Fits and starts in 60 years of Soviet design

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Soviet Design: From Constructivism to Modernism shows how politics took the design lead with the USSR’s ‘special path’ subduing innovation

Konstantin Melnikov. Sketch of the USSR pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, 1925.
Konstantin Melnikov. Sketch of the USSR pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, 1925. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection

When the Soviets sent persecuted architects and designers to the gulags, they were careful not to waste their talents. Instead, they set up a system of Sharashka – technical design bureaus where the designers were put to work on state projects within the penal system. Yet the word ‘design’ remained stigmatised for its capitalist connotations throughout the Soviet era; the profession of designer only became official again in 1987 with the foundation of the Union of Designers.

These are just some of the nuggets to be found within the hefty new tome Soviet Design: From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980. This successfully shines a light on the previously neglected history of Soviet interior and furniture design, which it describes as one of the least explored areas of the history of art in the 20th century.

The result is a detailed, image-rich account of 60 years of design history from the highly influential constructivism and avant-garde in the 1920s to Soviet art deco, neo classicism and post-war modernism. The book concludes with a look at the mass-production and experimental design of the 1970s and 80s.

  • Varvara Stepanova. Costume sketch of personage Mavrusha for the play Tarelkin’s Death. Meyerhold Theatre, Moscow, 1922.
    Varvara Stepanova. Costume sketch of personage Mavrusha for the play Tarelkin’s Death. Meyerhold Theatre, Moscow, 1922. Credit: © Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum collection
  • Panteleimon Golosov, Alexander Kurovsky. Competition project for the printing plant of Pravda newspaper in Moscow (realized), 1930.
    Panteleimon Golosov, Alexander Kurovsky. Competition project for the printing plant of Pravda newspaper in Moscow (realized), 1930. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection
  • Panteleimon Golosov, Alexander Kurovsky. Competition project for the printing plant of Pravda newspaper in Moscow (realized), 1930.
    Panteleimon Golosov, Alexander Kurovsky. Competition project for the printing plant of Pravda newspaper in Moscow (realized), 1930. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection
  • Alexander Vesnin, Victor Vesnin. Competition project for Narkomtiazhprom (People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry) building in Moscow, Red Square, 1934.
    Alexander Vesnin, Victor Vesnin. Competition project for Narkomtiazhprom (People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry) building in Moscow, Red Square, 1934. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection
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Along the way we learn that because of its regime, Soviet design developed along ‘its own special path’ rather than along the Western lines, yet until the Iron Curtain came down from 1946, there was still ample design cross-fertilisation between the USSR and the West, in particular at international exhibitions such as that held in Paris in 1925.

There is generous illustration of works by plenty of familiar names – Tatlin, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Melnikov – and plenty more lesser-known names, with discussion of the development of the avant-garde and how the new mass and communal housing typologies drove the design of furniture that was variously standardised and compact, modular, multi-functional and built-in.

However, much of this work was unrealised, and the brave new world of rationalism and constructivism was eventually eclipsed by post constructivism, art deco and the pomp of neo classicism. This era from the late 1930s to the first half of the 1950s was known as the Stalinist Empire Style, as personified by bombastic designs for government buildings and the grandeur of the post-war underground system in Moscow. I’m particularly fascinated by the creation of propaganda furniture for housing communes such as Igor Krestovsky’s Bread of Communism collection, with incorporated appropriate symbols such as a hammer and sickle and wheatsheafs.

  • Konstantin Melnikov. Project of USSR pavilion for New York 1964 Exhibition. Variations.
    Konstantin Melnikov. Project of USSR pavilion for New York 1964 Exhibition. Variations. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection
  • Gevorg Kochar, Mikhael Mazmanyan. Canteen building at the Sanatorium for Writers on Lake Sevan in Armenia 1969). Photo Mikhail Chrakov. 1970s-1980s.
    Gevorg Kochar, Mikhael Mazmanyan. Canteen building at the Sanatorium for Writers on Lake Sevan in Armenia 1969). Photo Mikhail Chrakov. 1970s-1980s. Credit: © Shchusev State Museum of Architecture collection
  • Examples of interior design showcased at the All-Union Competition for the Best Model Furniture for Residential and Public Buildings.
    Examples of interior design showcased at the All-Union Competition for the Best Model Furniture for Residential and Public Buildings. Credit: © All-Union exhibition catalogue, 1972.
  • Cover of Soviet Design. From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980, Kristina Krasnyanskaya and Alexander Semenov, Scheidegger & Spiess
    Cover of Soviet Design. From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980, Kristina Krasnyanskaya and Alexander Semenov, Scheidegger & Spiess Credit: in cooperation with Heritage International Art Gallery, Moscow
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The book identifies Soviet modernism as the last great style in Soviet design from the 1950s to early 70s. Within this, the 1960s can be seen as the ‘golden decade’ of mid-century modern Soviet interior design, with considerable state investment in developing a furniture industry to supply its house-building programmes. Images include a succession of stylish bars and restaurants as well as domestic furniture and modular furniture systems. Nonetheless this modernism was hardly progressive – the book points out that instead it was lagging some 10 years behind Europe. And when in the 1970s and 80s designers explored more experimental, post modernist designs, these were too far outside State policy to flourish and were instead ‘consigned to oblivion’ – although at least, as the book points, out, the designers themselves were not persecuted as might have been the case during the Stalin era.

Soviet Design succeeds in its mission to elucidate the various schools, trends, and eras in Soviet furniture design, and to set this in the wider context of the state policies of the day.  The authors hope that one day there will be a renewed interest not only in the Russian avant-garde but in Soviet modernist design too. Certainly this informative book is a good place to start to widen perceptions and increase understanding of the still ‘largely ignored and neglected’ Soviet design of this era. Its wide scope is also appealing – covering everything from theatre set and costume design to architecture. There’s a lot to enjoy and learn.

Above all this book is hugely visually appealing, with lavish illustrations and easily legible layouts. The inclusion of helpful digests of acronyms and significant events and dates, also eases navigation of such a dauntingly large volume, as well as designer biographies. As a reference book for anyone interested in delving deep into this era it is well worth its rather wide place on the bookshelf.

Soviet Design: From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980, Kristina Krasnyanskaya and Alexander Semenov, Scheidegger & Spiess (in cooperation with Heritage International Art Gallery, Moscow) HB, £65