Made in Russia: Soviet Communism's Design Masterpieces

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Previously unseen objects in a cultural studies book show a Russian preference for ruggedness over elegance, and a knack for self-parody

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One of this year's most remarkable cultural studies books is Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, edited by Michael Idov with text by Bela Shayevich and contributions by other members of the American Soviet-born intelligentsia.

Some of the book's objects are actually sung, for the reason Westerners associate with the positive side of Soviet manufacturing: an unashamed preference for ruggedness over elegance. And some have become cult objects, like the LOMO camera and the Ural motorcycle. Who can forget the Kalashnikov, still a world best-seller? A few other products have surprising pedigrees. The cover image is a Russian adaptation of a Japanese Buddhist daruma doll, representing resilience and perseverance. The Raketa watch was first produced in a factory founded by Peter the Great for marble and gemstone cutting, then converted by the Soviets in the 1930s to make timekeeping jewels and the instruments themselves. Most Soviet consumer design, though, was inspired by Western goods, from hairdryers to Fiats, remade Russian style. The result was generally shoddier, but sometimes the Soviets also managed to maintain traditional quality because they hadn't learned to make things badly yet, thus the excellent bed linens and face towels in the Academy Hotel, owned by the USSR Academy of Sciences, when I was its guest as an editor in 1988. Who minded if all the pressed buttons popped out every time the elevator stopped at a floor? The driver had to stop the Fiat-style car assigned to me once or twice on the way from the airport to the hotel because the radiator boiled over on a warm May day, but the main point was that the car would start in the coldest Moscow winter weather.

Occasionally, the very crudeness of Soviet technology could foster genius. At the Institute for Space Studies, scientists told me their lag in computing power had forced them to code more ingeniously, and that wasn't just sour grapes. They were pioneers in non-linear mathematics. Tetris (not included in Unsung Icons) remains a world hit because it's a notoriously addictive game that can run with minimal processor speed and memory.

Possibly the greatest object is the virtually indestructible beveled drinking glass of 1943, optimized for vodka parties and brutal 1930s industrial dishwashers. What makes it even more legendary is that its designer, Vera Mukhina, created the equally iconic sculpture Worker and Peasant Girl, now prominently reinstalled in Moscow and still proudly introducing many Russian DVDs. Many stories circulate about the origin of the design and in an email Michael Idov suggests that is part of their aura:

I actually enjoy the fact that the invention of the glass is shrouded in so much lore. It befits an item that even the Soviets themselves recognized as perhaps the finest material manifestation of their own culture: a Suprematist form (its blueprint could easily be a blueprint for a building -- by, say, Konstantin Melnikov), designed to hold anything but destined for vodka. Ideally, it should have been invented by Lenin himself. Looking at a German beer stein. See, the glass is a self-parody in the most literal sense -- by venerating it we automatically mock it: of course that's what the Russians would excel at. I also love that, although the original glass is still produced in Gus-Khrustalny, a simplified version has been picked up by IKEA, the ultimate name in the benevolent fascism of mass design. There seems to be an undeniable logic to it.

There are more designs from the book here.

Images: Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, © Michael Idov/Rizzoli, 2011.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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