Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s-1980s

Yulia Karpova, Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s-1980s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), 248 PP.

Yulia Karpova’s Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s-1980s presents new research on the landmark institutions, projects, debates, and societal and political tensions that constituted Soviet decorative design during late socialism. With this book, Karpova, a design historian and archivist at Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), makes a substantive contribution to the history of Soviet visual culture.  The strength of Karpova’s study is the diversity of materials analyzed: Soviet design institution histories, critical discourses in leading publications, state-sponsored exhibitions, experimental building interiors, home commodity prototypes, consumer research, as well as successfully mass-produced projects. These varied topics are centered on the activities of the Artists’ Union of the SSSR and the All-Union Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), as well as other individuals and groups with alternative views about design, who are contextualized within chronological phases of late-socialist design and framed using voices from the period. In her range of case studies, recovery of period voices, and close looking, Karpova critically addresses the disciplinary boundaries, favored methods, and scholarly prejudices that have largely neglected Soviet design history in the West, using both the material turn and its decentralization in recent scholarship as method.

Drawing on recent studies of late socialism, such as Tom Cubbin’s Soviet Critical Design: Senezh Studio and the Communist Surround (2018), and art history landmarks, including Kristina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Object of Russian Constructivism (2005), Karpova’s focus is “the second historical attempt to create comradely socialist objects” (p. 4) within the sweeping, systemic changes that took place in the Soviet Union in the decades after Stalin’s death and before Perestroika. As such, Karpova demonstrates Stalin’s inability to liquidate and fully repress the ambitions of Russian Constructivism and productivist theory by tracing how a softening of policy, coupled with a new dedication to fulfilling the promises of socialism by improving living standards, “allowed for the resurrection of the theoretical foundations of productivism and the revitalisation and spread of those design philosophies into the socialist material culture and everyday of Soviet Russia.” (p. 4) This central thesis is explored by creating “a nuanced picture of people who cared about household objects in difficult political circumstances” that demonstrates how decorative art in late socialism “echoed the avant-gardist dream of a well-organised and socially impactful material culture.” (p. 4)

Thus Karpova’s book draws a clear throughline from constructivist and productivist leaders to their “intellectual grandchildren.” (p. 39) In carefully reconstructing this downstream history, Karpova demonstrates subsequent debates about the “comradely object,” and the elaboration of its value using qualifiers that include: “playmate,” “vibrancy,” “lightness,” “honesty,” “user-friendliness,” “spirituality,” “talkativeness,” and other attempts by designers and critics to conceptualize the ideal socialist object in postwar Soviet Russia. Karpova’s recovery of such “a heterogeneity of Soviet design” and “the contesting ideas of objects, their uses, their social roles and their power to transmit messages from designers to consumers – or the power to subvert these messages” (p. 6) is woven into her insights about shifting political landscapes, both within the Soviet Union and beyond.

The limit of Karpova’s study is her admitted focus on Leningrad and Moscow as centers, which excludes the activities of artists at the peripheries, to which Karpova does make passing reference and clearly invites other scholars to pursue. Organizationally, the book is clear in format, with an introduction that maps the entirety of the book, an epilogue that summarizes its aims, and chapters split into logically organized subsections with conclusions that succinctly sum up each chapter’s central arguments. Stylistically, some passages of the book may feel burdensome by the cacophony of other voices speaking, but while the reader may long for more of the author’s voice and ownership of the book’s substantive ideas in certain passages, the aim to more fully map the history and historiography of late socialist objects and to provoke a more inclusive and interdisciplinary discourse are readily achieved.

In Chapter 1, Karpova compiles a summary of some of the “theoretical and practical attempts to adapt socialist realism” (p. 26) during the 1950s, or what has been identified as the transition to socialist modernism after Stalin’s death. Karpova argues that when Nikita Khrushchev softened relations with the West and rolled back some of Stalin’s oppressive mandates, a new period of international exchange, urbanization, innovation, and a “diversification of taste” occurred (p. 49). This centered on finding balance between an object’s beauty and its function and between an artist’s distinctive creativity and the ability of their design to be mass produced (p. 55), significant to conceptual tensions between decorative artists in Leningrad and Moscow. The chapter’s central contribution is Karpova’s presentation of three conceptual facets of Khrushchev-era modernism –vibrancy, lightness, and, most significantly, “honesty” as critical to the development of Soviet design. Inspired by the reform and increasing emphasis on functionality within architecture, particularly utilitarian buildings mass produced to meet the Soviet Union’s growing need for living space in the postwar period, decorative designers sought to create “a vibrant, up-to-date and honest object” for the home, which Karpova argues sought to make socialism manifest in tangible and more enjoyable ways. (p. 57)

