No one can complain that this exhibition, the first of the new Moscow Design Museum and running at the Manezh Exhibition Gallery in the heart of Moscow, doesn’t have a thesis.’Soviet design existed!’, proclaims one of the blurbs pasted on the walls around ‘Soviet Design 1950-1980’, a compelling exhibit that I was able to visit this past weekend.
It might sound like an underwhelming pitch for an exhibit – one doesn’t enter a Bauhaus exhibition these days to hear that ‘Modernism existed!’ – but perhaps that just goes to show how much work there remains to do to excavate and understand proper the intellectual legacy left behind by the Soviet Union, especially in its postwar, nukes-spaceships-and-borshcht incarnation. These days, many different graduate students – your humble author included – are in the process of researching or writing up dissertations, the basic gist of many of which is that Soviet history wasn’t as wildly divergent as we think it normally is, and there are in fact ways in which Soviet intellectual trends either mirrored or paralleled its ‘Western’ or ‘European’ counterparts: think of academic economics, area studies, or industrial standardization.
Yet design in particular seems the one area in which it’s hard to accept that there was anything interesting going on in the Soviet Union. The West had Dieter Rams and Steve Jobs, the East had … who, exactly? While Soviet 4x4s like the Lada Niva (Russian for ‘crop field’ … not quite ‘Corvette’) would be my choice if I was making a getaway across mountainous Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, they’re not quite as appealing to me as a Porsche 911 or as badass-looking as an Acura NSX, I have to admit. Consumer appliances in Russia rarely evoke as much excitement, or desire to do ironing, as quickly as their American counterparts do, and while I have some love for the enormous, industrial toggle switches that turn on the too-bright personal light on older generation Russian night trains, I admit to being less taken by the combination of sloshing steel toilets and non-functional sinks that make going to the bathroom at 3 AM on overnight trains a needlessly painful, and often wet, experience. In short, we’re basically trained – by some combination of Cold War vision and everyday experience for those of us who spend time in the former Soviet Union – to believe that design basically didn’t exist.
As the exhibit shows in great detail – if sometimes with less context than I would like – that’s not the case. Spread out into roughly five or six sections – covering items from 1980 Olympics kitsch, furniture, children’s toys, furniture, and fabric to teaware – it provides a reasonably comprehensive overview of Soviet ‘artistic design’ (khudozhestvennyi dezayn), as it was called then, during its heyday of the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. We meet some of the graphic design stars who are less known than they should be outside of Russia, like Valery Akopov, whose signage to the 1980 Olympics (one of my favorites, below) remind us what a world to itself the Soviet Union was.
Other designs, like the poster for the wacky 1970 film White Sun of the Desert (a wacky adventure film about the wars of the 1920s in Central Asia which became a must-see for cosmonauts prior to launch) remind us how even though the Soviet Union of the 1970s was very much the grey place that we remember, part of what makes historicizing it difficult is that much of the cultural mood centered around graphic exuberance and (not seen in the movie poster) hyper-enthusiasm for all things related to childhood.Some of the enthusiasm for childhood and all things children-related – incidentally the topic of a book by one of my advisors – is seen in the design of ‘Misha’, the symbol for the 1980 Olympics, as well as the children’s toys that the Moscow exhibit’s organizers have been using in their promotional materials.
This bent is probably easier to understand than the 1970s exuberance (something which the USSR certainly didn’t have a monopoly on): the 1960s and 1970s were the first time since perhaps the first decade of the 20th century when Russians could see their kids grow up in an atmosphere of more-or-less normalcy (as opposed to famine or war, self-inflicted or otherwise), and yet the threat of total destruction and nuclear war hung over every moment. Childhood was something to be protected and celebrated – in art if not always in practice – if only because the parents of this generation had themselves never been allowed to fully be kids.
