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November 06, 2008

Christie Davies has a good sneer at socialist design at the V&A and explains why socialist economics could not work and made life ugly and uncomfortable: Cold War Modern: Design 1945 - 1970 at the V&A

Posted by Christie Davies

Cold War Modern: Design 1945 - 1970
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
25th September 2008 - 11th January 2009
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Fridays until 10pm)

The exhibition Cold War Design at the V&A is both a disgrace and a joke. It purports to identify a cold war in design between the Soviets and the Americans between 1945-70 and to place it in an historical and economic context but it gets both the history and the economics wrong and quite disgracefully so.

It is a joke because East European design was a joke. As the tragedy of Stalin was succeeded by the farce of Khrushchev, so the crushingly ugly monumentalism of his tyranny was replaced by the badly designed everyday products that were the subject of popular humour. Stalin's architects designed crass buildings, Khrushchev and Brezhnev's designers produced rubbish artefacts. The exhibition speaks of two roads to modernism but there was never anything modern about socialism.

The exhibition tries to reduce all western consumer goods to being items in cold war competition and a by-product of technical advances made by the military.

Well designed office products by Olivetti and Italian coffee machines alike are regarded as having been made to promote the benefits of the free market. There is a dreadful ambiguity here. They did promote the benefits of the free market. Under no other system would it have been possible to design them in a way that would appeal to customers and fulfil a felt need.

Let us have no nonsense about advertisers promoting false needs. Is coffee a false need? Were the Germans who drank Ersatzkaffee made of acorns during and after World War II as false in their needs as in their coffee? Should the "false" Olivetti typewriter and its successor the word processor be ditched to bring back hunched male clerks on high stools writing copper plate in ledgers? Was it wrong to deskill Mr Pooter, the City calligrapher, and hand his work over to the pert young female products of the Board schools just to satisfy a false need for legibility?

Elsewhere in the exhibition we are asked to admire "Hedwig Bollhagen's
elegant unadorned" East German coffee set 1961, produced by one of East Germany's leading ceramicists. Her work never went into mass production even though she owned one of the country's few private businesses (her goods were traded under the counter) nor that there was never any decent coffee to put in such coffee cups as there were. In East Germany you had to measure out your life without coffee spoons. We were endlessly told during the cold war that the prices paid to peasants growing coffee were too low, never that a key reason for this was the unwillingness of the Soviet block to allow their consumers to buy the coffee they wanted.

Many of the East European designs in this exhibition were mere prototypes that never went into production. Sometimes they are elegant but it is the elegance of a Potemkin village. In an aristocratic society it is possible to admire the craftsmanship of a one-off coffee service for the very rich and to ignore the dirty clay pots from which the poor sup their beer but in industrial societies production ought to be for the broad masses and design must reflect this.

Soviet design could not do so because no-one ever considered the wishes of ordinary people. In fairness, from an aesthetic point of view, it was an egalitarian society. Even the elite lived ugly, though in far more comfortable ugliness than the moujiks. There were no Fabergė Easter eggs, but then there was no Easter either, the key occasion that in Tsarist times had brought beauty into the world of the peasant.

The well-designed Italian goods did promote the virtues of the free market but that was not their main purpose. After they had been produced, no doubt they could be placed in exhibitions and used to illustrate the superiority of the West over Soviet socialism but so what? When you are competing for prestige or propaganda you compete with what you've got.

The curators' waspish comments on the Italian Vespa motor scooter are even crasser than those about Olivetti. They stress that the Vespa was adapted from scooters used by US parachutists during the Second World War in order to portray Western goods as a spin-off of militarism. One of the sillier critics writing about the exhibition, who presumably got his ideas from what he saw, adds that the Vespa was

mass-produced with American money to bind the once-fascist nation to its consumerist cause.
But were the Italians ever so enthusiastic for Mussolini and world conquest that they ceased to seek and enjoy well-designed goods? Was it such a wrench to the fanatically militaristic Italians to give up being soldiers of an all-conquering state that they had to be placated with scooters?

Consumerism is not an ideology, not a Weltanshauung in the sense that Fascism and Communism were. Putting the suffix –ism on something does not make it a belief system. In truth there is no such thing as consumerism. Our central belief is that individuals should be free to make choices - that is our ideology; the providers of goods and services merely compete for the attention of free women and men. That is all. A scooter is a scooter is a scooter. It is not an ideology but an effective means of transportation. It only becomes an advertisement for capitalism because it does well what it is designed to do.

It is amazing to see in the exhibition as an example of good East European design a "Trabi", an East German Trabant motor car. On days when the wind blew from the East it was the main source of pollution in West Berlin. After reunification it had to be banned because of the amount of dirt it put into the air. In what sense was it well designed? It doesn't even look good.

The Eastern jokers knew far more about cars than the V&A:

How do you double the value of a Trabi?
Fill the petrol tank.

Why has the Lada got a heated rear window?
So that it keeps your hands warm when you push it through the snow.

Everywhere in the exhibition we are told how innovation and design improvements in consumer goods came from the investments in science and technology needed for competition in defence. But in that case why could the Soviets who were very good at designing tanks (better even than the Nazi ones) not transfer their skills to the designing of a decent car.

The Soviets could not even design civilian planes that worked. Their internal airlines were notorious for their bad safety record, something they concealed from their own public by not permitting stories about air crashes to get into the press. If the Soviets could design an outstanding jet fighter for their covert pilots to use in the Korean War, why could they not design a plane that could get their own citizens safely from Moscow to Tashkent or Kiev?

