Open Access (free)
Design and material culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s–80s
Author: Yulia Karpova

The major part of this book project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 700913.

This book is about two distinct but related professional cultures in late Soviet Russia that were concerned with material objects: industrial design and decorative art. The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s is broadly recognised to have been Russia’s first truly original contribution to world culture. In contrast, Soviet design of the post-war period is often dismissed as hackwork and plagiarism that resulted in a shabby world of commodities. This book identifies the second historical attempt at creating a powerful alternative to capitalist commodities in the Cold War era. It offers a new perspective on the history of Soviet material culture by focusing on the notion of the ‘comradely object’ as an agent of progressive social relations that state-sponsored Soviet design inherited from the avant-garde. It introduces a shared history of domestic objects, handmade as well as machine-made, mass-produced as well as unique, utilitarian as well as challenging the conventional notion of utility. Situated at the intersection of intellectual history, social history and material culture studies, this book elucidates the complexities and contradictions of Soviet design that echoed international tendencies of the late twentieth century. The book is addressed to design historians, art historians, scholars of material culture, historians of Russia and the USSR, as well as museum and gallery curators, artists and designers, and the broader public interested in modern aesthetics, art and design, and/or the legacy of socialist regimes.

Open Access (free)
Soviet things that talk
Yulia Karpova

factories – a system that the director of the Moscow Design Museum, Alexandra Sankova, considers to be a historical injustice.29 Anonymity was typical of industrial designers under state socialism. The names of decorative artists were usually known from exhibitions, but the marginal status of these artists in Soviet artistic communities diminished their social outreach and fame. My intention, however, is not to ‘restore justice’ through a ‘heroic’ approach to Soviet design by finding some unrecognised Soviet Raymond Lowey. Rather, I speak to the ongoing scholarly

in Comradely objects
Open Access (free)
Yulia Karpova

object which was by that point seen as either naively utopian or cynical.1 Meanwhile, the tendency towards studio craft and easel art forms among decorative artists grew completely apart from the goals of a changing Soviet economy. The KARPOVA 9781526139870 PRINT.indd 199 20/01/2020 11:10 200 Comradely objects ­comradely object lost its relevance even more with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and remains an incomplete project. This inquiry into the post-avant-garde biography of socialist objects presents an alternative to the two narratives of Soviet design

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

put it, but artistic image follows function.21 A particularly interesting instance of the post-Stalin reconsideration of realism was made by the art critic Aleksandr Chekalov at a lecture in the decorative-applied art section of the Moscow branch of the Artists’ Union in January 1959. Like Kagan, Chekalov belonged to a young generation of art critics (he was 31 at the time). His lecture, titled ‘Peculiarities of Reflecting Life in Artistic-Industrial Objects’, outlined the principles and objectives of emerging Soviet design. At the start, Chekalov proposed three

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

of expressive, modern electronic devices should always be balanced. After all, ‘what is most essential is integrity, interconnectedness and compositional unity. It is not even that important if these are achieved by contrast or by similarity.’2 This text illustrates remarkably Soviet design professionals’ recognition of the active role of objects in the home. Hitherto unknown objects that differed in their formal and functional qualities, in particular the ‘newcomers’ such as the TV set or vacuum cleaner, forced the inhabitants to think differently about their home

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

contemporary western European shift towards metadesign (the approach to each industrially produced object as ‘a part of the same combinatorial, commutative milieu’).9 Soviet designers reconceptualised consumer objects as tools, or props, of everyday activities. As Tom Cubbin demonstrated in his article on the Soviet design of domestic equipment,10 this conceptual move was inspired by the writings of the philosopher Karl Kantor, head of the laboratory of technical aesthetics at VNIITE. Kantor drew inspiration from a particular line of productivist thinking of the 1920s that

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

offering?’25 A chorus of responses, repudiations, criticisms and revisions soon followed, which culminated in 1965, two years after the publication of Nevler’s article. Towards more degrees of freedom In 1965 Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo SSSR introduced an editorial – clearly modelled on the British journal Design – which became a platform for expressing doubts about the principles of modern Soviet design and offering solutions. In the very first editorial, Mikhail Ladur openly lamented the loss of the ‘great mystery of art’ in pursuit of rationality by ‘the admirers of the

in Comradely objects
Open Access (free)
Recovery and hubris; effervescence in the East
Kjell M. Torbiörn

conventional forces in Europe and of strategic missiles. What might have happened had the Soviet design been successful? It could indeed have led to at least a degree of North American ‘decoupling’ from Western Europe. Why, the Americans might have argued, should we defend NATO partners who so easily succumb to pressure? Do they really want to defend themselves? Isolationist feelings were not pronounced in the United States at this time, not least because the Pacific Rim with South-East Asia at its centre was still economically insignificant in comparison with Western Europe

in Destination Europe
Yulia Karpova

labelled ‘artistic projecteering’, meaning that it was classified as conceptual design and not commissioned designs to be mass produced. Senezh studio was unique in this regard. A design project by VNIITE, an artistic-construction bureau or a factory design service would not have been admitted into an art exhibition. However, for Bisti, a sculptor, Senezh projects represented Soviet design in general and signalled a seamless visual culture; he noticed no ruptures between the exhibition sections. His conclusion was that design and easel art were based on common principles

in Comradely objects