Features Design institute VNIITE closes its doors
VNIITE, once the world’s largest institute of design research, ceased to exist on June 14, 2013. It was once conceived as a marriage of engineering and aesthetics. Intellectual abilities and sensitivity were to be respected rather than viewed as problems.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW Vol. VI. 2 2013, pp 56
Published on balticworlds.com on november 12, 2013
VNIITE, once the world’s largest institute of design research, ceased to exist on June 14, 2013. The event passed entirely without notice by the international press, so it would be reasonable to ask why anyone should care about it now. The answer is simple: the reason for this lack of reaction is that design from the Soviet Union is virtually unknown in the outside world and even in Russia itself.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia’s manufacturing industries have lurched from one crisis to another. Demand for domestic goods has declined despite trade barriers on imports. A BMW is the obvious choice over a Lada any day, and after decades of problems with the Lada — continuous engine breakdowns, no warranties, and no spare parts — this choice is not difficult to understand. Dmitry Azrikan, VNIITE’s erstwhile star designer who emigrated to Chicago in 1992, says, “It’s a wonder that they’ve managed to maintain the life support for twenty years.”
Russia’s problems are enormous; it is hard to know where to begin when describing them. The country is home to more than four hundred “monotowns” dependent on a single industry, many of which began as work camps that became permanent over time. The cement and aluminum plant in Pikalevo, outside St. Petersburg, was shut down in 2008, leaving an entire town unemployed. When the town’s heating and water were shut off, the protesters were criminalized. How are we to understand what is happening in a design perspective?
The first step is to shift our focus. Design is not about just any goods, but rather goods manufactured from a user’s point of view. VNIITE, the institute for engineering aesthetics — as “design” was referred to behind the Iron Curtain — wanted to produce goods that satisfied the basic needs of all people. Designed utilitarian goods were to be considered a measure of the population’s well being. The USSR had an unparalleled system for realizing that aim: the centrally planned economy.
The Russian acronym VNIITE means, in translation, the All-Union Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics. It was conceived as a marriage of engineering and aesthetics. Intellectual abilities and sensitivity were to be respected rather than viewed as problems. The sensitivity of a person’s fingertips and the sense of smell — everything was to be developed in harmony with the efficiency of machines. In other words: in the man-machine constellation, the value of man was becoming greater.
VNIITE made prototypes that were user-friendly not only to the perfect human being, but also to the imperfect. This was genuine design! Products would be designed not just for the superhumanly strong technology nerd, but also for the old geezer with painfully arthritic hands. Given the well-deserved poor reputation of the USSR, it would seem next to impossible for something like VNIITE to have existed in such a technocratic state — a dictators’ dictatorship — since both dictatorships and technocracies are characterized by total indifference to human suffering.
VNIITE’s message was therefore a huge thing in a country with an archipelago of factories with locked doors keeping in their cheap labor, with their millions of disenfranchised Ivan Denisoviches surrounded by barbed wire and barking dogs. The meaning of all this hard labor could also be questioned. What was manufactured and why? What could be the point of manufacturing a mountain of ugly, clumsy shoes — and those only for left feet! Those who questioned were punished; those who remained silent and compliant were favored.
Against this background, the fact that an institution was set up in the center of power to investigate the “other side” is something of a miracle. Of course, it was also the only one of its kind. I certainly do not know of anything like it, standing on the side of “the little guy” in the midst of this dictatorship of technocracy where technical solutions were the answer to everything and the human factor was seen mainly as a problem.
Remarkably, VNIITE was funded by the government. Granted, in return it was expected to modernize the country’s industrial machinery, to bring its tractors, radios, and machine tools up to a presentable level, and to organize respectable trade shows demonstrating products sufficiently up-to-date not to be ridiculed at international exhibitions. However, in addition to the plagiarism, industrial espionage, and superficially fashionable styling that characterized much of Soviet-Russian industrial art, VNIITE did much more. It produced a slew of amusing and intriguing prototypes: the small and environmentally sound car known as “the Ant” (Muravei); a well-designed recycling system for the 180,000 inhabitants of the Moldavian city of Beltsy; a smart bread-distribution system in Minsk; and much more. These projects were ahead of their time even by Western standards.
VNIITE’s model was the aeronautics industry: not one kilo extra and no unnecessary junk. This industry created useful products within the framework of a centrally planned economy. However, the proposed innovations required fundamental changes, for which there was not enough political will until perestroika.
When Gorbachev launched his reforms, the “pre-perestroika” of the 1960s was the model. In the 1960s, extensive reforms had been introduced to an economy that had hitherto been carefully planned. VNIITE was a part of those reforms.
VNIITE’s founding director, Yuri Soloviev, was highly qualified as the designer of the ingenious third-class rail car currently used on Russian railways. After serving as director of VNIITE from 1962 to 1988, he became a member of the Congress of the People’s Deputies, occupying the chair beside the civil rights fighter Sakharov. He was also involved in the enormous design center planned for the Arbat quarter in the center of Moscow, and he and Boris Yeltsin shook hands on the deal.
I made a phone call to Yuri Borisovich in Moscow to ask for a comment. “Unfortunately our country has no industry to speak of,” he said. “We have no project orders. Management has no insight into the most fundamental issues. That is all I have to say.” ≈