Behind the Curtain

 Click on the image above to be taken directly to the Phaidon website.

Click on the image above to be taken directly to the Phaidon website.

When we think of Russian design, we mostly think post-impressionist onion domes, futurist film and photography, and bold graphic art. We certainly don’t think of Soviet products – a subject that has been so little studied... until now! Launched in April, Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989 is a fascinating read, and is beautifully presented in a colourful coffee table book.

Excerpt: This was a country prepared to invest in the most heroic feats – a man in space – but not in everyday desires. And yet, the fact that it is somehow a truism that Soviet products were substandard ought to make one suspicious. Indeed, it may be a consequence of how assured we are in our opinions of ‘Soviet design’ that the subject has been so little studied. This is one of the few books on the topic. While not a revisionist history offering up a parade of unsung masterpieces, it does, examples of industrial products were displayed, often serving as prototypes for their Soviet equivalents. They were studied in detail, adapted to available technology and put into mass production. Hard as it is to imagine now, the words ‘design’ and ‘designer’ were banned until as late as the 1980s.

This curious feature of Russia’s historical consciousness, with its attempts to eradicate and censor the past, was one of the reasons why, in 2012, the Moscow Design Museum – an institution dedicated to the preservation of Russia’s design heritage – decided to hold an exhibition on Soviet design from the 1950s to the 1980s. It was the institute’s first exhibition, and the aim was to acknowledge the individuals behind the wealth of anonymous objects populating the USSR – items which,  decades later, can still be found in innumerable homes and workplaces across the region. When such items went on display at the Moscow Design Museum, the exhibition received 150,000 visitors. That is a sizeable audience for a group of objects that would have been utterly mun- dane only a generation ago. The question is, what was the appeal? Was it fascination for a time that now feels impossibly distant, or nostalgia for a country that once placed less stock in material things?

This captivating book features more than 350 items of Soviet design from the Moscow Design Museum’s unique collection. Organised into three chapters, ‘Citizen’, ‘State’, and ‘World’, the book is a micro-to-macro tour of the functional, kitsch, politicised, and often Avant-garde designs from this largely undocumented period.

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Woo Gilchrist