designed this handrail with a post every 40 centimetres. I asked the architect: ‘How many of these are needed to hold the handrail in place?’ He said, ‘Two’. And so, I said, ‘Great, make it two then!’ I can’t imagine making all those meticulous changes today.

Where did you find materials at a time of scarcity?

We had air-dried Russian pine timber in our previous garden. We found a company that produced all the timber fittings and window frames from that wood. Back then, the prefabricated windows had such an unpleasant look. Do have a look at what we did instead.

It’s incredible how well-preserved the window frames are.

Yes, and we haven’t painted them for 40 years. It wasn’t needed.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

You used different timber for the interiors, though?

Throughout the house, there is parquet flooring. Back then, companies supplied coated floors and all sorts of things, but all I wanted were wooden parquet floors. There was this one company, Bučina Zvolen, that produced them. I rang them up and said, ‘Comrade director, I need 200 square meters of parquet floors from you’. ‘And where are you from?’ ‘Košice’. ‘Huh? We make them, but just for Italians, not for Slovaks. Slovaks don’t like parquet flooring’. ‘But I do, comrade director, I do want them. I’ll come to you to pick them up’. So I grabbed the lorry and a driver, and off we went—direction Bučina Zvolen. ‘Comrade director, here I am for the parquet floors.’ He called a worker and commanded him: ‘For this comrade, pile up 200 square meters of parquet floors—but the premium quality, the ones we had prepared for Italians’. And behold them now! The upstairs floor has become a bit worn, but that can be fixed. We had to go through all these charades to build a house like this in socialist Czechoslovakia.

And how did you select the fittings and furnishings? This really doesn’t look like a classic Czechoslovak interior from that era.

I had the built-in storage made in Brno. They used to make lower wardrobes, but I needed them to reach all the way to the ceiling to create a clean line, so they had to produce it according to my sketch. I ordered some other things. These conference tables are from a Czech company, Jitona Soběslav.

So you have four of these square-top tables. I really like how the timber frame slopes down in the middle. But you transformed one of them with a round plastic top of a garden table? Is that right?

Yes, I really needed to add a circular form here to break it up a bit.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

There are so many stories behind each object. How are you planning to keep these memories alive?

This place has been a national cultural site in terms of architecture since 2019, but in terms of fine art, I’d also like to establish a gallery Ateliér Mathé. I’m inspired by Constantin Brâncuși’s studio in Paris. And I visited other historic home museums along the Côte d’Azur. I thought, ‘They have these museums in France, so why couldn’t we have them here too?’

I set out the conditions for the gallery space with the City of Košice, and we signed the contract in October 2022. It’s a simple contract where I determined that the artworks can’t be stored but must be displayed here in a gallery-like setting. And the look of this house is documented and must be preserved, including the furniture and fittings.

Upstairs I have the bedroom, my office, and this room with our book collection. There are heaps of art books. They’re all labelled and documented to form part of the gallery residence one day.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

The last time I visited, you showed me one with a personal dedication from the British sculptor Henry Moore.

Oh yes, we visited him in England at his studio. He was just in the middle of preparing a show, but he was so kind to us. He spent time with us and gave us a tour of his studio even though everyone else was waiting for him.

How did you get into his atelier?

I received a scholarship from the British Council to spend a year at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in London. I met a lovely family of a university professor, a cardiologist. I’m still in touch with his wife, she’s 99 now. The cardiologist went to school with Henry Moore and so he arranged the meeting. I helped with translations; I could already speak some English then so they’d communicate with Ján through me.

His note to Ján is dated September 1968. He must have been thinking of you and how you’re doing after the Soviet invasion of Prague in August. Did you ever consider emigrating?

No, we are true natives of Košice. We are part of the inventory, firmly installed here.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

You certainly left a big mark on the city. There are 17 public sculptures by Ján dotted around the urban landscape. It’s quite an achievement.

I had to sort out the preservation of Ján’s public artworks. The thing is that initially, all the sculptures formed part of the building they belonged to. If you wanted to demolish the building, you could also destroy the sculpture. Sadly, we had a case like that in Bratislava. So, I made sure that all the sculptures from the era in Košice belong to the city.

And your street is called Horolezecká. That’s not by chance, is it?

You know, the street here was called Spartakiádná, as a nod to the communist sports gatherings. And since we don’t have spartakiádas anymore, they agreed to call it Horolezecká, which can be translated as ‘Mountaineer’s Street’. There are all sorts of sports names in this neighbourhood—Běžecká, Atletická, Cyklistická, and so on.

My brother died on Mount Everest—he’s Jozef Psotka. He died under tragic circumstances.

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé

How did you come to terms with that?

During socialism, you couldn’t quite overcome the evil. When the expedition came back from Everest, my sister and I went to the airport, dressed in black, and we brought champagne to raise a glass in honour of Jozef’s memory. If you can believe it, the head of the expedition raised his glass and spoke about the success of the mission, without even mentioning that Jozef died on Everest. It wasn’t written about in the newspapers. You could see that he reached the peak, but that was it. The things we had to endure!

Did you ever find out what happened?

Ján let me go there, with just a rucksack on my back. Can you imagine? First, I had to go to Western Germany to catch a plane that would take me there. I had this acquaintance in Kathmandu, a professor who worked at a local hospital. And he provided me with a little bungalow inside their residence and a car with a driver. I managed to find out what happened, but that’s all history now.

How did you manage to travel abroad so extensively? The borders were closed, and it was hard to get the paperwork unless you had connections in the communist administration.

I did research in clinical biochemistry, and I headed up a lab where I developed all sorts of tests that were important for children’s health. So, I combined the lab and the paediatry department at the local hospital. It was so efficient. This way, I travelled the world to present the findings of my research. I could only do that because the comrades I was working with were not interested in research but still needed to publish papers to make career progress. So, I always included them as co-authors of my research, and that’s why they let me travel abroad. I attended all these conventions, and Ján made his sculptures. A good marriage, don’t you think?

Apartamento Magazine - Vila Atelier Mathé
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