Karpova spends quite a bit of time unpacking honesty as a core value and conceptual framework for Soviet designers invested in creating “a symbolic order that would unite art, industry, and consumption in a way appropriate for a Soviet society overcoming the traumas of war and late Stalin-era oppression.” (p. 50) Of course, discussions of “honesty”’ in objects carried forward the mantle of 1920s productivist theory and Constructivist art and indicated a resurgence of avant-garde ideas, such as transparent use of materials, clearly articulated in an essay by Aleksandr Saltykov from the journal Soviet Trade in 1954. (p. 28) Indeed, leading furniture designers and teachers at VNIITE, established in 1962 and conceived as the industrial design research arm of the party, were responsible for creating prototypes for products and writing criticism informing product design, design education, public taste, and mass production. The avant-garde tendency among them had a significant lineage that Karpova notes; several leaders within VNIITE were favored students of Alexander Rodchenko from the VKHUTEMAS (Higher Artistic and Technical Studios) in Moscow (p. 39), which between 1920 and 1930 functioned as a central laboratory space and training ground for young artists interested in studying with leaders of the Russian avant-garde. Karpova also introduces the voices of Alexandr Chekalov, Mosei Kagan, and others whose 1950s debates in the journal Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo SSSR (Decorative Art USSR) embodied the desire to bridge socialist realism with the needs of the postwar period, so that the “honest socialist object was imagined at the intersection between functionalism and ornamentalism, beauty and utility, and artists’ aesthetic principles and consumers’ preferences.” (p. 57) Karpova interprets what emerged from debates concerning these crossroads as an “aesthetic turn” in Soviet design. (pp. 25-26)

With the following chapter, Karpova responds to the “material turn” in art history, as well as to scholars of postwar socialism, such as Sergei Oushakine and his essay “Against the Cult of Things: On Soviet Productivism, Storage Economy, and Commodities with No Destination” (2014), to consider the ambitions of Soviet designers and particularly the work of VNIITE directly after its founding in 1962. Introducing more contemporary voices (Ivan Matsa, Anatolii Gorpenko, Nina Iaglova, Boris Shragin, Karl Kantor, Iurii Gerchuck, Mikhail Kos’kov, among others), Chapter 2 traces the debates redefining Soviet design in the early 1960s, a time in which the term “design” was rejected by Soviet artists and critics. (p. 72) Karpova frames the chapter with a discussion of modular furniture in Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo SSSR in 1964, which she uses to contextualize her argument about Khrushchev-era materialism as distinct from the “new materialism” of the West. Karpova argues that “the ‘new materialism’ of the Khrushchev government was a policy that favoured belief in the exceptional human being, an expert in urban planning, design and aesthetics, who is capable of organizing inert matter into proper socialist objects and furthering rational consumption and daily life.” (p. 67)

Karpova’s second chapter also discusses the political mission of VNIITE, whose institutional structure “directly manifested the state’s will to control, through a network of experts, the totality of things and their influence on consumers.” (p. 67). Drawing on the object-focused studies of contemporary theorists Bill Brown and Jane Bennett, Karpova unpacks the methods by which VNIITE conducted product research in the 1960s, such as a comparative study of grooming products made in England with those manufactured domestically, including the British Milward Courier which outperformed the Soviet Ultro electric shaver for men. Although such research indicated progress, Karpova notes that to make up for the lack of “rigid quantitative methodology” Soviet product testing became a collaborative process that engaged “sociological research, laboratory and in situ testing, consultation between different specialists, and the designer’s artistic intuition.” (p. 81) Karpova also maps the “Matsa-Gorpenko debate,” a lively multi-year back and forth within the pages of Dekarativnoe Iskusstvo regarding art critic Ivan Matsa’s polemical essay “Can the machine be a work of art?” that asserted machines could be considered beautiful only for their “technical perfection,” while household objects could be intentionally beautiful in design, and Anatolii Gorpenko’s rebuttal that asserted the site of beauty for the Socialist object was not in the object itself but what the object signified. (pp . 69-70) Debate concerning this ideological split in discourse consumed contributors to Dekarativnoe Iskusstvo for several years.

