The new stars of avant-garde design
Ask any design obsessive and they’ll tell you that some of the most provocative, daring, mind-bending work is coming out of Kyiv, St Petersburg and Moscow. Much of the dominant aesthetic emerging from this new wave can be traced to the influence of the early-20th-century art movement suprematism and its radical leader, Kazimir Malevich. The Ukrainian artist espoused basic geometric forms and primary colours as a way to access “the supremacy of pure feeling” or spirituality. His design manifesto, meanwhile, transformed Russian art profoundly and put avant-garde on the map.
“When you live and work in the city where the genius of suprematism was born, it’s only a matter of time until his presence begins to inspire you,” says Kateryna Sokolova, the Kyiv-based co-founder of Noom. The designer has found inspiration in several art movements, most recently showing a collection of Bauhaus-inspired furniture – including the standout Gropius chair in Yves Klein Blue – at the Maison & Objet exhibition in Paris last year, but her greater design influence remains closer to home. Her sculptural Malevich vase, handcrafted in copper and sangria-red-painted steel, echoes the master’s penchant for strikingly simple shapes: a tall cylinder sliced by a circle. For Sokolova, an industrial designer whose childhood in Kharkiv, Ukraine, was marked by “changes and turbulence” as the Soviet Union collapsed, Malevich is more than artistic inspiration. “It’s our history,” she says, stressing the importance of claiming her Ukrainian identity at a time when tensions with Russia are high. “Inside me, yes, it’s a little bit political.”
When the hammer and sickle flag lowered for the last time in 1991, Ukrainian designers felt pressed to distinguish themselves from the homogeneous designs of the Soviet era. “No one was different,” architect-designer Daria Zinovatnaya recalls of her Crimea childhood. “Everyone had the same cabinets, tables, carpets and so on in their homes. There was no question of any design – everything was typical.”
Her singular vision, which earned a Red Dot award for exemplary product design in 2017, is anything but typical. In Zinovatnaya’s hands, suprematism goes beyond what she humbly calls “a combination of coloured planes”. She tempers in-your-face pattern with natural materials, as with an apartment she designed for a young couple in Poznan, Poland, or she channels the irreverence of Ettore Sottsass – one of many modernists she cites as inspiration – through intensely graphic installations that layer cartoonish patterns. Her Cherokee sideboard, with its trio of sliding glass panels, cleverly riffs on the suprematist motif of intersecting shapes.
But no one’s vision of suprematism has been more notable than that of Harry Nuriev. The Russian architect and founder of Crosby Studios, who keeps offices in New York and Moscow, tackles projects of every stripe – from architecture to lighting to furniture pieces for luxury brands like Balenciaga. Nuriev credits his “very traditional” architectural training, which emphasised Roman, Greek and Russian constructivist architecture from the 1920s-’30s, with a love of traditional elements like square floor plans and arches.
“At architecture school, the teachers usually thought our work should be very monochromatic,” he says when asked of his love for bright colour. “I wore all black and used only black colours in my architecture,” he explains. “But I came to believe I’d been brainwashed. I decided I should just bring colour to the world. I trusted that I should be myself.”
Being himself has paid off. Crosby Studios has been commissioned for some high-profile collaborations in recent years, including a transparent armchair liberally stuffed with Air Max sneakers for Nike (2019). Supermodel Bella Hadid interrupted his interview with an American magazine last December to snap a photo on his vinyl sofa filled with discarded Balenciaga garments.
“Harry seems to be able to walk that edge where he confounds those who don’t get it, and tickles the hell out of those who do,” says Patrick Parrish of the eponymous New York gallery, which stocks a variety of Crosby Studios’ powder-coated steel Libraries (2016) in a spectrum of colours such as bubblegum pink.
Like Nuriev, other contemporaries feel a revival is well under way. “We are beginning to appreciate what we skipped decades ago,” says Maxim Scherbakov, the Russian founder of Supaform, the architecture and design studio based in St Petersburg. “And we skipped a lot. Nobody loved the monumental art, Soviet murals and mosaics in the 1990s – or the brutal architecture. It’s time to realise our identity.”
Another classically trained architect, Scherbakov nods at his Soviet heritage while paying homage to suprematist principles in a way that feels wholly unique. As he tells it, good design need not be “utilitarian or cheap”. It could, as his otherworldly New Normative collection (2019) imagines, combine neo-classicism with utility and efficiency. In this “utopian Soviet reality”, tubular floor lamps and Soviet friezes look right at home in a luxury condo. That’s why Anna Karlin, a British designer based in New York, chose Supaform’s Modern sofa, with its custard-yellow cushions and forest-green planter, for the Pret-a-Porter apartment at One Manhattan Square, a new residential building in the city’s Lower East Side. “That entire room was about colour and so sculptural furniture was the best choice for it,” she says. “It doesn’t look like a traditional piece of furniture, but that’s the point.”
Dmitry Samygin, a Russian furniture designer based in Moscow, agrees that “form is the main thing in design”. The suprematist influence is there – and how could it not be, given where he grew up? His Croquet tables for Roche Bobois (2018) bear this out – realised simply in steel and black marble, they combine in their form the depth of a Rothko painting with the upright simplicity of a Donald Judd chair. But what links all the creative output of this new generation is artistic impact. Nuriev has the last word. “It’s not necessarily about shocking people,” he says, “but awakening them from a way of thinking they’re used to.”