The setting for one of the enduring postwar exchanges between Soviet and US leaders was not a summit building but a mock-up suburban American kitchen in Moscow.
Walking around the official opening of the 1959 American National Exhibition, the then US vice-president Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev surprised the world by launching into an impromptu discussion on the relative merits of their nations’ household goods. This series of exchanges became known as the kitchen debate.
Khrushchev, struggling against an onslaught of TV dinners, Cadillacs and other sleek gadgets on display, dismissed Nixon’s boast that his country’s electric dishwasher improved the lives of American housewives. The Soviet Union, he argued, was building more important things such as the Sputnik satellite and, besides, his country did not have the same capitalist attitude towards women that made such inventions necessary.
But the damage had been done: when faced with the might of mass market US design, the USSR had been found wanting. Within three years, the Soviet Council of Ministers had established a state design centre – the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics – with the task of devising Communist alternatives to the US’s brazen postwar products.
Michael Idov, editor of Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, a collection of essays published this year on various Soviet-era designs, says: “The style that emerged in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, the one I semi-seriously call ‘magpie modernism’, was a pure product of central planning in an isolated society.
“It was like a test study for what design would look like if outselling a competitor weren’t an issue. The government knew that the people needed cheap consumer goods – especially after Khrushchev’s humiliation at the kitchen debate – but it wasn’t about to let manufacturers compete with one another. So it was all, on a certain level, an improvisation.”
From the space-age design of the collapsible drinking cup, designed for the thirsty Russian worker, to iPhone apps mimicking the effects of Soviet-era photography, such an aesthetic continues to exert a subtle influence on contemporary trends. Other once-common Soviet household objects are, when compared with modern tastes, a mix of brutally ugly, agonisingly impractical or even life-threateningly dangerous.
For example, the Reflector household heater, popular in the 1970s, consisted of an aluminium dish with a naked coil protruding from the centre, giving it the appearance of a miniature broadcasting satellite. While its narrow band of sizzling heat helped owners beat back the cold, a brush against a billowing curtain could spell disaster and the Reflector became one of the USSR’s greatest fire hazards.
Another object resembling a cruel pastiche of twentieth-century consumer luxury was the Aelita-2 electric hairdryer. It took its name from Alexei Tolstoy’s science fiction novel about a Martian princess trying to escape her home planet to the utopia of the Soviet Union. Featuring a detachable hood placed on the users’ wet head, the Aelita was said to have only one setting – blasting heat.
The baffling impracticality of so many eastern bloc design objects means most have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Some, however, retain a quaint ingenuity, while others endure in the hands of those seeking bleak Soviet chic.
While few may be desperately searching for Aelitas on Ebay, rising demand for eastern bloc interiors has been met with several companies specialising in salvaging original features.
SkinFlint, a Cornwall-based lighting salvage company, sells hundreds of fittings sourced from places such as disused Czech and East German factories to customers ranging from fashionable London restaurants to clients renovating terraced Georgian town houses.
“We saw that people wanted a slight break from the norm,” says Chris Miller, co-director of the business. “In an age of mass-produced items, we can offer something different – things with an interesting history and a potential investment for the future as well.”
Their minimalist appearance chimes with some stripped-down contemporary interior styles. More often than not, however, it is a sense of kitsch that generates much of the appeal, rather than the quality of the objects themselves. An interest in original eastern bloc furnishings is luring thousands of visitors a year to places such as the Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava, which boasts an original 1970s spiral staircase and gaudy red-carpeted bar, once enjoyed by party dignitaries. Elsewhere, a tour around Berlin in a GDR-era Trabant car remains a popular pursuit for stag parties.
Idov says: “Let’s be honest, for some people totalitarian imagery is attractive, and Soviet kitsch is totalitarian imagery at its most acceptable. There are other objects, however, like the Lomo camera or the Ural motorcycle, that have come back in earnest. I think it’s because their very simplicity – which once made them boring – now makes them feel kind of essential.”
The Lomo camera, which produces hazy, romantic images that have won it dedicated enthusiasts across the world, remains one of the most enduring late Soviet designs. The camera started as a failed venture in espionage. Emerging from the Leningrad Optics and Mechanics Amalgamation factory, it was devised as a rip-off of Japanese cameras used by spies, but the Soviet defence ministry judged its photos to lack detail, so it was marketed to the public instead.
In the early 1990s, Matthias Fiegl, then a student in Vienna, had started to explore the recently accessible countries to the east for the first time, when he and his friends came across a Lomo in a camera shop in Prague. “At the time nobody knew this brand, so there was a lot of fascination,” says Fiegl. They loved the camera so much that they started to smuggle them back to Austria, where they established a Lomographic Society, which started to stage exhibitions of their work.
Such was the success of the Lomo that the society later persuaded the original Russian factory, struggling in a new world of cheap imports, to stay open and grant them global distribution rights. Lomography shops have since been set up in more than 20 cities internationally, including a pop-up outlet in Selfridges in London.
Away from hipsters questing after Soviet synthesisers or constructivist posters, many of the designs to come out of the post-kitchen debate era are simply too appalling to undergo a full-scale revival. Few were ever designed to endure, with most being cheap, knock-off versions of foreign products, meaning Soviet weaponry remains a far greater global influence.
“The primal shock of the Sputnik and its whiskered orb shape reverberated throughout western design,” says Idov. “But then there’s the AK-47 [rifle], which, one may argue, is the Soviet Union’s most important and lasting contribution to the material world.”
● Hotel Kyjev www.hotelkyjev.com
● Lomography www.lomography.com
● SkinFlint www.skinflintdesign.co.uk
● TrabiSafari www.trabisafari.de
‘Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design’ (Rizzoli), edited by Michael Idov