Pleasing Packaging and Paraphernalia from 20th-Century USSR

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207 export promotional poster, 1970-80s
Photography courtesy of Phaidon

A tour of the politicised, kitsch and playful product design of Soviet Russia places focus on a human propensity for collecting material things

A bright new tome from Phaidon explores the pleasingly kitsch and arguably pertinent role product design played in the history of the USSR. “According to this view,” design writer Justin McGuirk notes in the book’s foreword, “the tedium of Soviet consumer goods was a fatal flaw in the [state’s] system, grinding down morale and stoking the desires of the Russian citizen for blue jeans and other trappings of American-style consumerism”. But Phaidon’s compilation of over 350 examples of product and graphic design from Moscow Design Museum’s unique collection posits this distrust of Soviet product design as questionable. While numerous accounts from that time denote a sort of desperation for the consumer goods of the west, McGuirk highlights the despondency of many other Soviet citizens, bewildered by having thrown away a noble social experiment. “The choice,” he writes, “is framed as that between a great country and a normal one. Normality won.”

As described by the museum’s director Alexandra Sankova, this collection of vacuum cleaners, film posters, coffee tins and toys works as a tour of the practical, kitsch, playful, politicised and avant-garde designs of Soviet Russia; a world in which “the words ‘design’ and ‘designer’ were banned until as late as the 80s” with all household items designed anonymously and realised by the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics. Working as a rare record of the minutiae of a lost civilisation, Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989 offers a peek behind the Iron Curtain and into the homes and everyday lives of its inhabitants. The resulting collection of imagery is undeniably compelling, satisfying our fascination with consumer objects, while denoting a time and place that placed less credence on material things.

Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989, published by Phaidon, is out now.