Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain, GRAD Gallery, London – review

Nikita Khrushchev, dressed in a light summer suit, waves his hand at US vice-president Richard Nixon. “As we pass you by we will wave ‘hi!’,” he says, talking about overtaking US industrial production. Pugnacious and funny to Nixon’s more diplomatic approach, Khrushchev seems completely taken in by his own rhetoric. What subsequently became known as the Kitchen Debate took place at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959, at the American National Exhibition.

At the heart of the exhibition was a reconstruction of a “typical” suburban US home, stuffed full of labour-saving gadgets and consumer luxuries. Russians who heard Krushchev and Nixon’s exchanges would have known that the Soviet premier’s assertion that in seven years the USSR would have bypassed the US in terms of production of consumer goods was wildly unlikely – but Krushchev was nevertheless making huge strides.

A film of the Kitchen Debate flickers away at the back of the Grad Gallery’s exhibition Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain. At its entrance is a framed poster portraying a woman in a sunny cocktail dress flinging open her windows to a view of a construction site the colour of the Soviet flag. “Time for a housewarming,” it declares. With the best intentions, thousands of khrushchyovkas (cheaply built housing blocks) were thrown up in and around all Soviet cities and, contrary to the image in the west, those small, rapidly built and flimsy apartments did begin to fill up with consumer goods, albeit slowly.

This delightful little exhibition shows some of the most ubiquitous items of the era, and while few are either revolutionary or revelatory, it does demonstrate that there was a thriving culture of communist commodities. Here you will find a vacuum cleaner that looks like a rocket ship, an extravagant post-Deco radio that looks as obsolescently planned as anything from the US and a streamlined fridge, the car-door handle of which reveals its manufacture in the ZiL car factory nestling up against toys, chocolate boxes and coffee makers.

Despite the radical utopian efforts of the Constructivists in art, architecture and design in the 1920s, and the establishment of the radical VKhUTEMAS school in Moscow in 1920 (based on the Bauhaus but shut down in 1930), there was no real legacy and design didn’t really exist as a discipline. When the Soviets did finally acknowledge the need to create consumer goods, they created the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) in 1962. This grew into the biggest design office in the world. As all production in the USSR was state-owned, VNIITE had a remit to oversee everything. From this elevated position, the design bureau collapsed after the fall of communism and managed to struggle on until exactly a year ago.

Fallen almost as far is ZiL. The manufacturer’s tragic arc is traced through a series of photos and texts charting its extraordinary rise in the 1920s (after copying a Fiat truck) to become the default automotive supplier for all the USSR’s needs and then on to become that rarest of things, a Soviet luxury brand. Party officials had ZiLs and these chunky, boxy, occasionally rather brilliant but always slightly dated saloons became as much a symbol of the USSR as the red star and the khrushchyovkas. Once Boris Yeltsin had abandoned the ZiL in favour of a Mercedes it was all over. Today the company is back to where it was during the civil war and shortages of the early 1920s, a giant repair workshop now servicing a few nostalgic auto-enthusiasts while developers salivate over its massive Constructivist buildings close to Moscow’s city centre. The cars are represented here by beautiful scale models and, of course, that fridge.

There are other good things here too. There are things copied from Italy, a Vespa-type scooter, a knock-off espresso-maker and a Soviet Rubik’s Cube (there was little regard for intellectual property) but there are also distinctively Russian things such as the ubiquitous expanding net shopping bag (you never knew when things might arrive in the stores – and when they did you had to be ready to queue and buy) and some excellent toys including an extraordinary hand-driven toddler’s vehicle.

Most impressive, though, are the graphics. The USSR may have been behind in consumer goods but in graphic design it always kept up. From magazines to chocolate boxes, the packaging here blends Constructivist abstraction with folksy motifs to create a distinctively Soviet mélange.

But there is also a glimpse of the counterculture. Although there is no example of the roughly typed samizdat (dissident publishing) that was so critical in escaping the orthodoxy, there are some examples of the extraordinary “bone music”, bootleg LPs copied from smuggled-in western records and pressed on to old X-ray plates. Apparently the sound quality was always awful but, in their morbid aesthetic, overlaying pop on to broken bones and shadowed lungs, they express something profound about the lure of consumer culture and the sickening of the state.

This is not the first time that this subject has been explored. The excellent Cold War Modern exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum covered it comprehensively in 2008, but it is an enjoyable refresher. And in documenting the decline of Russian design, it is also surprisingly poignant.

Until August 24,

To see works from this show in an FT Arts video, ‘Russia visualised: then and now’, go to

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