In other words, there’s lots of great stuff – but more context would have been helpful. This is not to trash what is otherwise a really well-done exhibit: judging from radio interviews the team behind the exhibit did quite a bit of leg work looking through the archives of furniture institutes, typography studios, and some now-defunct institutes, studios, and personal collections of some of the artists involved. As plenty of graduate students less lucky than I can tell you, finding cool historical stuff in Moscow is often far more convoluted than simply showing up at the air-conditioned, cushy archive and pressing a button, and the young team at the Moscow Design Museum did a great job with digging up sofas, posters, and teapots in the first place. And maybe it’s because I attended the exhibit on its opening weekend, but I would have liked more context going into the institutions and journals that fostered ‘artistic design’ during the Soviet period. It sounds like they have plenty of materials on this aspect of the story of Soviet design: this article, produced by a paper owned by the Russian government, mentions that
In 1950-1960, the main task was to somehow keep the release of goods in line with the capabilities of the factories, rather than consumer demand. However, in 1962, the All-Russian Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) was created “for improving the quality of mechanical engineering and goods of cultural and general purposes through implementing artistic design methods.”
I would have loved to have more of this background – in Russian or in English – but unfortunately, most of what the viewer gets throughout the exhibit are only short, one-paragraph blurbs that don’t go into much depth into mentors, institutions, locales, etc.
Which leads me into the first of three broader observations the exhibit left me with as I trekked around downtown Moscow in search of a decent coffee shop (a task perhaps harder than finding old design files in suburban furniture institutes). While I recognize that not every post-Soviet capital has a design subculture – although this site would seem to indicate that even sleepy Dushanbe has a group of talented young people! – it would of course be interesting to learn more about how design practices varied from region to region, and the role that different institutions (Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Tashkent, and the Baltics being possible starting points) played in the formation of a central or a fractured Soviet design aesthetic. The last time I was in Moscow, for example, the Lumiere Brothers Art Gallery, another great institution for the arts in the Russian capital, organized a great exhibit centered around the ‘Lithuanian School‘, a group of photographers from that Soviet Baltic Republic who became famous after a 1969 exhibition in Moscow for their honest, deformalized portraits of Lithuanian peasants before going on to present at several major Western European shows, garnering so much repute as to do a shoot of Jean-Paul Sartre during his visit to the USSR in 1965. One wonders – for that is precisely one must do so long as institutions and archives remain closed in places like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan – how much similar stories of small artistic scenes or enclaves were reproduced in other niches around the Soviet world in the 1960s and 1970s.
Second, I wonder why it is that in spite of the very real accomplishments of Soviet design in certain areas – interior furniture, combined seating/sleeping/dining/entertaining areas, garderobe sections of museums and libraries (for some reason almost always more elegant than ones in the USA or UK, it seems to me) – why it is that certain other areas trailed so far behind. Or, more specifically, what it was about aspects of the command economy, or design institutes, that diverted attention from certain sectors to others. Listening to a most excellent Colin Marshall podcast-interview with Jarrett Walker on the walk home today, Walker, a public transit consultant, noted that one of the goals of public transport systems, and perhaps more specifically their maps and design, should be to give the user – be she a commuter or a traveler – a sense of freedom and possibility to explore the city.
Granted, that’s probably not the kind of self-liberationist language one was likely to hear in Moscow planning bureaus as the Metro expanded and expanded in the post-war years, but still, I wonder: why are post-Soviet Metro and public transit maps less evocative than their counterparts even thirty years later? Moscow, to my knowledge, still does not have a map for its bus system, and while old maps like the 1986 version below are efficient enough, they are totally divorced from any context of the city itself, much less the possibilities one might have to explore it: Red Square, the streets of Kitai-Gorod, the Arbat, etc. Part of me wonders whether the problem was the fact that so many Soviet metro systems were built around three lines intersecting in the middle of the city to form a triangle, almost regardless, it seems, of the city’s layout: both circular Yerevan and linear Kazan ended up with one metro line, meanwhile, even though the cities work in totally different ways. I’m not sure if there’s a future in Soviet public transit studies, granted, but inquiring minds want to know!
