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'Red Wealth: Soviet Design 1950-1980' opens at Kunsthal Rotterdam
Vacuum cleaner ‘Raketa’, 1964 © Moscow Design Museum.

ROTTERDAM.- The exhibition ‘Red Wealth. Soviet Design 1950-1980’ illustrates the history of Soviet design in a fascinating overview. Consumer culture was a stranger to communism until the 1950s. This started changing in 1959 when an exhibition in Moscow presented the ‘American Way of Living’*. As an abundance of goods arrived from the capitalist market, the memorable Kitchen Debate was taking place between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Richard Nixon, and the arms race was augmented on the spot with competition in terms of wealth. Over 360 objects highlight the best examples of Soviet design, from charming retro products and graphic designs to prototypes that represent a systematic, functional and social approach to design.

Robust and sustainable
The modernisation of industrial production processes played a central role in post-war Russia. A former gunpowder plant became market leader in making the world famous Nevalyashka roly-poly dolls, chemical laboratories made democratic perfume – available to all women – and vacuum cleaner design reflected the technological tours de force of space travel. Initially, western design was copied in objects such as French radios and Italian scooters, but from 1964 onwards, an unmistakeable Russian design vocabulary emerged including words like robust, sustainable and constructivist-inspired. A richly diverse range of products related to the automobile industry, youth, sport, space travel, domestic design, fashion and music provides insight into the everyday lives of people in an era when material wealth was still in its infancy.

Design as cultural policy
Design, or technical aesthetics as it was called in the Soviet Union, became cultural policy in the 1960s. In 1964, the VNIITE (All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics) was set up in order to develop ‘responsibly-designed functional goods’ and to guarantee the quality of industrial products with a certification mark. VNIITE investigated the utilitarian value of goods and wanted goods to be designed in such a way that the basic needs of all people would be satisfied. The world’s largest and most unknown design institute in the world closed its doors in 2013. Technical aesthetics has since remained hidden from the outside world and in the Soviet Union itself.

After the fall of communism and the sudden rise of capitalism that followed in the early 1990s, the Russians immediately switched over to western branded products, which were ‘presumed better’. Many of the products in the exhibition are no longer made, and yet Raketa watches are now being sold again, a decade later, despite the fact that time cannot be turned back. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Moscow Design Museum and the Kunsthal Rotterdam.

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