Back in the USSR: A Revolutionary Design for the Proletariat

Restaurant USSR ©Peretz Partensky
Restaurant USSR ©Peretz Partensky
Photo of Sophie Finney
25 October 2016

There are a number of stereotypes associated with Soviet design. It has been considered staidly functional, clunky, and drab. Yet in its early days, Soviet Design was at the forefront of radical innovation, producing works that boldly set out to establish an avant-garde image for the new Communist regime.

© JamesVaughan\Flickr

Soviet Design, despite its promising start, was essentially doomed from the beginning. The lack of competition seemed to demote the idea of good design; after all, if there are no other options, one might as well settle for what’s available. The results were often clunky, drab, and cheaply made objects that were merely functional at best. Throughout the mid-20th century, the Soviet bloc manufacturers produced knock-offs of Western designed products; the most infamous of these was perhaps the Vyatka Scooter, so indistinguishable from the Vespa that the font for the logo was even the same.

A USSR-built Lada 2102 station wagon | ©photobeppus

This situation of uniformly uninspiring design can more or less be traced to the end of the Second World War; just as American consumer culture began to boom, so too was bureaucracy firmly entrenched within the Soviet Union. Thus in contrast to the laissez-faire environment in America, every design practice in the Soviet Union was government controlled and could only be released onto the market with the approval of VNIITE, The Soviet Industrial Design Institute. VNIITE was founded in April 1962 to remedy the poor design of consumer goods through standardisation. Unfortunately the general consensus since has been that it did nothing to benefit Soviet design, aesthetically at least. It also explains the incessant copying of Western products; VNIITE’s method of certifying design was often merely to compare it with its closest Western counterpart.

Political Posters USSR 70s and 80s | ©Nicho Design

Though mid-century 20th century Soviet design is seen as dull and stymied by excessive government control, this was not always the case. The revolutionary fervour that swept Russia in 1917 also swept through the arts world, culminating in Constructivism, a utopic movement that sought to bolster the heady sweeping promises of the new Bolshevik regime. Propaganda became intrinsically linked to the world of design; Soviet Russia wanted to assure its countrymen that the country was strong, an industrial power to be reckoned with. At the same time, they also sought to create an image of national well-being, giving the impression that the Soviet Union was a desirable destination for holidays.

Following the revolution, there was a burst of creativity and collaboration as artists, designers, architects and writers worked together to reinvent their cultural identity. With the intent of throwing off the shackles of the former Tsarist bourgeois influences on art, society, and design, these idealistic artists set about redesigning textiles, architecture, and, of course, mass distributed posters. Setting their hopes on the mechanised future with the proletariat at the vanguard, the Constructivists used abstract depictions of planes, factories and other machinery in their works.

Political Posters USSR 70s and 80s | ©Nicho Design

Soviet propaganda sought to imbue a sense of national pride across the Soviet bloc, celebrating the union’s military might, technological innovation and advancement, and the unity of its people. Conceptually, the Constructivists such as El Lissitzky also reacted against ‘bourgeois’ art, which hypocritically looked back to the past rather than embracing the present and future promised by the mechanical advancements of the 20th century. As a result, their works reveal a sort of brutal beauty, with abstract blocky lines and repeated patterns in bright colours.

Soviet textile production was also caught up in the fervour of revolution. Textiles were were designed to be multi-functional, hence the small repeated patterns and abstract forms. In addition, textile increasingly needed to be useful for a variety of purposes given the scarcity of materials in the post-revolution period; it is important to note also that textile production didn’t take off until the 1920s, due to the lack of resources.

USSR Statue | ©Kate Brady

Internal propaganda was often blatantly moralising. Dinner services were imbued with slogans such as “He who does not work does not eat” and the symbols of Communism, the hammer and sickle, featured heavily in textiles, ceramics, and posters after its adoption as the Soviet symbol in 1923.

This internal propaganda was in sharp contrast to external propaganda; Soviet Russia wanted to sell an attractive vision of a thriving USSR to the West, enticing them to visit the country as a means of providing a vital to boost to the flagging Soviet economy. An organisation entitled Intourist, founded in 1929, was set up to work on attracting foreign tourism to the Soviet Union.

USSR office | ©RobertG NL

In the 1930s, a series of posters were commissioned by Intourist to achieve this aim. Advertising modern enjoyments of car tourism, health spas, and cultural festivals, these posters were designed to appeal to the West by creating a version of the USSR that did not truly exist. Initially opting for more a more avant garde design language for the posters, Intourist quickly switched to a more Art Deco style that was more in keeping with the West. Whilst the Russian avant garde worked well for the inward looking propaganda of the heroic proletariat, Art Deco lent itself to advertising leisure, especially to the West. These Art Deco inspired posters proved to be relatively short-lived, having more or less run their course by the end of the 1930s.

Though short-lived in their use, Soviet Art Deco propaganda posters are classic examples of how Soviet Russia used design to serve a number of purposes, as well as how greatly the design language differed with regards to internal and external propaganda. It is interesting also to note that the Soviet Union was initially looking to entice tourists to the country; this aim clearly collapsed following the advent of World War II. Nonetheless, the graphic design applied to ceramics, textiles, and advertising posters serves as an excellent reminder that, contrary to popular belief, Soviet Russia was, at least for a time, in the vanguard of design.

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