Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 11, 2021
Olga Druzhinina and Azat Romanov Mir! Druzhba! Dizain! Istoriia rossiiskogo promyshlennogo dizaina / Peace! Friendship! Design! The History of Russian Industrial Design Exh. cat. Moscow: Moscow Design Museum, 2020.
New Tretyakov Galllery, Moscow, December 25, 2019–March 29, 2020
VNIITE, sketch for design project for modular units for medical equipment, 1980s, pencil and felt-tip pen on paper. Moscow Design Museum (photograph provided by Moscow Design Museum)

The Moscow Design Museum was founded in 2012, at a time when Soviet design was gaining popularity among both Western and Eastern European historians of the Soviet Union and late socialism. Since then, the museum has staged temporary exhibitions in different venues in Russia and abroad. In 2019, however, it became a permanent part of the western wing of the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymskii val in Moscow. The show Peace! Friendship! Design! The History of Russian Industrial Design was the first step toward establishing the museum’s permanent exhibition space. Curated by Azat Romanov, Olga Druzhinina, and Aleksandra Sankova and designed by Stepan Lukianov, the exhibition brought together over 250 objects, prototypes, technical drawings, and photographs from the collection of the Moscow Design Museum, as well as from other institutions and private collections.

In accordance with the museum’s mission to educate the broad public about the history of Soviet, Russian, and foreign design, the exhibition was accompanied by an educational program including public lectures by industrial designers and Romanov, a well-known design historian and collector. The general sponsor of the exhibition was PJSC Promsvyazbank, a bank supporting the Russian defense industry that encourages high-tech innovations in industry and culture. Accordingly, the curators aimed to outline the history of Soviet design, but also to present the current achievements of Russian design and its connection to contemporary industry.

Over the past decade, the Moscow Design Museum has greatly contributed to the rise in scholarly and mass media interest in the history of design under Eastern European and Soviet socialism. In past exhibitions on Soviet design, the museum’s curators experimented with different strategies of making what amounts to a long and complicated history comprehensible and engaging. Peace! Friendship! Design! was no exception. It was arranged into eleven sections, each dedicated to a specific area of design: aviation and astronautics, automobiles, bicycles and motorcycles, water transport, heavy equipment, tools and equipment, medical equipment, electronics, optics, sports, and household items.

In the introductory text, the curators outlined the history of the design profession in the Soviet Union. As they explained, the transition to a peacetime economy after the end of World War II played a crucial role in the party and government’s recognition of the need for specially trained people to define the aesthetic, ergonomic, and functional qualities of goods. Early postwar design activity was closely connected to transportation engineering. The first educational programs in industrial design—called “artistic engineering” in Soviet parlance—opened in Moscow and Leningrad in the early 1960s. At the same time, the importance of design was officially recognized in 1962 in a government resolution titled “On Quality Improvement in Car Manufacturing and Cultural and Household Products through the Implementation of Artistic Engineering Methods.” The resolution, issued in line with the government’s promise to raise living standards, sanctioned the opening of the All-Union Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) in Moscow. Its employees had access to foreign literature on design and the possibility, however limited, to communicate with Western colleagues. Through its regional branches, VNIITE from then on guided and supervised the activity of design organizations throughout the country. In the following two decades, designers (called “artist-engineers”) were increasingly involved in complex projects, such as designing the infrastructure of an entire branch of industry or a transportation network. Importantly, these projects could be realized only at large factories belonging to the defense industry. The exhibition emphasized this dependence on the military-industrial complex as a distinctive feature of Soviet design. At the same time, the curatorial texts did recognize the persistent gap between “progressive designers’ ideas and backward industry” (18). This gap became very obvious in the 1980s, when VNIITE designers increasingly created futuristic projects that were not oriented toward fulfilling urgent needs of the Soviet economy. Further, after briefly mentioning the halt of design development in the 1990s due to the national political and economic crisis, the catalog text proceeds to describe how Russian design once again began to thrive in the 2000s, and invites readers to evaluate “the prospects of the country’s new design based on modern technologies,” showing examples from several contemporary exhibits (19).

