Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘bizarre’

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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02 AUGUST, 2011

Kooky Cookery: Retro Recipes for Culinary Frankensteining

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Betty Draper’s favorite tomato aspic, or what boiled bologna has to do with marshmallows.

We’ve previously explored some fantastic quirky cookbooks and, this season, there’s a fine new addition to the omnibus: Kooky Cookery: A campy archive of irregular recipes from yester-year by Bryan Ballinger, who concocted a playful parody of and humorous archive America’s penchant for bizarre food combinations, harking back to the Golden Age of peculiar creations. (Baked-beans pizza, anyone? Great, you’ll want a side of tomato gelatin with that.) A retro-lover’s dream, the volume features a selection of odd recipes from vintage magazines and cookbooks, complete with the era’s retrotastic illustrations and analog photographs, bound to give you a good gaggle. (That’s a gag and a giggle, for the uninitiated.)

Consider Kooky Cookery for your next dinner party — for a coffeetable laugh, of course, rather than a dining table feast. Then again, who are we to judge a marshmallow fruit loaf.

via How To Be A Retronaut

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12 JULY, 2011

Albertus Seba’s Amazing Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

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Getting a private viewing of the King Bird of Paradise, or how to set the exchange rate for flying squid.

Lying at the intersection of art and science, the practice of natural illustration has long been the recipient of Brain Pickings adoration. So we swooned over the recent release of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a reproduction of the unequalled collection of Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba. Born in the mid-17th century, Seba spent decades gathering a wunderkammer of birds, insects, reptiles, and exotic plants for use in his drug preparations.

One hundred years before the eminent German naturalist Ernst Haeckel was even born, Seba had published two volumes of engravings of his compendia; the last two wouldn’t be finished until after his death in 1736. Seba’s internationally famous cabinet of animals, insects, and plants was coveted by prominent collectors, but eventually purchased by Czar Peter the Great for display in Russia.

Seba’s fantastic assortment no longer exists as a whole — its parts scattered throughout the globe, and some of its individual specimens extinct — but, happily, the images do. The professional pharmacist and amateur zoologist commissioned illustrations of every single item in his collection. In gorgeous reproductions of the original color plates, we get to see detailed drawings of Phasmatodea (or Walking Stick, as the insect is colloquially known), three-banded armadillo, and snakes from Suriname. And while a complete edition of Seba’s visual thesaurus was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars, we can happily enjoy it for far less.

A spectacular exhibition of 18th-century natural history, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities will enchant the curious cross-disciplinarian and bring a bygone era of scientific study back to life.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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