Made in Russia is a celebration of retro Soviet designs
Fascinated with the USSR, Russian author Michael Idov, a contributing editor for New York magazine, pays tribute to Soviet design in his new tome. Made in Russia is a visual journey through kooky design, retro colours and the unsung heroes of Soviet style.
Why publish a book now on the subject? Ten years ago it would have been too early. And in 10 more years, most of these actual physical objects will be gone. The Russians are generally, and somewhat understandably, uninterested in preserving them. So it seems like the right time. Plus, it’s in fashion. I mean, they sell Lomo cameras in hipster gift shops.
Why are you so fascinated with Soviet design? I grew up in the Soviet Union, one of the last generations to do so – I was 15 when it collapsed. So my obsession with the most mundane Soviet objects is part nostalgia, part irony and part memory game. I’m trying to remember that era as it was, not something from a history book. Because the truth about the life of a late-Soviet child – well, any child anywhere, really – was that a pair of jeans, an arcade game, a tape deck carried more weight than distant fairy-tale figures like Brezhnev or Reagan. To live in the USSR was to be hyper-aware of good design, because there was so little of it around. You could obsess over a gas lighter. In a way, you lose that purity of appreciation when you’re surrounded by an abundance of design.
Why has it evolved the way it has? There are two answers to this. There was the ‘academic’ Soviet design: under Khrushchev, there appeared this institute called the All-Union Institute of Technical Aesthetics, basically a federal design shop. The people working in it were quite creative, and had access to all the right Western magazines, and their stuff even won international design competitions. But none of it ever made it into production. Meanwhile, the Soviet manufacturers were taking Western goods apart and reverse-engineering them. Some Communist big shot would come back from a foreign trip, give his employees a German radio and say, ‘Make one like it.’ So what came off the assembly lines was this amazing mix of cribbed Western technology, amateurish inspiration and guesswork.
Why do you think Russian design has come back in vogue? I think there’s a mass craving for shabbiness right now. Technology, especially the technology of the image, has become so slick that we’re beginning to want something imperfect. That’s why people download apps that make their digital photos look like they were taken with a Lomo camera. There’s something about Soviet design that scratches that itch. These objects are not unfamiliar, but they’re not quite right either – there’s an alternate-reality feeling to them.
What do you believe Soviet design represents? To be unsentimental about it, it represents a deeply isolated country’s attempt to give its people some toys to play with so they don’t grow restless. The ’60s explosion in Soviet consumer goods directly followed the famous Kitchen Debates, where Nixon taunted Khrushchev with Cadillacs, dishwashers and cola. Once Khrushchev saw his proud Soviets fight for a plastic bag, he knew the Party had to give them nice things, and fast. The challenge was to make those nice things in the total absence of a market economy, and that’s why they look so delightfully weird. In your eyes, what embodies design genius? Simplicity, a clear sense of ancestry, tactile pleasure and respect for the real world – the knowledge that objects don’t live in sterile spaces. I may have accidentally described a Barbour Bedale coat just now, or a Vespa, or a Naoto Fukasawa humidifier. Made in Russia is available at www.amazon.co.uk