But the exhibition does not mention these grotesque failures that reveal how worthless Soviet design was - instead it highlights Soviet propaganda successes, notably Sputnik the first satellite and Vostok the first space capsule, the one that took Yuri Gagarin into orbit, following the dog Laika. There is a huge Soviet poster of him in the exhibition by Vadim Volikov entitled "Glory to Soviet Science, Glory to Soviet Man - the First Cosmonaut, 1961". Gagarin is flanked by a rocket and holds a red sphere in his hand with a hammer and sickle on it. The idiots running the exhibition comment

perhaps it represents the planet's future as a socialist world without national, social or class divisions.
They have no evidence for this. It might just as well mean "he holds the whole world in his hand", i.e. the Soviet Union is omnipotent.

There is one richly comic item though - the full pressure space suit worn by Alexsei Leonov for his first space walk. It was so rigid that he had problems getting back into the spacecraft through the airlock and got stuck, presumably with his head back in and his arse sticking out in space. What a wonderful comedy film that would have made. No wonder the Russians never got to the moon.

It is the principle of the entire exhibition that Soviet posters, prototypes, rhetoric and imagined utopias are placed in opposition to western achieved design. Even the Soviet lead in rockets was a mark of their incompetence in design. The Soviets could not make their warheads smaller, so they had to make their rockets bigger and ended up bolting together World War II style German rockets. Sputnik was a by-product of this and is in essence a triumph of Nazi science and of the Nazi scientists kidnapped and forcibly deported to the Soviet Union in 1945-6.
But no one in Moscow dared to sing the local equivalent of

... the widows and cripples in old London town,
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun
The simplicity of the best western design was not an attempt to off-set the horrors of Socialist Realism but a result of the endless pressure due to competition in pricing to make things cheaper by using less raw materials in production and to occupy less space in people's homes.

The only small things the Soviets ever pioneered were the miniature cameras and recording devices for the KGB on display in the exhibition. Even jewellery imitated this as in Vaclav Cagler's Neck Piece (Czech) 1968-9, a piece of futuristic jewellery with mirrored discs for covert observation. Socialist production maximises the use of raw materials because that makes total production look larger which looks good in the figures and socialist design goes for size for a similar reason. Never tell a socialist that size doesn't matter.

It was not that their designers arbitrarily chose clumsiness but rather that a system in which value is measured by cost (as in the British educational system) forced clumsiness upon them.

The transistor was an American invention and the transistor radio a Japanese triumph. If it had been left to the Soviets they would have gone on using valves because for all their investment in science education (some of it better than ours) they could never innovate. In turn their designers would have gone on producing huge boxes to hold the radios taking up half the space in their average working class family's tiny living room. It would have been seen as a suitable outlet for the huge speeches of the Soviet leaders. It would be interesting to know how quickly they phased valves out when the transistor arrived since socialist planners do not like liquidating obsolete physical plant, even though it has become effectively worthless.

There is a curious insert in the middle of the exhibition covering the year 1968. Here for reasons that are obscure is a poster from the radical French Atelier Populaire 1968, telling us "Voter c'est mourir un peu", (To vote is to die a little), showing a coffin with a ballot box on top and marked with de Gaulle's Cross of Lorraine. It is accompanied by illustrations and accounts of the police putting down student riots in France and Italy. But there is also a photo of an utterly empty Wenceslas Square in Prague. In the foreground is the photographer's watch on a wrist, showing the time when a planned rally would have been at full strength. It had been cancelled because the Warsaw pact forces had warned that they would crush it with the utmost violence.

Here we see, though it is not remarked on in the exhibition, the total contrast between the crushed Czechs who wanted freedom to vote and to purchase and the cowardly pampered scum of Paris and Milan who were against voting, against freedom, against consumption and who knew that in a democratic country they could be violent with impunity. De Gaulle was not going to crush them beneath the tracks of his tanks.

In Milan in 1968 Giancarlo de Carlo installed a barricade of freezers and television sets in the Milan Triennale held in the Palazzo dell' Arte

fashioned from the debris of modern capitalism ...[to] draw attention to the effects of modern consumerism on society.
Two hours after it opened radical protesters occupied the building! De Carlo who was obviously a devotee of onanism, a complete Kuwaiti tanker-merchant banker, tried to engage them in discussion and was upset when a week later the police threw them out.

There is something sickening about radicals who protested against the goods that were making life easier for ordinary working-class housewives but who loved Mao Tse Tung and the Cultural Revolution and even imitated its uniforms. The mass murders the famines and the total lack of freedom were acceptable to them as were the public humiliation of ordinary individuals on a scale not seen since the Nazis made the Jews scrub the streets of Vienna.

There is also much that is sickening about this exhibition that praises the horrors of socialism with faint damns. The Soviet Union in the cold war was not an alternative road to modernism and modernity but a stagnant society that blocked all possibility of reform. At the time we feared communism because of its military power. Today we despise it for its failure. The cold war was a just war and we won. That is all you need to know. There is only one reason for going to the exhibition at the V and A and that is to sneer.

Christie Davies travelled extensively in the Soviet bloc during the cold war. He is the author of Jokes and their Relation to Society, (Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1998) in which he shows how ordinary people in those countries expressed their hatred of socialism and its failures through humour.

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Talking of civilian aircraft, in particular the TU-104 (Concordeski), the Russians used to sing

ТУ сто четыре хороший самолет

to the well known tune of the Funeral March, because so many test pilots lost their lives trying it out.

On the other hand, when the Soviets had given up on the reaching the moon, some high-tech rockets were hidden away by their designers, to emerge after the Cold War to be used in American launchers. Read the story:

The Engines That Came In From The Cold

(you may need to click on the "Summary" tab.)

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 6, 2008 07:44 PM
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