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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

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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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

New Philanthropy: End Malaria and Boost Your Own Creative Process

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Altruism by way of self-improvement, or what optimizing your workflow has to do with saving children.

This year, The Domino Project set out to change the future of publishing, and now it’s out to change the future of philanthropy. The project’s latest release, by author Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons fame, is out to tackle one of our civilization’s grimmest epidemics: malaria. (And if the gravity of the issue still hasn’t stopped you dead in your tracks — like, for instance, the fact that a child dies of malaria every 45 seconds — watch Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk.)

End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life, released on End Malaria Day today, is a fantastic anthology that will save lives — by helping you be better, smarter, more efficient at your job. The book features essays, tips and insights on great work by 62 leading writers and thinkers — including Brain Pickings favorites Sir Ken Robinson, Brené Brown, Kevin Kelly, Scott Belsky, Barry Schwartz, Daniel Pink, Derek Sivers and more — with $20 out of every $25 book sale (that’s 80%, for the mathematically challenged) going to Malaria No More to buy mosquito nets for Africa, still the most effective malaria prevention method. (For comparison purposes, most product-based charitable contributions are in the 5-10% range.)

Divided into eight key areas of insight — including creating freedom, disrupting “normal,” and taking small steps — the essays range from the pithy to the profound, equal parts actionable blueprint for optimizing your own work and fascinating peek into the workflow and creative process of some of today’s most admired thinkers and doers.

I don’t think there is a reliable twelve-step plan to being in your element that will guarantee the outcome. Human life isn’t like that. But it is possible to offer some navigational tools for those who are committed to the quest.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

We seek to substitute rules for discretion, scripts for imagination.” ~ Barry Schwartz

Beta is an act of transparency and an admission of humility.” ~ Jeff Jarvis

Vulnerability is not weakness; it is our strongest connection to humanity and to each other. Choosing vulnerability means leaning into the full spectrum of emotions — the dark as well as the light — and examining how our feeling affect the way we think and behave. Vulnerability is equal parts courage, mindfulness, and understanding — it’s being ‘all in.’” ~ Brené Brown

End Malaria is an inspired effort to bridge the divide between selflessness and self-interest, inviting you to help eradicate both malaria and your own creative plateaus with something as humble yet potent as a book — what’s not to love?

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