Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain
Выставка советского дизайна в галерее GRADThu 19 June 2014 - Sun 24 August 2014 GRAD, 3-4a Little Portland Street, London W1W
In the 1960s, Khrushchev started a kitchen revolution, filling Russia's homes with rocket-shaped washing machines and Saturn-ringed vacuum cleaners. A new exhibition examines a golden age of Soviet domestic design
'It's time for a grand house-warming!" declares a bold Soviet poster, depicting a housewife in a sunny yellow dress, flinging open the windows of her new home. Outside stands a crane, hauling concrete panels into place to complete another new apartment building, gleaming in cheery communist red. It is one of the many "khrushchyovkas" that sprung up across Soviet cities in the 1960s, the low-cost, mass-housing blocks that were the product of Nikita Khrushchev's frenzied building drive. Presented as modern and aspirational, they instead proved cramped, overcrowded and as flimsy as the posters that promoted them.
On display at Grad, the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design in London, the poster sets the tone for an exhibition that attempts to peer through the keyhole at domestic Soviet design, from the revolution to perestroika. Brimming with vacuum-cleaners and biscuit tins, radios and fridges, the show pulls together a collection of over 50 objects to give a fascinating snapshot of the Soviet home, radiating the optimism of Khrushchev's ambition to "catch up and overtake America".
The poster was produced in 1959, the same year that saw the momentous "kitchen debate" at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, an impromptu war of words between Khrushchev and then US vice-president Richard Nixon, which ignited as they cooed over the latest mod cons of the American home. As each boasted of their country's industrial accomplishments, the message could not have been clearer: the USSR might have launched the first satellite – Sputnik – two years earlier, but the reality of miserable living conditions and the scarcity of consumer goods (crowds jostled to collect used Pepsi cups from the exhibition) showed how far they had to go.
The exhibits at Grad, with their colourful plastic casings and space-age forms, read like the fallout from this momentous meeting – the products of a hasty Soviet scramble to compete with, and outdo, the bounties of western capitalist consumerism. As US sociologist David Riesman presciently wrote in 1951: "If allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum-cleaners and beauty parlours."
And so under Khrushchev's "thaw", munitions plants became toy factories and chemical labs turned their hands to perfume. The show traces the evolution of the ZIL factory in particular, from being the state's biggest manufacturer of military vehicles and exclusive limousines (beautifully represented in original scale models, on show for the first time) to producing the country's first fridge, the most sought-after of domestic appliances, complete with a chrome car door handle. Similarly, a gunpowder plant became the market leader in making Nevalyashka roly-poly dolls, a ubiquitous feature of every Soviet child's toy box, righting themselves with a merry tinkle.
Throughout the show, there are echoes of elsewhere, products that appear to be doppelgängers of their western counterparts. "Design didn't really exist as a discipline in Russia at this time," says curator Alexandra Chiriac. "They came up with the term 'technical aesthetics', which was formalised in an institute and a magazine, but factories generally relied on importing ideas from overseas."
With its streamlined curves and bulbous rear, the Vyatka scooter could have been separated from Piaggio's Vespa at birth. The Star-54 radio, meanwhile, is a carbon copy of the French-made Excelsior-52, brought back by a Soviet diplomat and swiftly reverse-engineered. "It is a myth that the Soviet Union was isolated," says Grad director Elena Sudakova. "They knew exactly what was going on and copied it all – often with a Soviet twist."
Many of the objects are drenched with the excitement of the space race, from the Saturnas vacuum-cleaner (a brightly coloured ball encircled by the golden ring of Saturn) to curvaceous clocks that could be straight out of the Jetsons. In the USSR, cosmic exploration was to be a collective endeavour, showering down benefits to the humble housewife: with a planet-hoover and rocket-shaped washing machine, domestic chores could be as thrilling as a spacewalk.
Other objects show the democratisation of luxury, as bourgeois accoutrements such as perfume became available to every woman thanks to new synthetic ingredients. "They claimed it was better than French perfume," says Sudakova. "But I'm not so sure about the chemicals. My grandmother used it to kill cockroaches."
Other curiosities include a hi-tech electric samovar, seemingly modelled on Sputnik, and the first sewing machine with an electromechanical drive, with which studious housewives would attempt to copy the exotic fashions of Christian Dior – whose models brought an unexpected flash of colour to Moscow's grey soup on a memorable visit in 1959.
But the most striking thing is the fact that most of these brands, and the peculiar innovation they fostered, now cease to exist. Boris Yeltsin sounded the deathknell for ZIL when he replaced his boxy presidential limousine with a Mercedes. Today, the factory struggles on as a behemoth of a bygone era, producing barely a dozen luxury cars a year.
One of the few designs that remain in production is the packaging for Alenka chocolate, painted by an artist who worked at the factory in 1965. His chubby-cheeked daughter, aged eight months, still peeps out innocently from the wrapper with an optimistic beam.
Oliver Wainwright for The Guardian