The interior of the exhibition hall, subdivided by several light walls, allowed the visitor to freely navigate between and across different sections. Nonetheless, most seemed to start their tour in the “Aviation and Astronautics” section, located nearest to the entrance. Unsurprisingly, the section included a model of the famous Tu-104, the first Soviet passenger jet. The Tupolev Engineering Bureau designed the aircraft in 1956, having based it on the Tu-16 bomber jet. The passenger plane model provided a vivid example of the connection between military and peacetime design. Models of two updated versions of this aircraft, the Tu-144 (1968) and the Tu-204 (1990), were also displayed, along with designs of contemporary Russian aircrafts such as the Sukhoi Superjet passenger plane (Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company, 2014) and the lightweight experimental Scout helicopter (Artemy Lebedev Studio for the Horizon Design Bureau, 2015). The display was arranged without regard to chronology. This move reinforced the idea of continuity in Soviet/Russian aviation design, in spite of the massive historical disruption that occurred in the 1990s after the USSR collapsed. The display suggested that past achievements continue to nourish contemporary Russian design and industry.

This image of seamless continuity served as a leitmotif for the exhibition. For example, the section on bicycles and motor vehicles, which was accompanied by a text detailing the history of their production, highlighted the 1972 model of the Buran snowmobile. The Rybinsk Order of Lenin Motors Factory designed the Buran in 1972. Thanks to its light weight and efficient motor controls, in the 1970s Buran was used in the 1000-km Kola Peninsula Race, dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, in rides up Mount Elbrus and the Pamir Mountains, and in North Pole expeditions. The curators also displayed models and drawings of what they called the “Buran’s contemporary successors”: the RМ-500 4X4 all-terrain vehicle (Russian Mechanics JSC Design Bureau, 2010) and the RM Vector 1000 snowmobile (a joint design by the Russian Mechanics JSC Design Bureau and the Masshtab Industrial Design Bureau, 2019). Both models are notably different from their predecessors; they are more technologically advanced and refined in appearance. Compared to the visually concise Buran, the RM Vector 1000 has sleeker, more dynamic bodywork made of light aluminum alloys; the RM-500 4X4, too, has a more elegant and complex shape. However, the curators emphasized that these two contemporary vehicles were produced by the design bureau “Russian Mechanics,” the successor of the Rybinsk factory, and therefore their designers definitely had Buran in mind.

The section on medical equipment, an underresearched area of Soviet design, demonstrated the legacy of the VNIITE project for modular units for medical equipment (standard-size modular cases for electronic devices such as electrocardiograph machines) and Nikolai Slesarev’s geometrically shaped blood-pressure monitors, all from the 1980s. The curators displayed these Soviet designs next to contemporary medical equipment, such as a DA-N-01 automatic defibrillator (2017, Concern “Axion”). They argued that contemporary Russian designers of medical equipment inherited a special attention to “reliability, convenience and simplicity” from their Soviet predecessors (42).

On the whole, the exhibition constituted an important contribution to the history of late Soviet design that recognized the considerable degree of creativity among intellectuals and engineers despite a stubborn planned economy and restrictive ideological climate. However, a richer historical context and information on the present-day professional attitudes to the Soviet legacy might well have made the exhibition’s argument about continuity between seemingly disparate objects more convincing. For example, the section on sport design included the cauldron for the flame of the 1980 Moscow Olympics alongside the Sochi 2014 Olympic torch. But the historical context for Soviet/Russian Olympic participation and the role of sports in diplomacy was, unfortunately, missing from the display.

The exhibition catalog is made up of texts by curators Olga Druzhinina and Azat Romanov and illustrations showing an impressive selection of design objects beyond those included in the show. The authors provide a great deal of valuable information on Soviet industrial production and demonstrate a diverse array of ideas—those that stopped at the level of drawings and models as well as those implemented in production.

Contrary to popular belief that state-sponsored Soviet design was merely plagiaristic and monotonous, the curators presented many instances of original design thinking. They also acknowledged, however, that some aspects of these designs were frequently borrowed from foreign models, especially at the beginning of industrial design development in the USSR. Clearly, the topic of Soviet design is broad, and one exhibition cannot embrace all of its aspects. Yet the show would have benefited from a narrower focus on a few select lines of continuity and deeper historical and socioeconomic contextualization. It is hoped that subsequent shows in the Moscow Design Museum’s new premises will tell us more about the complex and diverse history of Soviet and socialist design.

Yulia Karpova
Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen