Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 18, 2019
Tom Cubbin Soviet Critical Design: Senezh Studio and the Communist Surround Cultural Histories of Design. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 248 pp.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $114.00 (9781350021990)

In the 1960s the Soviet government undertook a series of political liberalizations leading to a brief period of economic growth, relative intellectual freedom, and improved standards of living. This was Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” a time infused with excitement about the imminent completion of the “construction of communism,” paired with the even more audacious “creative transformation of the world” (Petr Vail and Aleksandr Genis, 60e: Mir Sovetskogo cheloveka, as cited in Cubbin, 29). In this atmosphere of liberated scholarly and artistic thinking, Soviet post–World War II design practices emerged, including the work of the Central Educational and Experimental Studio (the Senezh studio), established in 1964 under the patronage of the Union of Artists. Its work was primarily theoretical and utopian, aiming to transform “socialist material reality” and “thus support the spiritual development of the communist collective” (42). In the words of its founder, Karl Kantor, “the general ideological premise of our work was to engage artistic projecteering [a term describing the studio’s methodological approach of using artistic practices to design] to restructure the material environment . . . and to promote the emergence of communist relations among the people” (21). Tom Cubbin’s Soviet Critical Design: Senezh Studio and the Communist Surround is the first in-depth chronological and conceptual treatment of the Senezh studio, which served for almost thirty years as the most influential design practice in the Soviet Union. Cubbin departs from the dichotomy of Cold War rhetoric to offer a fresh look at Soviet design using the worldviews, values, language, and criteria of success or failure of the system in which it originated.

Over five chapters, Cubbin offers an insightful narrative of the history and creative work of the Senezh studio. He situates his study as an exploration of the studio’s affiliated designers, artists, architects, philosophers, and cultural theorists. Their work led, over time, to the studied rejection of the “consumerist mindset” that was characteristic of the West, as well as to the counteroffering of strategies to relieve the “alienation” of the working class from creative material culture (5–6) through the engineering of “harmonious material environments” begetting “harmonious social relationships” (50–51). Cubbin first explores the emergence of Senezh as an oppositional alternative to the theretofore premier professional design organization in the Soviet Union: the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE). He devotes much attention to discussing the contrasting theoretical and methodological approaches to the problems, goals, and tasks facing Soviet designers in the two organizations. VNIITE and its founder, Yuri Soloviev, aimed at “integrating [professional] design practice within the planned economy” with the goal of “making better, more efficient machines and objects for sale to the Soviet public and abroad” (50). VNIITE researched in the areas of technology, engineering, and aesthetics, which Soloviev viewed as an “organic combination” of “perfect form and functional purpose” (Soloviev, “About Technical Aesthetics,” Technical Aesthetics 1, 1964, 1). “Technical aesthetics” (together with its peer notion of “artistic engineering”) sought discoveries in the areas of color, lighting, sound, air quality, ergonomics, workplace organization, and quality of service in designing both material objects and overall environments. Senezh’s Kantor and Evgeny Rosenblum rejected technical aesthetics as “fetishism of form,” asserting that more abstract (yet oddly traditional) manifestations of “beauty” would be the inevitable outcome of collective labor and creativity (45). The studio adopted this beauty-seeking method under the transmundane heading of “artistic projecteering.” The polemic played out on the pages of each group’s monthly journal: Dekorativnoye Iskusstvo SSSR (Decorative arts of the USSR) for Senezh studios and Technical Aesthetics for VNIITE. Cubbin cites frequently from their articles, introducing much valuable information to the discourse, though at times he assumes a somewhat critical rhetorical stance toward VNIITE when scholarly neutrality might have served better to illustrate the contrasts.

The history of Soviet design after World War II is a subject virtually unexplored outside of Russia (scholars of related topics include Susan Reid, David Crowley, Yulia Karpova, Heinrich Klotz, and Andres Kurg). The study of Soviet design poses significant challenges, requiring both a deep understanding of historical contexts (the thaw of the 1960s, the stagnation of the 1970s, and the perestroika of the 1980s) and familiarity with the economic theories, political philosophies, and bureaucratic structures that led directly to the proliferation of concepts and vocabulary for which there are no foreign equivalents. Cubbin explores the layered meanings underlying each opaque term—“artistic projecteering,” “artistic engineering,” “form-giving.” Tellingly, the differently problematic term “design,” with its perceived implications of bourgeois taste and fashion, was prohibited from use in official Soviet documents until the mid-1980s, although it was, of course, widely known and used informally.

Cubbin presents the concept of “communist surround” (7) as the framework for interpreting the writings and projects that the Senezh studio produced from 1964 to 1992. This adaptation of what Fred Turner termed the “democratic surround” in his book of the same title (University of Chicago Press, 2013) was an unprecedented multimedia phenomenon that emerged in the years following World War II in response to authoritarian fascist and communist propaganda (7–8). This was a “new utopian way of being” (Turner, 1) that obtained spatial realization in carefully conceived “model environments,” which aimed to “train the democratic personality . . . by choreographing ways in which individuals encounter information” (8). Cubbin details the influence that these Cold War exhibition installations had on Soviet designers. The Senezh artists adapted what they saw to reflect and respond to authoritarian Soviet realities. As Cubbin recounts, the communist surround was a “media strategy” intended not simply as a means of “breaking away” from official propagandist and dissident discourse to invent a new way of speaking “between the lines,” but also as a means of creating hidden spatial environments where interactions could “elude the grasp of the mass media and the state” (8). The idea of communication—obscheniye—becomes foundational for the Senezh artists, and Cubbin goes right to the source, citing Karl Marx to interrelate physical surroundings with intellectual development: “Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appears at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior” (8).

Driven by the conviction that the communist personality could only emerge through a multifaceted engagement with labor, objects, interiors, public spaces, historical artifacts, memory, nature, and cultural heritage, Senezh designers sought to reshape the Soviet material surround to “transform human consciousness beyond the everyday experience of life” (15). Although Cubbin’s story centers on a handful of key figures—Kantor, Rosenblum, and Mark Konik, Senezh’s creative director from the mid-1970s to its closure—numerous artists feature in the project descriptions, and an inexhaustible idealism, intellectual curiosity, and fundamentally optimistic vision of the future pervades their projecteering: a Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic jet (1968), an open-form oxygen-purification system (1968), a Domestic Information Machine (1972), constructivist visual agitation experiments for the KamAZ Auto Plant (1974), a nostalgically futuristic Cosmic Cultural Centre (1980), and a contemplative installation titled A Quiet Conversation among Things (1991). Unsurprisingly, nearly all were ephemeral and “built” with the aim of lasting only for the duration of a conference or exhibition: “paper” designs both literally and figuratively. Photo documentation consists mostly of snapshots. Although no fault of Cubbin’s, this immateriality leaves the reader wanting—an apt metaphor for the studio’s inability to move from the conceptual to the physical.

In 1992, economic and political changes radically transformed the structure of the country. Cubbin candidly discusses the confusion this caused the Senezh artists, whose purpose had been to examine critically the stagnation of the late Soviet period’s “high modernist urbanism,” the “advent of the ‘inert’ Soviet consumer” (179), and the “incongruity of everyday experience” (192). Konik saw perestroika as reorganizing a society that “had not yet found a social direction towards which designers could contribute,” and Cubbin concludes that many artists were unable or unwilling to adapt to liberal markets. Senezh ended, in effect, as it questioned “what a studio like Senezh might be for in the post-Soviet context,” disappearing with the communist surround it had been created to describe (179).

In sum, Soviet Critical Design adds an important chapter to the emerging discipline of Soviet design history by connecting the theoreticians, philosophers, artists, designers, and architects to the creative activities that have dwelled too long in anonymity. In contextualizing Senezh, Cubbin relates it to critical design movements like Archigram (United Kingdom), Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau (Austria), and Ettore Sottsass (Italy), which used art making to analyze contemporary design and its broader implications for social political organization. By including Senezh in these histories, Cubbin has initiated a larger (necessarily collaborative) project of mapping the emergence of a range of design practices from both sides of the Iron Curtain. It is a fascinating and indispensable work for anyone interested in the political, cultural, and aesthetic underpinnings of “artistic engineering” in the Soviet Union and the larger dialectic of design in the twentieth century.

Yelena McLane
PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Interior Architecture & Design, Florida State University