From 1986 to 1990, photographer David Hlynsky took nearly 8,000 photographs on the streets of Communist Europe, capturing the Soviet Union’s last days. Traveling through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Russia, he chose to focus his Hasselblad camera on shop windows: austere, stripped-down displays free of branding and flashy advertising.
“I purposely avoided dramatic moments and newsworthy events. In a cityscape without commercial seduction, the banality of the shop windows underscored a real cultural difference between East and West,” Hlynsky writes in the introduction to Window Shopping Through the Iron Curtain, a new book that compiles 176 of his photographs.
Together, Hlynsky’s images remind us that design is political, illuminating how products reflect a culture’s ideology and economy. “The frames of these shop windows seemed to be held together by cracking varnish, and the glass was often carelessly spattered with drips of paint,” Hlynsky, who was raised in the Midwest by Eastern European immigrants, writes. “Communist windows began to display the quagmire of bureaucratic inefficiency . . . In the dying days of the Cold War I saw these windows as a vast ad hoc museum of a great failing utopia.”
The absence of branding on these products, from tinned fishes to underwear to school supplies, might surprise a generation of Westerners weaned on cereal box packaging designed specifically to seduce their toddler minds. “Very few products were branded with anything like the legendary trademarks of the West; rather, these were generic products devoid of any accompanying mythology,” Hlynsky writes. Graphics are minimal and very literal: a meat shop simply has a basic illustration of meat in the window, a restaurant’s graphic is a fork, plate, and knife. Instead of logos, window decorations were generically cheerful: paper flowers, leaves, happy children. These aesthetics shaped the urban landscape: “Without the garish ad campaigns of the West, these streets felt neutral, devoid of manufactured urgency.”
Window Shopping Through the Iron Curtain is available from Thames & Hudson here for $27.