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Moscow Design Museum: Ethics Through Aesthetics

On the uniqueness of Soviet-Russian design
01.29.2021
Moscow Design Museum: Ethics Through Aesthetics

Many experts consider Soviet design as a branch that was ahead of time. Creative works of authors of that period are unique and interesting to study. Soviet designers worked out projects that could compete with the leading Western innovations. However, the formation of the methodology of a systemic approach is believed to be the main achievement of Soviet design in addition to other progressive aspects. Olga Druzhinina, Deputy Director for Science of the Moscow Design Museum, told us more about that in her interview for the Global Women Media.

Дружинина_0T.jpg Olga Druzhinina
Deputy Director for Science of the Moscow Design Museum

The Moscow Design Museum was established in 2012. At that time, it was Russia’s first and only cultural institution of such orientation. The museum aims at collecting, researching, and preserving the legacy of Russian design, introducing the visitors with the best samples and movements of this kind of art, and representing Russian design abroad. 

Today, the museum’s projects are successfully carried out at the main exhibition platforms in Russia, Great Britain, Holland, Germany, the USA, Belgium, and China. The museum’s collection includes the samples of works of constructivist artists, the most significant pieces of works by Soviet designers and art collectives, artworks of modern Russian designers, and cultural objects of the world design. 

Despite the fact that the museum carries our serious research, educational, and exhibition-focused work, its team is relatively small and consists of several women passionate about art. Olga Druzhinina, the main specialist in the research work implemented at the museum, is one of them.

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– What fields of activity are most significant for you and for the museum today? 

– Our team is small but very active. Every member performs a range of functions. My field of responsibility is mostly linked to research. That is why working with archives is one of the main fields of my activity. Today, during the pandemic, when all exhibitions are paused and museums are closed, I have an opportunity to pay much more attention to my research. 

We are happy to have unique archives with the works of distinguished Soviet designers. Authors and their relatives are pleased to share their creative legacy with us to make it accessible to the public. 

It is important for us to not only preserve the creative and theoretic legacy of designers and make their works accessible to the mass audience but also transmit content in a structured and interesting format. That is why all the information in our archives is thoroughly studied and regularly reconsidered. We try to find original ways to carry out our projects, pick high-quality pictures, publish the most interesting stories on social media, and create films. 

By the way, educational activity is another important aspect of my work. Before the pandemic, I delivered lectures regularly at universities. Today, I do that in the online space. Those are small courses or separate lectures on relevant and interesting topics. Sometimes I broadcast live lectures on social media, for example, on Instagram. There I share useful knowledge and talk about what we found in our archive. 

Of course, exhibitions play a key role in our work. Despite the closure of all expositions because of the pandemic, we have already planned several interesting projects. 

The Moscow Design Museum regularly hosts exhibitions at the State Tretyakov Gallery. A new exposition has already been prepared there. It will be open as soon as the pandemic restrictions are cancelled. This project is dedicated to plastic recycling. The exhibition presents works mostly by Western designers ranging from clothes to furniture and household items made of recycled plastic. Interestingly, every author used unique methods depending on his or her narrow speciality. Thus, completely different things in terms of their texture and function were made of recycled plastic. 

The Fantastic Plastic project was carried out with the support of SIBUR, a Russian petrochemicals company. They are our long-term partners with whom we have already organised exhibitions on design history in different Russian cities. Fantastic Plastic also has already had a whole tour of many regions of Russia. The final extended exhibition takes place in Moscow. 

Today, the museum develops another project dedicated to the history of Russian design. The exhibition will include works by both Soviet and contemporary authors. 

We are also paying much attention to interaction with designers from the Soviet period who are still alive. It is important for us to be able to talk to them and interview them. Knowledge tends to be forgotten. That is why we must record and preserve it. As museum workers, we see our responsibility in it.

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– The main part of your research is focused on Soviet design culture. What makes it unique? 

– We talked about that recently when holding an online meeting at a museum in New York. A four-part film on the history of design that our team had shot for the Kultura TV channel was featured during the event. As a member of the team, I talked about the project and then answered questions from the audience. I was very surprised and pleased with the audience’s great interest in Russian history. One of the most popular questions was about the difference between the Soviet and Western design cultures. 

I believe that, first of all, the difference lies in the fact that our designers are less commercially-oriented. In accordance with Western standards, the one whose activity resulted in more money for the seller of a product is considered a good designer. The main idea is to constantly improve the product to make customers replace outdated models of some things with newer ones. 

