I belong to the last generation that can reasonably call itself “Soviet” — I was 15 when the empire fell apart — and can vouch for the fact that we grew up with some pretty terrible stuff. Soda fountains with communal glasses, itchy clothes in muddy hues, libido-quashing underwear. There were better and brighter things, too, mostly made in east Germany or Czechoslovakia, but the core of the Soviet consumer experience was the same for decades. Nobody gave half a thought to where these horrors came from or who designed them. They had no provenance. You inherited them at birth, all at once. They were part of life’s kit, an ever-receding background noise.
Against this ocean of gray, any item made with a modicum of care shone like a beacon
Against this ocean of gray, any item made with a modicum of care, the tiniest of formalist flourishes, immediately shone out like a beacon. A Firmenny (brand-name) cigarette lighter, an importny (imported) shopping bag — no object was too mundane to crave if it was made well. To live in the Soviet Union was not to be ignorant of good design. It was to be obsessively, erotically hyperaware of it.
It took the Kremlin until 1959 to realise how starved for things the nation was. In July of that year, Moscow’s Sokolniki Park hosted the American National Exhibition. (Now that was an economic assault.) In just two weeks two million Russians had had their faces mashed into a perfect tableau of Yankee wealth. The Cadillacs, the TV dinners, the cosmetics, the denim! The free Pepsi! Most notoriously, there was that cutaway model of a suburban house (designed by the architect Andrew Geller), where Nixon and Khrushchev stopped to spar in the famous “kitchen debates". But the Americans didn’t just bring neat-o household gadgets. A dizzying array of names tagged along with the exhibit — Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius. The country that had reduced all objects to pure function met the world’s foremost experts on form. It had nothing to show in return.
Having survived Stalin and the war, the people, it turned out, needed toys
Beet-red on that pastel stage set of a kitchen, Khrushchev told Nixon that the Soviets had better things to build — like the Sputnik. In reality, however, his humiliation was almost complete. The utopia took a massive hit: it was hard to argue spiritual superiority against the whir of an electric dishwasher. Something had to be done, lest morale disintegrate further. Having survived Stalin and the war, the people, it turned out, needed toys.
By 1962, the USSR’s highest executive body, the Council of Ministers, came out with a thesis: “On Improving the Quality of Industrial Products and Cultural-Domestic Goods Through Implementation of Methods of Artistic Construction.” These “methods of artistic construction” meant, for the lack of a term in the Russian lexicon, “design”. The same resolution created VNIITE, the All-Union Technical Aesthetics Research Institute. By 1964, VNIITE had half a dozen branches and its own rather stylish magazine, Technical Aesthetics, whose distribution peaked at an impressive 30,000 copies.
"I don’t think any Soviet industrial designers ever expected their work to become reality"
It was also the Soviet Union’s coolest place to work. Dmitry Azrikan, one of the country’s first professional designers, has since described the magazine’s publication as “an oblique form of dissent, all rooted in this typically 1960s belief that Soviet socialism could have a ‘human face’”. Like jazz or rock-and-roll fans, Azrikan and his friends found themselves “priests of an obscure cult”, poring over dog-eared British and American trade magazines. Some of their work — like the sleek 1967 prototype of a gas station — was innovative by any contemporary standards. None of it ever saw production. “Our design wasn’t even about design per se. It was about showing how people lived on the other side of the fence. I don’t think any Soviet industrial designers ever expected their work to become reality: the manufacturers would never bother with any of our suggestions. So it was more like a public rebuke to the poverty of our surroundings.”
The manufacturers, meanwhile, went down an easier road. They embarked on a long stretch of ripping off Western goods outright. The whole process was shockingly haphazard. A few times a year, one Communist Party functionary or another would come home from a foreign trip toting the latest loot—a hair dryer, a vacuum cleaner or, in the case of the mightiest few, a car. He would then show it to the engineers at the nearest factory: Make one just like it. An orgy of reverse engineering ensued. While the elites at VNIITE drew elaborate technocratic fantasies for their own amusement and the rare international exhibit, their factory-bound counterparts, armed with strictly technical educations, did their best to duplicate the lines of a Vespa or a Hoover. Those who could draw were put in charge of logos, packaging, and other frivolities. Eventually, the Soviets got their consumer goods. And they were weird.
Most had clear western inspirations. A few were rip-offs so brazen one suspects a kind of resigned black humor was at work: the makers of the Vyatka scooter, for instance, copied the Vespa down to the name and the font in which it was written, and then simply stuck a Soviet flag where the original bore an Italian one. Others, like the Buran snowmobile, were clever localisations. But something amazing happened along the way: an ineffable Russianness wriggled into each and every object. Even the Vyatka. In case after case, in ways clear and subtle, invention snuck in. The result was a kind of crazed Modernist pastiche. It jumbled together wartime know-how, space-age aesthetics, accidental shabby chic, Slavic motifs, and warped dreams of the west. This, not the celebrated Constructivism, was the true Soviet style.