Moscow Design Museum is a truly unique institution. Founded in 2012 it became the first Russian organisation devoted specifically to design.

Alexandra Sankova. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

The organisers managed to use their limitations, such as the lack of funding or the permanent venue, for the benefit of the museum developing the new innovative way of its functioning. Today the museum organises exhibitions in the major venues in Russia and abroad, publishes books, makes documentaries and much more. Two years ago it won the Utopia Medal at the London Design Biennale for the best response to the biennale theme, Utopia by Design. This year the museum returns to London with the new project. On the 11th of September in the framework of the biennale Moscow Design Museum presents their book and documentary about previously untold story of the VNIITE – the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics. Marina Maximova of RA+C met with the founder and director of the museum Alexandra Sankova to find out what we can expect.

History of Russian Design 1917-2017 exhibition. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

How did you come up with an idea of such institution?

I started thinking about it while still a student in Stroganov Academy in  Moscow. Every time I travelled abroad it stroke me that each major city had at least one institution devoted specially to design while Moscow had none. For example, in London alone there is Design Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Textile Museum, and Arts and Crafts Museum to name just a few. And in Russia there was no platform which would support and promote Russian and Soviet design. So I decided that we should not wait in vain any longer and should make such museum ourselves.

I had the experience as a curator of design exhibitions and competitions and also worked in the Department of Culture in the Embassy of the Netherlands where I was responsible for the creative industries, such as architecture, design and fashion. As you probably know, the Dutch are very serious about their design, it is an important element in their GDP, so I learned a lot about how this industry functions abroad.

Together with the group of the like-minded people we started developing the concept of the museum and one of the first challenges we faced was of course the issue of the space. But we were creative professionals, so we could come up with a creative solution. We decided to open our museum in a bus. Such an extravagant decision gave us a lot of mobility allowing to travel all over the country. You did no longer have to go to the museum, the museum would come to you. It also was an interesting way to deal with the growing competition among the museums. There are so many new art spaces opening that it is getting more and more difficult to attract the audience, and our mobility allowedthan  us to reach much more people if we were tied to one space.

Soon after, however, I met Marina Loshak, director of the Pushkin museum. She was very interested in our ideas and from the very start believed in the potential of the museum. She let us use the space of Manege, one of the central exhibition halls in Moscow, for our projects. It was an unbelievable but absolutely fascinating opportunity! The first exhibition we organised, Soviet Design: 1950s-1980s, attracted 150 thousand visitors.

The interest to our museum was growing and we began to take our exhibitions to various venues in Russian and abroad and each time adapted them for the needs and peculiarities of the space. Such model of a “wandering museum” offered us the most effective way to use our resources and reach wider audiences in many cities and countries. Once the exhibition was created we wanted to tour it to as many locations it possible, but in every single location it changed and transformed becoming a slightly different show.

Soviet Design exhibition. Rotterdam. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

On the one hand it is very difficult to be the museum without the space, only with the office and the storage. But on the other hand it opens up so many new possibilities and enables us to travel the world and to constantly learn new things about design and the ways of its preservation and promotion. We are always looking for the possibilities of new discussions and collaborations with other cultural organisations and keep our eyes open for new opportunities.

Does the museum have a collection of its own or do you borrow items for your displays?

We do have our collection, which includes items of Russian avant-garde, prototypes and originals of map-boards of Soviet artists in the 1950s-1980s and many works by contemporary designers. A lot of objects were donated to us, some things we bought at flee markets or online. Throughout the Soviet times it was very difficult to get hold of some of the items, so people were very careful using them and many of them are still in the excellent condition. The problem is that in the 2000s many of the things were thrown away, but we are lucky that the Russians have dachas.Many items which are no longer wanted but somehow still have some sentimental value for their holders end up stored there. And today lots of our colleagues and friends bring us things from their dachas. Only recently our colleague Katya Shapkina brought from us an old radio, a TV and a vacuum cleaner. The artists Sasha Konstantinov presented us with the refrigerator ZIL. He now jokes that his, Sasha’s, works are not shown in Brussels or Rotterdam, while his all refrigerator is touring the world.

Of course we also borrow the items from other collections. For example, when we bring our projects to other institutions, many of them have other items of Russian and Soviet design in their holdings, so we add them to the display. Another example, is the exhibition of British Design which we organised in Moscow and for which we borrowed works from the collection of Victoria & Albert museum. We were the first private museum who was allowed to do it!

Are there differences between the ways Russian and foreign audiences engage with design

Yes, I guess the Russian audience has more personal connection to the items we show. For many of them the objects on the display are also the objects of their previous everyday lives and artefacts of their own histories which they want to pass on to their children.

The attitude towards the Soviet design has changed considerably in the last few decades. For example, in the 1990s carried away by the desire to get rid of everything old and start everything anew many people threw away the objects which now could be considered of the museum quality. Today the interest in the Soviet design is reviving. Young people bring back some of the objects owned by their parents and grandparents, they want to know more about them, they want to surround themselves with them decorating their flats and using them in everyday life. Our museum was in the right place in the right time using the benefits of this booming interest, but also contributing to its further upsurge. The personal attachment to the items and nostalgia which many of our exhibitions provoke are also a way to raise further awareness of the history and theory of Russian and Soviet design and promote its further research and investigation.