Third, however – thinking here less on the level of materials than on that of interpretation – I’ll be interested to see more on how the exhibit is received here in Moscow by Russians, as compared to how non-Russians, and perhaps especially folks from the Anglophone World like myself, react to it. Part of the reason, it seems to me, why hipsters and yuppies in my generation are so interested in ‘design’ (Dieter Rams, Jonny Ive, etc.) is that, as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise, it hits a sweet spot between bohemian and bourgeois culture. (Brooks was really writing about younger Baby Boomers, but we’ll let that fact slip by for a moment.) We would never want to appear materialistic (bohemian), so it’s important that when we do spend money, it’s on things that are of ‘professional’ quality – even if those ‘professional’ items are a $3000 laptop or household speakers that we’ll use for our living room (bourgeois). Cultivating an interest in design – all the better if it’s from Germany, Japan, or Scandinavia – thus forms a great niche activity for yuppies, one might argue, because it provides the perfect framework within which to distinguish ‘cultivated’ consumerism (this $35 hand shovel designed in Devon by strapping English farmer-designers, or jackets which are specifically patterned after military designs because those garments ‘had integrity’) from the stuff that the plebs would purchase at Wal-Mart. This interest in what is often older garments or consumer products also suggests niche knowledge (similar to obscure taste in indie music), and also allows certain room for irony, another big late 21st century American virtue. (Cynical readers of this blog might argue that being a historian / scholar of this kind of stuff is just the *next* level of this kind of cultivated interest in eccentric topics used to justify luxury consumption in the form of foreign travel, etc.) Stuff like the objects at the Moscow exhibit fits this cultural preoccupation ideally: it’s obscure, foreign, but made with care, so you’re hitting all of the sweet spots of obscurity, irony, and sincerity all at once.
Yet I wonder whether the American and Russian receptions of ‘Soviet Design’ might not end up totally speaking past one another for this reason. Love it or hate it, Russia today is one of the least ironic societies I have ever lived in. Track suits and denim jeans – denim jacket combos are always in here, and particularly as my hair grows longer along with my facial hair, I’m often tempted – if immediately talked out of it by my female friends – by the idea of chopping some of it off and going with the Russian male look of getting a mullet, track suit, and an Adidas tracksuit. Similarly, if the ambitions I see among Russian middle-class familie – for the suburban house with easy access to the hypermarket on the MKAD and the occasional vacation to the beach resort in Sharm-el-Sheik, Antalya, Pattaya, or Dubai, themselves booked out by other Russian families and couples – people aren’t exactly on the hunt for ‘authenticity’ or ‘sincerity’ in goods and consumption here. If anything, most restaurants in Moscow (at which the average Russian eats something like less than one time a year) traffic in exuberant ‘national cuisine’ and ‘national culture’ rather than going with the stripped-down design-centric look that Westerners would find attractive: the Georgian restaurant Hachapuri is delightful, if you ask me, but its modernist interior is atypical for the capital. All of this makes me think that the Russian reaction to the exhibit is likely to be much more straightforward than the irony- and sincerity-infused take that Western observers might bring with them. Most of the conversation I overheard at the exhibit was along the lines of, ‘Hey, I remember this from childhood!’, ‘Isn’t this great!’ , or agreement with the organizers line that modernism was really an international phenomenon, rather than thoughts of how Soviet design might be re-appropriated today to express more sincerity or irony on the part of its necromancer. Characteristically, there was no gift shop to go with the exhibition, and my partner for the outing had to prod me to grab one of the exhibition posters lying on a table, which no one else seemed to be taking: people were coming to see, not so much to re-appropriate these goods to flaunt their erudition and taste (as I fully intend to do by framing my poster on an office in the future).
In any event, check the exhibit out! It’s good. And it runs until January 20th. Tickets 150 rubles ($4.80) at the door.