In the last year there's been a little bit of a resurgence of interest in Soviet design and architecture. Two books in particular have been sparking my imagination. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed by Frederic Chaubin and this week. Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design by Michael Idov.
The main driving factor behind much of the design work was to out-do the Americans, obviously, and both books point to this being their main failing; where American design was concerned with appealing to the consumer, which meant that it had to be consumable (more or less) Russia had no consumers, only desperate but unwilling recipients. It was essentially the post-WWII bureaucracy of Soviet Russia that made progressive design impossible. There was no market for competition and then all products had to be approved by the Soviet Industrial Design Institute, who's only priority was out-doing the Americans... and this led to some simply amazing buildings and some insane designs.
It's a shame that Soviet design is so often analogised with the AK-47. It is after-all, the world's most proliferated firearm. And there are myriad articles and books lauding it's practicality and simplicity - which is probably why it is responsible for more deaths than any other single weapon.Less people are aware, for example that Soviet designers invented the ribbed tumbler, a design that has lasted forever, the plug-in water heater and Tetris.
The AK47 survives because it sat perfectly with the ideology of those who sanctioned the Soviet design canon. It was brutal, cheap, manufacturable and recognisable. Soviet design didn't value human life and convenience as much as it valued the raw objectives and ideology of it's designs.
It's interesting to think that it's only just now that things are changing.
Take the official symbol for the Rouble (right.) Until 2007, Russia simply didn't have one until in 2007... '26 of the best design firms in Russia chose a design among themselves, and agreed to make it a contractual obligation to use it as the symbol for the ruble in their work.' This ended up making it the de facto currency symbol of Russia without any referral to a political or bureaucratic body.