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The Second Avant-Garde: Design of Domestic Objects in Soviet Russia, 1953-1991

EU-funded research offers a new perspective for the understanding of late Soviet material culture.

A shift in attention by design historians to multiple actors of material culture (such as engineers, product testers, consumers) offers broad opportunities for studying design under state socialism. There are few opportunities for designers to obtain individual recognition under such a system. Yet, as Dr Yulia Karpova of the project SAGDESOR notes, “state socialism does not only provide fertile soil for ‘new materialist’ and ‘object-oriented’ design histories, it additionally offers a theoretical precedent: the notion of ‘comradely object’.”

Developed in the 1920s Soviet avant-garde, this notion refers to objects as expedient and functional ‘co-workers’ and ‘comrades’ of human users rather than seductive commodities, as they are in capitalist societies. Funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships grant, SAGDESOR explored the historical attempt at creating a comradely socialist object in response to the burgeoning Western consumer culture used as a soft power tool in the cultural Cold War.

Design and material culture

“Methodologically, I combined the insights of new materialism and recent design histories with the theoretical framework of Soviet productivism,” the fellow explains. Additionally, she engaged the notion from the Russian avant-garde’s literary theory, the ‘biography of object’. Originally developed in the 1920s by literary critic Sergei Tretiakov, the notion of object biographies reappeared in 1980s Western anthropology and inspired interest in the significance of everyday things.

Research also explored the theories of sustainability in design and material culture. This interest emerged on the occasion of a conference talk presented by Dr Karpova on environmentally responsible design pedagogy in the USSR in the 1980s. Further research into this topic has since been included in a chapter of a book she is preparing – one of the project’s key research outputs.

Communicating the past and present

Expected in 2020, ‘Comradely objects: Design and material culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s-80s’ will be an open-access illustrated book published with Manchester University Press. “It offers a new perspective on the history of Soviet design by focusing on the notion of the comradely object as an agent of progressive social relations that state-sponsored Soviet design inherited from the avant-garde.”

Other outputs include two chapters submitted for collective volumes, due for publication in 2019. In March of 2018, the fellow organised an international interdisciplinary conference – ‘The Body of Things: Gender, Material Culture and Design in (Post) Soviet Russia’. Graduate students and faculties from different disciplines joined forces to rethink the narratives of (post) Soviet material culture, gender and design. Dr Karpova chaired the panel session titled Women as Designers and Producers.

Multiple histories

The project’s approach corresponds to the methodological heterogeneity of design history. This is a relatively recent academic discipline that formed in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and has since spread internationally. It borrows methods from disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, science and technology studies, and art history. Situating the research in this discipline contributes to its aims of expanding the geographical scope of research and revealing the multiple histories of design – not just those confined to Western industrially advanced capitalist societies.

SAGDESOR research and outputs demonstrate that late Soviet material culture was dynamic, perceptive of international design development, and responding to it in ways that transcend the official ideology of state socialism. “The importance of SAGDESOR relates to the lasting influence of late socialist design culture not only in contemporary Russia but also internationally,” Dr Karpova underlines – “in terms of cultural diplomacy, global migration, and formal and informal communications between people and institutions.”

Reference source: The Second Avant-Garde: Design of Domestic Objects in Soviet Russia, 1953-1991

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