This theory of ‘planned obsolescence’ did not find its reflection in Soviet design culture. High-quality items were often purchased by families for many years and were even passed on to next generations. I would say that, to some extent, we approached the idea of conscious consumption already at that time. We understood that there was no point in replacing items that we used with new ones too often. Of course, this phenomenon may have deeper roots but that’s how I see the situation. 

From the very beginning, the concept of Western design was focused on increasing demand while the concept of Soviet design was based on improving the quality of life. 

The second distinctive feature of the Soviet design culture lies in the immersion into theory. I can explain that by considering a huge gap between the projects of designers and the capabilities of the industry. Directors of factories were responsible for executing a specific plan. To create an improved version of a product, they would have to stop the production line, invest more money, and reorganise production. Thus, by taking risks, they could risk their own work and bring themselves into trouble caused by not meeting the established obligations. 

So many projects remained unrealized because of that. Designers immersed themselves deeper and deeper into theory. Some authors even argued that their ideas might not be realized. The idea itself was considered more important because it could change people’s minds. 

In its essence, Russian culture is very project-oriented. That project-oriented nature is probably one of its strongest features. 

Another peculiarity of Soviet design lies in its interdisciplinary character. In 1962, when Yuri Soloviev created the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNIITE), which played a huge role in the development of the Soviet and Russian design, there were no qualified specialists in that field. After the closure of the VKHUTEIN in 1930, designers were forgotten. That’s why design professionals simply did not exist at the time of the creation of VNIITE. Yuri Soloviev invited philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, culture researchers, architects, and art historians to join the institute’s staff. The presence of a powerful interdisciplinary team made it possible to form a unique academic school. 

Design became a ‘point of convergence’ of technology and art. It helped ‘humanize’ the existing engineering solutions. 

It should be said that, in the USSR, the state provided wide opportunities for the development of the scientific basis of design. It financed the research institute alongside its many affiliates countrywide despite the fact that few of its projects were put into practice. When foreign designers came to the Soviet Union, they always noted the importance of an opportunity to be seriously engaged not only in creativity but also in theoretical work, this immersing deeper into philosophy, sociology, and other humanities.

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– You are particularly interested in the systemic approach in Soviet design. Why? 

– If we do not consider other progressive aspects of Soviet design, in my opinion, the systemic approach is the main achievement of the Soviet design. Although we cannot say that the theory of designing the environment, not an individual object, was invented and formulated by Soviet specialists. Designers of other countries talked a lot about that too. However, our experts managed to systematize knowledge and to turn this idea into a methodology. 

The design programme included many different aspects. On the one hand, it was a clear document describing the tasks of each subject of the process of the project’s fulfilment. On the other hand, it gave an understanding of how the product would exist from its creation to disposal, how its ‘life cycle’ would finish. 

The so-called ‘cradle-to-cradle’ concept based on zero-waste production became popular worldwide in the early 2000s. However, long before that, Soviet designers created objects taking into consideration their recycling process. 

The systemic approach in the area of design presupposed conscious consumption. A specialist had to think about the demand of the new project for the society. He or she should identify the disadvantages of the existing analogues of goods and reflect on how to improve them. Experts had to pay special attention to packing and operation manual to make it understandable to the consumer. 

To put that approach into practice, experts conducted major research and engaged sociologists, psychologists, physiologists, and other professionals in it. 

In the early 1980s, the USSR had 86 models of tape recorders. The range seemed to please every customer but many models duplicated one another. Designers conducted a special study and it turned out that they could meet the demands of society by decreasing the assortment twofold but doing that thoughtfully.

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The systemic approach is about not only caring about the customer but also understanding the economic components of the process. One of its tasks was to please the majority of customers while not overloading the production. 

Addressing the design tasks is impossible without a comprehensive approach. That is why experts started working out design programmes. 

Within the design programmes, our specialists worked out different initiatives from scratch, for example, a whole district in Tbilisi. They considered quick housing development in cities without pre-planned infrastructure one of the main problems. Oftentimes, people who moved to new-built houses had to live in an almost empty environment for some time. Thus, the project of designers presupposed comprehensive and harmonious development of the whole district. 

Design is the element that is somehow reflected in every type of art and in all fields of social life. 

The space around us is united by the cultural and historical legacy of different epochs and styles. When modernizing the environment, it is important to harmoniously combine architectural innovations with the existing objects. That is why it is necessary for designers to have extensive cultural and historical competence.

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– How does the environment influence a person and his or her mentality, world picture, and behaviour? 

– Often seems to us that we create the space around us. However, the surrounding environment influences us even more. It shapes who we are. A person tends to ‘absorb’ and reflect everything that he or she sees. 

The way the Italians dress has always shocked me. They can wear things that would seem completely incompatible in terms of colour and texture. However, they fit them perfectly when combined into a single picture. The Italians have an amazing sense of taste. I believe that reason partially lies in the fact that they see aesthetic and harmonious architecture in everyday life. 

