Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers and Moscow Design Museum present the first ever exhibition USA to exploring Soviet industrial design from the postwar era. While creative innovation in design flourished in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1989, limitations in both manufacturing processes and distribution left many design ideas unmade. As an outcome, Soviet design from this period is largely unknown around the world. Everyday Soviet, on view through May 17, 2020, explores the material culture of this period through more than 300 objects loaned from the Moscow Design Museum, including household objects, fashion, posters, and sketches of products and interiors. These objects are further juxtaposed with a selection of approximately 85 works of nonconformist or underground art of the time from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, offering a holistic examination of the ways in which design and art developed concurrently.
Everyday Soviet: Soviet Industrial Design and Nonconformist Art (1959-1989) is co-organized by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum, and Alexandra Sankova, Director of the Moscow Design Museum. The exhibition marks the first time that works from the Moscow Design Museum travel to the U.S. In conjunction with the exhibition, a book edited by Tulovsky and Sankova will be published by Rutgers Press in 2021. With some 250 illustrations, it will include essays by Tulovsky and Sankova, as well as by Aleksandr Lavrentiev, Professor and Vice-President for Academic Affairs of Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Design and Applied Arts, and Susan Reid, Professor of Cultural and Visual History School of Social Sciences and Humanities Loughborough University.
In the mid- to late-1950s, as the political climate softened and Soviet audiences were exposed to cultural movements from around the world through the First International Festival of Youth in Moscow (1957), new creative possibilities opened for both Soviet artists and designers. Additionally, two exhibitions on American Abstract Expressionism and American kitchen and household design, shown under the auspices of the American National Exhibition in Moscow Sokolniki Park that followed the Festival in 1959, left lasting impressions, inspiring in turn nonconformist art movements and product innovations. Ideas for new products and interior environments were developed together with manufacturers across the country as well as by individuals working independently. Projects were shown at exhibitions, capturing futuristic aesthetics and a range of artistic visions of building a modern socialist society. While the desire to realize new ideas was vast—and often supported by the State—designers faced many structural hurdles. Factories, in particular, resisted changes to their production lines, opting instead to replicate the same items for decades. Additionally, as planned economy of the Soviet Union did not support market-based consumerism, innovation met bureaucratic obstacles.
Since public was not encouraged to replace old models with new ones, and as goods generally were often in very short supply, consumers purchased a minimum needed amount of goods and used them for years. As a result, design objects were imbued with significant cultural importance. Familiar objects, some unchanged for generations, penetrated people’s consciousness and inspired both personal and communal attachment and emotion. Everyday Soviet features a selection of these preserved objects, including electronics, kitchenware, furniture, and wall decor, capturing a very particular moment in Soviet history. The exhibition also includes sketches and posters showing some of the idealised visions that were not realised at the time, including images of office and home interiors of the future.
These objects, which had a profound emotional impact on public, also deeply influenced the development of art in this period. Nonconformist artists drew on and leveraged these emotional connections as they reflected on, questioned, and critiqued the state of Soviet society. Some artists positioned everyday objects within their wider conceptual explorations, establishing poignant cultural touchstones. For example, in his mixed-media work, Untitled (1975), Evgenii Rukhin enclosed an image of a religious icon inside an avoska, a reusable mass-produced net bag made of string, that is intimately associated with the hardships of Soviet life. Other artists looked more broadly at the environments and everyday materials that comprised the Soviet experience of the time. Mikhail Roginsky, now one of the most renowned artists of the nonconformist movement, created paintings that spoke to the inherently charged nature of physical spaces and objects in the Soviet context. Drawing on Zimmerli’s extensive collection of nonconformist art, Everyday Soviet further highlights this dynamic interplay between functional design and Soviet avant-garde artistic movements.
“While some of the most prolific nonconformist artists have gained recognition, Soviet designers, especially of this period, have remained largely in obscurity, and their connection to artistic movements under-studied. With this exhibition, we are reviving this aspect of modern design, and revealing little-known connections between functional objects and cultural experience as well as the confluence of inspirations between Soviet art and design at this time,” said Yulia Tulovsky. “I am thankful for the collaboration of my co-curator Alexandra Sankova and the Moscow Design Museum, which has allowed this under-recognised history to be shared with new audiences and has added another dynamic lens through which to examine the Zimmerli’s collection of nonconformist art.”
On April 7, The Zimmerli Art museum will show the film A History of Russian Design, which was produced by the Moscow Design Museum. The film recounts the history of Russian and Soviet design from the 1920s to the present. The program will begin at 6:00 PM and is free to the public.