The first step towards establishing a museum of applied arts in Prague was an exhibition of Czech applied art held at Prague’s Old Town Hall in 1861. It was organised by Arcadia, an art and literary society, in response to similar initiatives in England. In 1868 the city’s Chamber of Trade and Commerce, in collaboration with the Royal and Imperial Austrian Museum of Art and Industry (k. k. Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie) in Vienna, held an exhibition at Žofín in Prague that featured items from the World’s Fair in Paris in 1867, together with older works from the collection of Vojtěch Lanna, who would later become one of the Museum’s patrons. These two exhibitions were intended to offer a comparison of European and Czech products and thereby motivate local business and artisans to improve the quality of their work. The decision to found the Museum was followed by many years of preparatory work and the developing of the future collections. As the Museum did not yet have premises of its own, the Czech Savings Bank (Česká spořitelna) gave it a temporary home in the new Rudolfinum building (1884), whose construction it had sponsored. In 1885 the Chamber of Trade and Commerce decided to erect a separate building for the Museum. The new premises, designed by the architect Josef Schulz (1840–1917), were built between 1897 and 1901 on a site adjacent to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, Prague’s Jewish quarter. The new building had rooms for the individual branches: glass, ceramics, gold and silver, base metals, furniture, small sculptures, books and textiles, and it also featured interiors from the Czech exhibit at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Museum also introduced its practice of holding short-term exhibitions, something it has continued to do ever since.
Josef Schulz’s building for the Museum is a splendid work of architecture on a site that is now considered, together with the adjacent Jan Palach Square, to be one of the most successful examples of urban design in 19th-century Prague. The Museum has a longitudinal ground plan with a projecting central bay. The layout is relatively simple, bounded on one side by a broad road and on the other by the Old Jewish Cemetery. The north-east corner of the building is adorned with a tower, while on the south side, facing Palach Square, there is a picturesque garden.
The construction of the Museum between 1897 and 1901 was during the final years of the fashion for reviving and combining various historical styles. Accordingly the front and side elevations with their tall arched windows are derived from the Renaissance in Northern Italy, while the grand Baroque balcony above the main entrance is supported by voluted corbels. On the main facade, the spandrels on the raised ground floor feature intricate figurative sculptures that set out the Museum’s mission: to the left low reliefs by Antonín Popp depict various arts and crafts (weaving, basket-making, embroidery, lace-making, gold and silversmithing, as well as the work of jewellers, armourers, locksmiths, bell founders and pewterers); the reliefs to the right are from Bohuslav Schnirch’s workshop, and they depict glass cutting, wood carving, engraving, printing, bookbinding, stonemasonry, glassmaking, pottery and porcelain. Schnirch also designed the sculptured coats of arms of Bohemian towns celebrated for their applied arts that we see between the windows on the first floor. The Museum’s roof is topped with three steep pyramids in the style of the French Renaissance, one at the centre and one on either side.