History of Russian Design 1917-2017 exhibition. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

In Europe and America people are much more used to the design exhibitions. These countries have much stronger theoretical base. A lot of the research has also been done in the field of Russian and Soviet design. For example, one of the important events was the workshop organised in 2014 in Sheffield University by Tom Cubbin and Yulia Karpova. It attracted the researchers from many countries and I was very delighted to find out how much work was being done in this field. Later there was a series of conferences which encompassed various themese of Russian and Eastern European design history. The last of them took place very recently in June 2018 and was hosted by M+ museum in Hong Kong.

This interest is also closely connected to the support we get from the West. We received Western awards, published books with the foreign publishers, foreign cultural organisations sponsored production of our films. It is very rewarding to know that our activities get such a recognition among the international audience.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience at the London Design Biennale two years ago

Biennale was a very important event for us, both because of the prestige of the event and its location in London, one of the design capitals. The project we presented was the first case when the museum was supported by the State, namely by the Ministry of Industry. To our surprise the officials were interested in the exhibition which was not about the contemporary innovations, but about the history. The project titled Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Designoffered a glimpse into an idealised world created by Soviet designers that, for the most part, never left the space of their workshops.

Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design. London Design Biennale. 2016. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

The preparation of the exhibition was both exciting and exhausting. We made our best collecting the bits of the information in the archives and from the interviews we conducted. We had hours of conversations and had litres of tea with older people who could tell us fascinating facts about the system of Soviet design. The fact that we received the award of the biennale reassured us that all the hard work was not done in vain. Such a high appraisal of the international professional community was an important milestone both in terms of boosting our own confidence and promoting our work abroad.

London Design Biennale 2016. Award ceremony. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

The biennale opened many doors for us. Soon after it finished we got in touch with two publishing houses, Phaidon and United Editions, and now have already two books out. The first one is “Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989” published by Phaidon, which offers the captivating survey of Soviet design and features more than 350 items from our collection. The second one, published by United Editions is a continuation of the project we presented at the biennale and tells the previously untold story of the VNIITE – the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics. It brings together many images of sketches, models and prototypes, as well as a selection of covers of one of the USSR’s hidden gems of graphic design – the VNIITE’s monthly journal. The authors of the publication, Olga Druzhinina and myself, are keen to develop this theme further and will work on the new publications. For example, Olga Druzhinina’s book about Vladimir Rung, who was the chief designer of the major manufacturer of photographic equipment Zenit, is coming out in September.

Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design. Film

Using the materials shown at the Biennale we also produced the documentary film Discovering Utopia (follow the link for the trailer). The director Andrei Silvestrov created it on the basis of the interviews with former VNIITE staff members – ‘Vniitiane’ as they called themselves. It tells the story of a unique organization by the words of those who took part in its creation. The book and the film will be presented within the framework of the London Design Biennale on 11 September.

What can viewers expect this year?

One of the major projects is the exhibition History of Russian Design 1917-2017, which Moscow Design Museum opened last year in Tobolsk. The show had already been in Nizhny Novgorod and it keeps touring. The exhibition consists of three parts, namely Constructivism (1917-1935), Soviet period (1950-1980) and Contemporary design (1990-2017). It demonstrates the continuity and the development of the design tradition in our country. It is a brilliant educational project which features many aspects of design, including fashion, industrial design, textile, and graphic design, and we would like it to tour abroad.

On the occasion of this exhibition Svetlana Chirikova and I produced the 4-part documentary film which we aspire to donate to the design museums and universities. The film offers a mini-course of the Russian design history and will be of interest to a very diverse audience. It also has an outstanding graphics produced by Lena Kitaeva.

History of the Russian design. Episode 1.

Another exhibition which we are preparing to tour is Design System in the USSR, first shown in 2017 in the Centre of Fashion and Design. It is an outcome of the very important research project carried in the course of several years. The exhibition is an investigation of the Sovietstate system of design in the 1960s-1980s, its multiple organisations and their rapid development during the Khruschev’s liberalisation.

Design System in the USSR exhibition. Photo by Sasha Nikonovich

The projects which we are bringing to the London Design Biennale is the follow up on all the work we have done since 2016. We will also present the film and the book which came out as the result of our display here two years ago.

Which museums outside of Russia would you recommend to visit to our readers interested in Russian art and design?

Russian and Soviet design, especially graphic design of the 1920s – 1930s is included into collections of many museums and art institutions. In 2017 when the whole world was commemorating 100 years since the Russian Revolution interest in Russian avant-garde and constructivism became even more apparent. The exhibitions featuring Soviet design took place al over the world. We also celebrated this important date with our exhibition Paper Revolutionshowcasing graphic design of the 1920s – 1930s.

But even outside of the special projects there are many places where you can find objects of Russian design. Important works by Soviet constructivists and avant-garde artists are included in the collections of MoMA in NYC, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, Zurich Design Museum and New Institute in Rotterdam. For anyone interested in design I would also recommend visiting London Design Museum, ADAM Design Museum in Brussels, Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein and Brohan-museum in Berlin. And of course you should come to our shows!