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When the photographer and I wait outside the massive wood door to the building where Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov live, I wonder if the entire door will open, or the smaller door within the door. Even more so, I anticipate what will be on the other side. After all, it isn’t everyday that you get to see a flat inside a building from the 1600’s.
Hailing from Ireland and Ukraine, respectively, Mahony and Ukolov have called Prague home since the early 2000’s. Both came to the city to “reinvent themselves” and met through a mutual friend shortly after that. Before becoming a couple, the two began working together; Mahony has a background in design and Ukolov in design and illustration. Today, married, they have a successful business that’s as unique as their home – through Baba Studio, which they founded in 2002, the duo designs and produces tarot card decks, books, bags, pillows, purses, dolls, and clothing, in a style they describe as ‘modern baroque’.
From the outside, their home is characterized by its sgraffiti façade. Located literally just a stone’s throw from the castle, the two-winged Renaissance building was the former town hall during the reign of Rudolph II. Just above the door you can see the inscription “Stará Radnice” or Hradčany Town Hall.
To my pleasure, it’s the smaller door that opens when Mahony comes to welcome us inside. We walk into a kind of entryway and then to the left into a small, quiet, inner courtyard. “Back out in the square was the former marketplace,” Mahony tells us. “People measured their goods by [an arms’ length metal piece built into] the door. (The measurement was known as a pražský loket or Prague’s cubit.) And then came inside here and reported it to the town hall authorities.”
Today the building is completely residential. Mahony and Ukolov’s flat, which they’ve lived in since 2009 and found through an ad, is located at the end of the courtyard. From their door, adorned with a tapestry of a waving cat, Ukolov emerges to greet us, along with the first of their three flat mates, Lotte, a longhaired Siberian cat. Minnie, a tabby is just inside. We’ll later meet the white, rounded-face Bonsai, or Bonz as they mostly call him.
The flat begins with an entryway. Just a step down and directly in front of the entryway is where they spend most of their time: the office/studio. “It’s a fluid life between personal and work,” says Karen. Within the room there are several desks – during the day they share the space with two employees – and just behind Karen’s, a wall of small drawers for storage.
Throughout this room and their dining room “or warehouse” as Karen jokingly refers to it, their work is visible everywhere. Despite additional studio and actual warehouse space, their work has taken on a life of its own in their home. Along with rolled stacks of gilded linen acquired from a factory in Prague, they show us “Puss in boots” dolls and the White Rabbit from their line of Alice in Wonderland dolls (one of their most successful tarot card series was The Alice tarot deck).
Of their eclectic décor, which in several spots is set up in compelling tableaus, and has mostly been acquired in Prague’s bazars, antique shops, flea markets, and on Aukro (Ukolov says he is a regular), Mahony tells us, “Pretty much everything is used for work.” “It’s old props,” says Ukolov. (All the images on their merchandise have been photographed and then illustrated by Ukolov. They make all the clothing worn by the various featured characters and set up the worlds they inhabit.)
On top of one cabinet in their workroom, they have a wooden horse (acquired at a flea market just outside Prague in Buštěhrad and featured in one of their cards), which is joined by a hanging, hand carved wooden puppet. Just above is a painting that Mahony says is one personal piece she brings with her no matter where she goes, “It was made by a woman who was a kind of substitute mother for me in England [Mahony’s family moved to England when she was quite young]. One of the figures is supposed to be me.”
Other pieces that catch my eye are a small rounded, white ceramic piece with a yellow background above the entryway to the dining room, a picture of a cat shooting a bow and arrow by Ukolov’s desk (It was used for one of their calendars. Their cats are the models for all the merchandise featuring felines), some Art Nouveau leather panels, a wooden boat above their china cabinet, which is filled with cups and saucers in ceramic and glass (the cabinet came with the flat as did the majority of their furniture, with some exceptions including two ornate Milanese chairs from the early 1600’s), and a small wooden box with a folk flower motif, which was sent to them from a client based in Maine. Ukolov opens it to reveal numerous tiny wooden masked faces.
Along with their flat’s invisible line between work and their personal life, unique architectural features like arched ceilings in various places draw my attention. Mahony shares with us that just behind the dining room wall is the Monastery of Discalced Carmelites, “they make for very quiet neighbors.”
But perhaps the flat’s most attention-grabbing feature is the astounding view. Framed within the French doorways in their workspace is Petřín Tower. “[What I like about living here] is waking up, going to the window and listening to the birds,” says Ukolov. “And breathing in the fresh air. As much as you can call it fresh.” The view also includes the park and the rooftops of the other residences adjoined to theirs.
On their rare off hours the two enjoy walks in Petřín, on the Golden Lane, and like to take visiting friends to Nový Svět. They shop at Anděl, the farmer’s markets, and are big fans of Marks & Spencer. Going “through phases” between cooking at home and eating out, one of their favorite restaurants is the nearby Maly Buddha.
Mahony and Ukolov have always lived in the Hradčany and Malá Strana area. Their previous flat, the second of the three they’ve called home in Prague, was on Uvoz. Of living in their current location, Ukolov says its “fantastic”. Mahony also expresses her appreciation, but reminisces about the past when the area was full of older, interesting people who they often met. “There used to be an old woman who fed cats. She’s vanished”, says Mahony. “I don’t like how it’s changed.” She also comments on what it’s like living in a heavily visited area. “It’s funny in the mornings. We open the door [the smaller door within the large door at their building’s entrance] and there are the tourists with their cameras,” she says. “It’s like the movie Notting Hill.”
The couple is making plans to, within a year or so, begin dividing their time between Ireland and Prague. Along with Ireland providing great support to creative businesses, Mahony says, “We want to split the living and work space in Ireland.” But for now, of their current lifestyle, she says, “It’s an odd way to live, but it feels like home.”
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