Photo: Margareta Tillberg

Features Exhibition in Moscow Soviet Design 1950–1980

Soviet Design 1950–1980 was shown for two busy winter months and enjoyed great public success. Even if Soviet design was often — but far from always — based on originals borrowed from the West, the individual objects exude a personal charm, variation, and quirkiness that makes them well worth preserving, exhibiting, and discussing.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1:2013, pages 28-29
Published on on May 13, 2013

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The Soviet era was one of shortages, endless queues, and store shelves lined with monotonous merchandise, far from sexy display windows. But at Soviet Design 1950—1980, we can discover another side of Soviet consumer goods. The exhibition displays a cavalcade of lovable objects, such as the small radios with clever names like “Surprise” and “Atmosphere”, and the “Saturn” and “Seagull” vacuum cleaners, which, unlike their American Hoover prototypes, had both suction and a blower, and thus could also be used to paint ceilings.

The exhibition is organized into categories — home electronics, furniture, toys, clothing and posters, clocks, photographic technology, household goods  — along with one section devoted to design and science. Design historians often emphasize cars as proud national achievements, and Soviet Design 1950—1980 boasts a bright-red Lada made on license from Fiat for conversion to right-hand drive and export to Great Britain, and an equally vivid green Moskvitch prototype from 1975 (both from the Moscow Retro Auto Museum).

One might ask whether Soviet design actually had its own aesthetic or whether it mainly involved plagiarism and copying from the West. And although a lot of things seemed to last forever, many products were short-lived. In a 1961 letter to the editor of the popular weekly magazine Ogonyok the question is posed: “It took us two years to save up for a TV and we stood in line for a long time. But it only worked for two hours. Is that why it is called ‘Record’?”

Even if Soviet design was often — but far from always — based on originals borrowed from the West, the individual objects exude a personal charm, variation, and quirkiness that makes them well worth preserving, exhibiting, and discussing. Certainly, one might think the Vyatka is merely an unnecessary repetition of the original Vespa, only heavier, of poorer quality, and, because it was not mass-produced, much more expensive. But I still believe the Russian-made scooter deserves more notice than it has been given thus far. It says something about a time and a system that may seem alien, but which had tremendous impact on what our world looks like today.

Soviet Design 1950—1980 is an important event. The organizers hope the exhibition will be made into a permanent design museum — a museum that so far exists only virtually, as a website and on Wikipedia. Even though the physical objects of Soviet-made everyday life have virtually disappeared, the organizers are sure to amass a collection worth seeing, with help from exhibition-goers.

There are countless themes that can be further developed here: toy manufacturing, graphic design, stewardship of traditions from the Russian avant-garde, and contextualization of the profuse production of prototypes. The biggest problem is thus not a shortage of material.

The main challenge is instead how to construct the narratives of the objects. The organizers have taken on a huge and important task in this respect. For example, during the Soviet era, consumer goods from the involuntarily occupied Baltic states were coveted for their high quality and advanced production, compared to the Russian-Soviet variety. I am slightly taken aback though, when I hear the exhibition guide, one of the organizers, say “The Baltic countries are our close foreign neighbors, which unfortunately are no longer ours.”

Many of the visitors are far too young to have personal memories of the Soviet dictatorship, as consumers at any rate. “If you made a little effort, you could buy this radio,” we are informed with a sweeping gesture at the display case holding home electronics. But then the guide concedes, “It might have been a little harder outside Moscow.” As a matter of fact, I happened to live in Moscow during the Soviet era and I recall things differently. I cannot help but think the Soviet era is being romanticized.

Soviet Design 1950–1980   was shown for two busy winter months and enjoyed great public success. The organizers are a group of young (under 40), smart, well-educated Muscovites. They have managed to mount their first exhibition at the Central Exhibition Hall in the middle of the symbolic heart of Russia at the Kremlin Wall and Red Square.

Soviet Design 1950—1980 displays examples of homo ludens that should be taken very seriously. The many lovingly invented and manufactured objects may instill a sense of forgiveness in the process of mythologization that is now accelerating along with the nascent media hype. This just might be the start of something good.

For surely design involves a fundamentally humanist attitude wherein relationships among people and our place in the world are given shape based on human measures, needs, and desires? A design museum can fulfill an important mission here as a platform for discussion and meetings across generational lines. With the help of the many charming artifacts, Soviet design could also foster a more lighthearted international dialog in an area of Russian policy that has hitherto been far too toxic.

Design history   encompasses cultural heritage and national pride, as well as issues concerning copyright and the capacity to produce an appealing lifestyle. The Soviet Union no longer exists and its material culture has literally been thrown into the dump. The initiative to found a design museum in Russia is praiseworthy and it will be interesting to follow its progress.

When the Russian Union of Industrial Designers was formed in 1987, its founder Yuri Soloviev was given a seat in the Supreme Soviet, where he sat in alphabetical order next to the human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. At the time, there were extensive plans to create a large design center in Arbat, which would have included an interactive museum with test workshops for interaction between consumers and designers, but the plans were never implemented.

Soviet Design 1950—1980 is a new chance for Russia to show itself to the world and talk about new opportunities. Despite everything, it was the Soviet Union that accomplished the monumental task of sending the first man into space. And what did Gagarin see? That Russia is part of the common land mass like every other country on the face of the Earth.

When push comes to shove, design is about how we want to give shape to our lives today and in the future with the material resources we all share. ≈

  • Tim Martin

    I visited VNIITE in Leningrad and Moscow with a group of Industrial Design students and tutors from Birmingham Polytechnic in 1980

  • by Margareta Tillberg

    Associate Professor in Art History, Uppsala University. Adjunct Professor, Stockholm University. She defended in 2003 her doctorate on Russian art and artists, Coloured Universe and the Russian-Avantgarde. M.V. Matiushin on Colour Vision in Stalin’s Russia 1932. Main research interests concern art in the widest sense possible (including theory and practice of visual culture, design, architecture, media) in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, applying interdisciplinary perspectives.

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