In the summer of 1959, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stood in a model of American domesticity and debated the merits of washing machines. It was the first high-level meeting of Soviet and U.S. leaders in years, and it began in the kitchen of a model American suburban house in Moscow, intended to showcase the affordances of U.S. life.
Parallel to the space race came a different kind of competition between the superpowers: the race to prove that communism could provide the same wealth of consumer luxuries that capitalism could. “Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain,” a new exhibition at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (GRAD), examines the often overlooked sphere of domestic Soviet design through more than 50 objects, from the Chaika vacuum cleaner to cutesy Nevalyashka dolls to illicit X-ray records of banned music.
The Soviet Union had, up until the 1950s, been far more invested in manufacturing weapons than domestic goods. “Design didn’t really exist as a discipline in Russia at this time,” as curator Alexandra Chiriac tells The Guardian.
The country began to adapt in some surprising ways, as part of Krushchev’s plan to “catch up with and surpass” America. The ZIL factory, one of the premier purveyors of trucks and military vehicles, began churning out refrigerators, too.
What Soviet designers lacked in historical precedent, they often made up for by copying Western goods with a Soviet twist. As Michael Idov, editor of the book Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design explains in this great episode of Roman Mars’s design podcast, 99% Invisible, “To understand [the Soviet] aesthetic you first need to understand that most of these items were rip-offs of Western sources of varying qualities.” Foreign products like radios were brought back to the Soviet Union from abroad–often by diplomats, since foreign travel required government approval–and reverse-engineered.
The lack of consumer culture under communism elevated the relatively few designs that did exist to stardom. Every Soviet kid had a Nevalyashka doll. Everyone had an avoksa, the simple string bag used to carry goods home. The Alyonka Chocolate brand, stamped with the blue-eyed likeness of the child of one of the factory’s artists, is still ubiquitous–one Russian artist has been collecting fan art inspired by the image of Aloynka since 2005. The quirky, colorful designs, born out of reverse engineering and munitions factories, became icons.
[H/T: The Guardian]