The environment in which people live can shape their taste. When observing the beautiful around them, people remember the combinations pleasing their eyes at a subconscious level. 

Soviet sociologists talked a lot about the hierarchy of the urban environment, the division of space into districts, streets, houses, and apartments. Experts have argued that lack of attention to the ‘intermediate elements’ in this system including benches, streetlights, bus stops, and other street objects can lead to higher levels of vandalism in society. The thing is that a person who does not see the beautiful around him or her cannot understand or appreciate it.

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People’s emotional state may largely depend on how their district is designed. For example, houses that are too identical and close to each other and buildings blocking the horizon often lead to the spread of depressive and aggressive attitudes in society. Studies show that it is more comfortable for a person to be not in a ‘stone jungle’ but in the green environment. The best option, according to experts, might be to build large houses in park areas. 

The environment shapes our behaviour in society, our attitude to the world around us and to people. Ellen Key, a Swedish writer, even devoted an entire book to this concept. The book is called Beauty for All. 

Another interesting example is linked to the launch of a recycling programme in the late 1970s and a reuse programme in the early 1980s. Experts suggested that installing containers for separate sorting of garbage would not bring great results. Systematic work is needed to create an environment that would motivate society to change its behaviour and approach the problem of ecology consciously. It is not effective to force people to do something. It is much more important to study their lifestyle and create comfortable conditions for the formation of new eco-friendly habits.

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– Does that mean that the life of society and the development of our entire world depend largely on the designer? I would like to ask you about the education that specialists receive. In your expert opinion, what is missing in it today? 

– I may be a little biased as a person who deals with the history of design. However, I do think that cultural and historical disciplines should be fundamental in the education of our professionals. Creating something new for the sake of something new makes absolutely no sense. It is even more naive to think that we can design something useful and important for society from scratch without understanding what was before us. 

Scandinavian design theorists consider it wrong when a person claims to have invented something new. They even have a set phrase that everyone stands on someone else’s shoulders, i.e. we are all leaning on something. In this respect, knowledge of history and culture is extremely valuable. 

Most of the time, we are not creating something new, but rethinking something that already exists. 

When communicating with my students, I notice that the younger generation is interested in learning about what happened in the past. That is why it is very important to tell more about the development of culture in their country and region and to give them a basis on which they can lean. At the same time, in my opinion, it is necessary to talk about the situation in the world. Intercultural experience is very useful. But it cannot always be applied to our realities and one should take that into consideration. 

A designer is a specialist who must be well-informed and developed in several fields. An understanding of new technologies and business basics is especially relevant for a modern specialist.

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– What is the role of museums in the development of society and individuals? 

– Sometimes my colleagues in the field of art joke that a good museum is a museum without visitors. According to the documents, the museum’s primary task is to preserve and research the best samples of art. However, in practice, it is extremely important to perform an educational function as well. 

Yes, we have large archives, collect and process information constantly, and preserve the best examples of art. However, we do that mostly for our visitors. 

Museums have an important social function. This is especially obvious when we consider regional projects. Unfortunately, small towns far from the capital city still lack quality information and cultural development vector. I am always happy to travel with lectures to such settlements. As museum workers, we have a good opportunity to not only share knowledge but also instil a certain culture in people and get them interested in important and right things. I find that great 

– What is your social mission? 

– I follow the theory of beginning with small things. According to the standards of the modern world, our museum is quite small. We don’t make crucial decisions in the sphere of culture or education. However, our team loves its work and contributes to one big common cause. 

Within my work, I always strive to involve people more in cultural activities, to instil the habit of going to museums and turning to art in them. 

I have an adult daughter. She is a lawyer. However, museums and art are an important part of her life. When she was three years old, I took her to my work where she spent a lot of time in children’s clubs, first at the State Tretyakov Gallery and then at the Pushkin Museum. Now, as a grown-up person, she never misses an opportunity to visit a certain exhibition on the weekends. This charges and fills her, gives her a chance to rest and relax. However, she needed to be genuinely interested in the art once to achieve such an effect today. 

Museums make it possible to shift your attention from everyday problems to deeper thoughts. I believe that this is especially useful for women responsible for both household chores and professional duties today. 

I believe that the fulfilment of cultural projects contributes to the security of our society. By educating people and bringing up culture in them, we change their attitude toward life and others and teach them to be conscious and think critically. In fact, not only high-ranking individuals but also ordinary people are changing the world. That is why their decisions are important as well. Each of us is changing the world by making a small but very valuable contribution to our field of activity. 

Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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