Karpova also makes note of mediated Western influences in such discussions and in the activities of VNIITE. For example, she identifies the theory of “technical aesthetics” proposed by Czech designer Petr Tucny, whose ergonomic designs for tools improved the conditions of workers in the aviation industry and influenced Soviet designers’ interest in scaling his conception of technical aesthetics to more ergonomically designed objects for the Soviet home (pp. 73-74) To illustrate this point, Karpova presents mid-1960s prototypes for more ergonomic and colorful kitchenware developed by Vsevolod Medvedeev and others at VNIITE, whose design succeeded in proposing significant improvements to the Soviet home but failed to be selected for mass production. Karpova also traces the origins of consumer research by sketching the history of the Institute of Public Opinion, formed in 1960, which helped artists and critics better understand consumer needs and respond to these with goods that might fulfill the promise of a better life under socialism.

However, as Chapter 3 demonstrates, rationalized systems dictating collective taste overlooked and alienated the individuality of both the artist-engineer and the Soviet consumer, whose distinctive personalities and approaches to objects and spaces were necessary for the process of crafting truly socialist objects and environments. This chapter begins with the exhibition Art into Life that took place in Moscow in 1961 and further sketches the founding of VNIITE. With the removal of Khrushchev from office, Karpova argues that from the mid-1960s onward a new ideal for design began to emerge, a turn from functionalism towards neo-decorativism or “a set of artistic strategies to redefine the meaning of decoration and reconceptualise ‘decorative-applied’ art as decorative first and foremost.” (p. 95) Spending a significant amount of time on the history of glassmaking in Leningrad, Karpova highlights Boris Smirnov, one of the glass industry’s leading artist-engineers whose views opposed those promoted by the VNIITE system and eventually fostered in Leningrad works of art signifying the disintegration of the socialist object altogether. Using Smirnov as her exemplar, Karpova describes new pursuits in diversifying taste grounded in the perspective of the consumer, who, like Smirnov and other Leningrad glassworkers, had some interest in throwing off the state’s heavy-handed appeal to conformity.

Karpova also presents a 1963 study of dormitories in Kalinin published by art critic Leonid Nevler in Dekorativnoe Isskustvo SSSR, a consumer research essay that identified a dichotomy within the postwar young professional: a simultaneous preference for modern dress on the one hand and home décor consisting of knick-knacks clearly signifying Russia’s past on the other. For Nevler, the physical manifestation and exhibition of this conflicted identity throughout the dormitory in Kalinin illustrated the problematics of social transition from village to city living in late Soviet socialism (or the intracultural tensions between tradition and modernity). Nevler’s study demonstrated the need for applied artists and organizations such as VNIITE to reeducate Soviet citizens’ taste, create better product design, and consider the individuality of consumers in doing so. Karpova also notes the contemporaneous emergence of an argument for the conceptual value of creating unique objects or small editions that could help shape more appealing mass-produced designs, work that challenged the Khrushchev-era “canon of utility” (p. 108) or what Karpova later summarizes as a turn to “post-functional aesthetics.” (p. 113) This chapter succeeds in highlighting the discrepancies among the state’s aims, decorative artists’ ambitions, and the realities of public taste and production models approved for the home.

Chapter 4 begins with additional readings of Smirnov’s contributions to the discourse on design, namely his claim that artists should delegate technical construction to engineers and focus instead on consumer interests, assuming the role of a film or theater director. Karpova argues that this more expansive understanding of the role of applied art in shaping everyday life manifested in the desire to create not just objects but environments. Karpova’s nuanced documentation of this ambition contributes to the book’s larger argument: that late socialist designers followed through on the aspirations of the 1920s avant-garde who also sought to create didactic design programs and immersive, socialist experiences. Looking at objects created specifically for the home — the environment at the heart of everyday socialist life — Karpova presents three prototype case studies from the 1970s: the Vitiaz alarm clock (1972), the OKA-USh refrigerator(1972-1974), and the Buran vacuum cleaner (1977). Designed with efficiency of the home in mind, these objects emerged from VNIITE’s mid-1960s research into Soviet design and manufacturing capacity and Soviet consumer needs, which resulted in efforts to overcome the inequity of prior products in order to deliver on the promises of socialism (specifically designated and properly weighted space for store-bought commodities and homemade jams inside a refrigerator, for example).

