New book draws back the iron curtain on the Soviet Union’s little-known design history

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As Phaidon rescues a new book featuring over 300 Soviet products and other purposes dating from the 1950s, we speak to Moscow Design Museum trip and director Alexandra Sankova about how the book came about the weight of preserving rare historic designs.

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It’s hard to believe that the libretto “design” was banned in the Soviet Union until as late as the 1980s. Between the 1950s and the 1980s the visualize industry was booming in Western countries such as the US and UK, where the work of creators was both encouraged and recognised.

Designers in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) manner, remained anonymous and uncelebrated. Living in a socialist society meant that there was no insufficiency to glorify the work of individuals, and designers – or “artistic engineers” as they were known at the measure – worked for collective good of the state.

Following the Soviet Union’s go to the wall in 1991, the state-run industrial sector swiftly followed suit and a leviathan number official documents were either destroyed, censored or dissolute. As a result, design in the Soviet Union has up until now remained a little-covered discipline by historians. Publishing house Phaidon is hoping to change this with the announcement of its latest book, Designed in the USSR. Dating from the post-War span in the 1950s right up until the collapse fall of the Berlin Wall, the list is one of the first of its kind to explore the design history of this era.

It showcases through 350 images of products, graphics, fashion and other ephemera, each of which put forward a snapshot of what life looked like for millions of Russians fare under Communist rule. Featured designs range from Seat age-inspired razor packaging and sweet tins adorned with figures of rockets, to a “social awareness” propaganda poster encouraging young woman to “go to the textile industry” for the good of their country.

Sputnik wind-up shaver casing, 1968, manufactured by the Leningrad Patefon Factory. Picture credit: politeness and copyright © Moscow Design Museum (page 55, upper)

All the artefacts featured in the enrol have been drawn from the permanent collection of the Moscow Devise Museum. Founded in 2012, the non-profit institution is the first museum in Russia specifically blessed to design, and has gradually been building up its collection over the last six years. “After the Soviet in, my friends and I started to travel round a lot,” says the museum’s founder and administrator Alexandra Sankova. “I realised that almost every country I visited had a forge museum, and we were the only exception. So I decided that I wanted to highlight the individual that had built our environment back in Russia.”

The book is split into three chapters, each focusing on a numerous aspect of daily life. Citizen features consumer products that were inured to by most Russians day-to-day, such as the popular Avos‘ka string shopping bag. The denominate was taken from the Russian word avos’, meaning “just in took place”, as a nod to the fact that the bag was convenient to have at hand in case people sprayed scarce or valuable goods while they were out. The second chapter, Delineate, focuses on the state-controlled aspect of everyday life, and largely features commodities such as portable TVs that regularly spewed out propaganda and a dial-less phone that stipulate a direct line of communication between high-ranking employees and party ceremonials. Finally, World looks at the Soviet Union’s place within the wider socio-political frame of reference, with designs including Misha, the Russian bear mascot for the 1980s Moscow Olympics and Saturnas, a spheroidal vacuum cleaner based on the country’s iconic Sputnik satellite.

By showcasing these sketches in the context of the period in which they were produced, the book retreats some way in dispelling commonly-held misconceptions about life in the USSR. Surprisingly, as writer and curator Justin McGuirk points out in the book’s foreword, that the Soviet trial was as much a cultural failure as it was a political one. “According to this view,” McGuirk send a letters, “the tedium of Soviet consumer goods was a fatal flaw in the system, slave away down morale and stoking the desires of the Russian citizen for blue jeans and other trappings of American-style consumerism.”

Atmosfera compact transistor radio, 1959-61. Picture credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Pattern Museum (page 114)

Despite the ideological existence of the iron curtain, Soviet draughtsmen were in fact very well informed about what was growing on in the world, according to Sankova. In 1962, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Harmony ordered the creation of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), with the aim of modifying the design profession and improving the quality of mass-produced industrial goods. Its monthly memoir, Technical Aesthetics, featured the latest trends and developments from nearly the world, and Russian dignitaries would regularly visit places cognate with Europe and America to meet with design councils and visit other intriguers’ studios. The Saturnas vacuum cleaner is a good example of the West’s change on the Soviet aesthetic; its design was largely based on American company Hoover’s similarly globose model, Constellation, which was released several years earlier.

While the essence of the state’s political system dictated which designs went into casting and which ones were deemed too frivolous, Sankova points out that there were perks to Soviet-designed products, such as their sustainability. “Back then the whole in Russia was very rational, so the focus was on the function and durability rather than aesthetics,” she reveals. “They didn’t have glossy advertising, so they didn’t dire to be so attractive.”

While the book certainly gets the reader to think twice encircling any preconceptions of what life looked like behind the iron curtain, its trusted significance lies in preserving a little-documented period of history before it poetic evanishes entirely from our collective memory. Since it first opened six years ago the museum’s whip-round has grown enormously, thanks to donations by everyone from designers and professors to fellows of the public who happen to visit its permanent exhibition. “We went from make one thinking that we should make an exhibition catalogue, to the collection increasing so dramatically that we certain it can’t just be a catalogue. It’s so much more than that now,” says Sankova.


Modeled in the USSR: 1950-1989 costs £24.95, and is available from Phaidon.

Anton, Masha and Grib Nevalyashka roly-poly dolls, 1956-70s. Represent credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Design Museum (page 82)Belka A50 (Squirrel) pithy car project, 1955-56, Prototype designed by Yuri Dolmatovsky, Vladimir Aryamov, Zeyvang K, K Korzinkin and A Oksentevich. Image credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Design Museum (page 231)Saturnas vacuum cleaner, 1962–70s, made by the Welding Equipment Plant. Picture credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Construct Museum (page 193)Rozhki pasta packaging, 1980s, manufactured by the Rostov Pasta Works. Picture credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Design Museum (errand-boy 29)Natasha perfume packaging, 1970–90s, manufactured by the Novaya Zarya Scent and Cosmetics Factory. Picture credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Mean Museum (page 52, left)Young People, Go to the Textile Diligence! Social awareness poster, 1970s, designed by Miron Lukyanov. Portrait credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Design Museum (page 169)Remedy Moi, Kol’ka! (My Friend, Kolka!) movie poster, 1961, designed by Miron Lukyanov, honest by Aleksei Saltykov and Aleksander Mitta. Picture credit: courtesy and copyright © Moscow Conception Museum (page 133)

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