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Radio. 1958

There was the design in USSR! 0

Olga Abramova

Exhibition Soviet Design in 1950s-80s in Moscow Manege
November 30, 2012 – January 20, 2013 

Moscow really needs a museum of design as much as one can judge by crowded noisy vernissage. Right now it doesn’t really look like museum: it is the basement floor of Moscow Manege divided in three parts, as if it was a manor apartment, and each of exhibitions has got its own corner of 650 sq. metres. One partition divides design from Artist’s Book, and the other one - from Museum of Screen Culture. And even these 650 metres can be considered a gift from heaven. Or from Moscow Department of Culture. 

At first Aleksandra Sankova’s (actual director of Moscow Design Museum) team was so desperate for the place for their museum, it would accept even a vegetable stand. They needed something just to begin with. Later, there was the idea of a horse-box, and, at last, their dream came true with the help of Avtokolonna 1417 company, which donated a bus for the museum to be.    

Electric heater

Museum people commissioned their corporate look from Lava Amsterdam Studio, then ran a successful PR-campaign, arranged rooms in the former air-raid shelter from Artplay Design Center, and in May 2012 they officially listed the museum as a private cultural institution.  At this point they were ready to designify masses in its mobile exhibition hall, which actually was the reequiped bus.  About that time Marina Loshak, highly regarded art dealer and curator, was invited by Sergei Kapkov, the head of the Culture Department, as art director of Moscow Manege. She came to appreciate the potential of A. Sankova’s project, and design received its own piece of exhibition hall as well as archive storage in the main hall of the capital city.

Doll. 1960s

Of course, so far there is no red tape. Museum has to seek funds for its projects itself: strive for grants, persuade the sponsors, engage the funds and attract the visitors. The new institution demonstrated its splendid abilities already during the first exhibition, which was gathered in breathtakingly short time. It was dedicated to Russian design of after war period to attract most of the public (because people usually like to relate) and to show that besides Vkhutemas (Вхутемас) and constructivism there is something else to remember. The time period was modified in the process of forming the exhibition: from initial 1960s-70s it was expanded to 1950s-80s.

Bag for eggs

While preparing the exhibition museum team worked in all directions simultaneously. Team members collaborated both with private and state owners of interesting objects, bought future exhibits at the most unexpected places, sometimes even at internet-auctions like (allegedly, some objects even were found at the dump), autentificated nameless pieces, looked for live authors and collected archives.

TVs. The Museum of Industrial Culture

Organizers’ drive transmitted to the public crowded at the exhibition opening. Overjoyed spectators wandered about the exhibition hall (architect Yury Avvakumov), from the unique right-wheeled Moskvitch along toy cars, rolly-polly dolls known as Nevalyashka and milk bottles with aluminium caps, to smoothing irons, TVs and tape machines. These things were so familiar: Oh! I remember this, my mom had one! The objects transformed in the exhibition room and opened visitors’ eyes.

From graphic design exhibition Металлообработка

The exhibition has proven some obvious things: no iron curtain is hermetic. Especially, after death of the tyrant and after such powerful events as World Festival of Youth and Students or National American Exhibition in Moscow. All the evolution stages of world design reflect themselves in Russian artistic constructing, although, sometimes it is just a very remote echoes of global trends. It is especially noticeable in the unique products and prototypes that have never turned into series production due to unhandy planned economy. There are some Art deco objects produced by furniture makers of Riga, streamline refrigerators and washing machines that seem to be ready to take off to the sky, and Pop-art plastic toys and cascets, as well as old good functionalistic pieces of art like egg-holder or electric heaters. Very largely presented is the brand that in 1960s USSR gave to the world: the space. Russia never played with this trend as expressive as Europe or USA did, but Sputnik still was a Soviet invention, thus, its image was brought to almost every house by cosmic-looking vacuum-cleaners and clocks.

Hearing aid on a mannequin. Layout design N. Slesareva

There is a lot of good commercial graphic design: from all-known and all-loved Stolichnaya label and film posters to simple logos made by V. Akopov. There is also documentary proof of institutional design in USSR: establishing of VNIITE (All-Russian Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics) and Rosenblum’s Studio in Senezh. One can also find issues of Technical Aesthetics magazine at the exhibition: it was the only Soviet special design magazine. Small  plasma screens give an opportunity to listen to the stories recorded specially for the exhibition.

Catalog of Estonian beverages. 1960s

Present exposition is right on the Soviet state of mind, very popular in Russia right now. Many think that lots of things were quiet good at that time. Now we are tired of massive attack of the Chinese kitsch and IKEA functionalism, we are pleased to see interesting stuff among our own design. But it is worth to remember that interesting stuff was created not due to but in spite of the conditions.  

Cosmic vacuum cleaners. 1960s

The exhibition Soviet Design in 1950s-80s is very sad regardless its benefit performance. It is not only about beautiful and useful things, but also about useless efforts, broken dreams, humiliation and wasted time.

One shouldn’t forget the punishing reality of Soviet era. And such Soviet phenomenons as shortage and opportunity to get one’s hands on something. And the fact that even if one got one’s hands on a local masterpiece, often it needed a lot of fixing and upgrading. The dramatic example is a posh radio Zvezda-54 (Звезда-54), its instruction claimed that it was a mastercopy of a French prototype. Library of VNIITE was very popular since it gave an opportunity to work with new issues of foreign magazines.

Sofa set Riga. 1957

One really wishes there was real history without emotional booze, yet with precise highlights indicating political and ideological circumstances.

However, celebration is celebration, and all the serious work still lies ahead.  And the great thing is that all the future work lies in the hands of such a solidate, professional team full of enthusiasm. Surely, there will be new plotlines, revelations and explorations. And the mobile hall is about to remain.

Container for accessories. 1960s

Then we can definitely declare that there was the design in USSR. Unlike sex.