Brain Pickings

Made in Russia: Vintage Curiosities of Soviet Design

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What the 1980 Olympics have to do with IKEA and medieval helmets for modern role-playing games.

During the Cold War, the world on the other side of the Iron Curtain certainly yielded its fare share of design curiosities, from its eerie monuments to its various propaganda to its haunting photography to its prison tattoo subculture. But nowhere does that world’s peculiar design culture shine more dazzlingly than in Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design — a fascinating and irreverent compendium of 50 masterpieces of agitprop graphic and industrial design, collected by editor Michael Idov, from cross-cultural icons like the LOMO camera and the Sputnik to mundane yet bizarre items like carbonated tap water dispensers, fishnet grocery bags and a color-coding system for caviar that endures to this day. Essays by notable Russian artists and writers Boris Kachka, Vitaly Komar, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar contextualize and frame the odd artifacts, many of which I remember creeping into my own childhood in Eastern Europe — and some of which you might recognize, appropriately appropriated, on IKEA shelves.

The Russian bear Misha, mascot for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow

During the games themselves, Misha appeared as a giant balloon that was released during the closing ceremonies as a cartoon version of him shed tears on a screen and a choir of children sang ‘Good-bye, our sweet Misha.’ There was not a dry eye in the stadium. One can only imagine the tears that the mascot’s further fate would elicit: The balloon was recovered on the outskirts hours later, and put in storage where it was abandoned to be devoured by rats.”

The vertushka, a dialless phone made to receive important calls, but unable to make any

The monthly news and music magazine Krugozor ran from 1964 to 1993, each issue featuring sixteen 'pages' of vinyl covers for records combined with stories, interviews and psychedelic artwork

Collapsible communal drinking cup

The thirsty Soviet may have had his choice of beverages — soda water from a machine, kvass from a barrel — but rarely, if ever, did these things come with a paper cup, let alone a plastic one. Like communism itself, disposable dishware existed only in theory. In practice, what was available to the masses was the highly suspect communal drinking glass. The collapsible cup was thus a telescopic beacon of hope in an icky world of strangers’ germs, and a modest triumph of individuality to boot.”

Covers from the design magazine Technical Aesthetics (Tekhnicheskaya Estetika), published between 1973 and 1991

The Saturnas vacuum cleaners weren't merely indestructible space-age home appliances, their top hemispheres were also persevered as prized props for post-Soviet geeks, who used them as medieval helmets in role-playing games

Banki, homeopatic glass suction cups

A pair of tweezers wrapped in cotton are soaked in vodka or rubbing alcohol and set on fire. The flaming pincers are then stuck inside the glass jar, which sucks out the air so that the edges of the ‘cup’ will form perfect suction with the skin. In one swift motion, the flaming pincers are removed from the now oxygen-less glass jar, and, with the sound of a horrible kiss, the cup is then stuck to the invalid’s back, supposedly to pull the mucous away from the lungs, but in reality to scare the toddler into thinking his parents are raving pyromaniacs with serious intent to hurt…. Even today I loathe to replace a burned-out light bulb because a banka so resembles a hollowed-out version of the same.”

The zany ghost of a bygone zeitgeist, Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is as much an offbeat design ethnography as it is a precious and peculiar slice of the space-time continuum.

via The Atlantic; images via Foreign Policy

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