Throughout the rest of the chapter Karpova addresses issues of environment and consumption, both the design of total environments as methodology for minimizing the temptation to fetishize commodities, as well as the Soviet Union’s contributions to global interest in sustainability and recycling. Although somewhat of a digression, Karpova’s discussion of recycling contextualizes the Soviet Union’s contributions to sustainability. While imperfect in execution, Soviet recycling traditions, as recovered by Karpova, challenge prior assessments of Soviet life as inherently wasteful. Indeed, Karpova argues effectively that reuse and recycling were essential facets of socialism, both through planned industrial practices in which waste management was accounted for and unplanned frugality among consumers whose lack of resources tended to maximize the life of commodities in their possession.

In her final chapter, Karpova turns to the status of the decorative artist and designer in the Soviet Union, who she claims “yearned to enter the intelligentsia,” a status of distinction significant within a classless society. Looking to Leningrad in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, she traces the disintegration of the socialist object through the ultimate rejection of rationalized and systematic attempts to inscribe objects with coherent political meaning, during a period marked by increasing interaction between Soviet artists and ideas from the West. The chapter traces shifts in ongoing debates within the pages of Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo SSSR in the 1970s and the emergence of a Leningrad “school of ceramics” that developed from the ideas of older Leningrad artists like Smirnov. Focusing on the ceramics collective One Composition (OK), Karpova maps how the collective’s creation of “image ceramics” contributed to the disintegration of the socialist object in the years leading up to Perestroika. Karpova does so by positioning OK artists as the inheritors of Smirnov’s ideas concerning the role of individuality within socialist artmaking in the late 1960s, namely Smirnov’s defense of a more expressive form of decorative art and his own model of freed creative expression evident in lyrical and purely aesthetic objects. One such example is Tea Couple (1966), a handblown set of fused and nonfunctional teapots assembled as a colorful glass sculpture and reproduced on the cover of Karpova’s book.

Smirnov had argued that creativity was necessary for the development of more authentically socialist objects, but OK’s “image-ceramics” signaled a rejection of the socialist object altogether, as in Pink Dress and Autumn Coat (1976) by Mikhail Kopylkov, an artist who worked in industrial ceramic production prior to becoming a member of the collective. The work mimics two hanging articles of women’s clothing (functional objects) reproduced in a nonfunctional manner not for the purpose of improving mass-produced ceramics but to signify the need for greater artistic freedom. Karpova argues that the use of fabric pressed into clay, references to nature, and methods other than sculpture or industrial manufacture for form making, reveals how artists who “aspired for autonomy” cultivated a creativity that state institutions nurtured but also sought to limit in late-socialist Russia. Acknowledging some similarities with global developments in Pop art, Karpova clearly positions works by OK artists as distinctively late Soviet: the creation of objects that are defiant by being autonomous, “non-commodities.” Karpova’s OK case study is significant in that it demonstrates the heightened tensions of an ideological crisis in both the state and the field of design just before Perestroika, tensions that included the ambition of trained designers to enter the realm of high art, an ambition requiring freedom to enable true rivalry with artists and designers in the West.

Comradely Objects: Design and Material Culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s-1980s convinces the reader that Soviet design in the postwar period was significantly different from Western stereotypes defining it as “plagiaristic, low-quality, neglectful of the consumer, or altogether non-existent.” (p. 200) Compelling in its recovery of the resiliency of avant-garde ideas from the 1920s, Karpova’s narrative places interwar and postwar Soviet aesthetics in a dialectic critical for understanding the “aesthetic turn” of Khrushchev-era modernism, the “anti-functionalist turn” of the late 1960s and ‘70s, and, subsequently, the inability of any state-mandated and systemic design program to effectively and organically cohere. Thus, Karpova traces the postwar life of the comradely socialist object and ultimately its disintegration altogether in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Furthermore, Karpova clearly makes a case for the field of design rather than art history as most effective for recovering a more diverse legacy of the avant-garde. She shows that unlike more censored (and more studied) art forms, productivist ideals consistently found purchase, both ideologically and physically, in the field of decorative art and industrial design for the home, inviting new discourses in design and its corollary fields. If at times the addition of so many other voices can be distracting, the wealth of paths Karpova establishes or widens for other scholars is extensive. As a resource and provocation for further study, Karpova’s book is a must for readers interested in a global understanding of modernism, Soviet design, theory, and art history, the intersection of politics and artmaking, and the life of objects.


Mary Okin
Mary Okin is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Lecturer in the Humanities Department at San José State University. She is currently working on her dissertation, "Painting in Place: Wayne Thiebaud in Postwar American Art."