The Soviet Union wasn’t renowned for its consumer goods, either at home or abroad. But the constraints of the closed off, state-controlled production system under Communist rule created a unique design culture whose history is largely forgotten today. A new book called Designed in the USSR: 1950 to 1989 celebrates these products made during the Cold War, including both distinctly Russian creations and the many Western knockoffs that Eastern Bloc designers adapted to fit Soviet ideology and factory capabilities. The 350 entries included, all sourced from the collections of the Moscow Design Museum, “create a unique and compelling view into life in the USSR,” as the museum’s director, Alexandra Sankova, writes in the book’s introduction. Here are just a few of them.
Designed in the USSR is divided into three sections: “citizen,” “state,” and “world.” The first focuses on domestic and consumer products, like this sewing box from the 1970s, while the second explores the state-run design system, with examples of propaganda and movie posters as well as radios, phones, cars, and other technology. “World” includes Olympics souvenirs, exports, and some of the products the Soviet Union copied from other countries.
With no competition pushing companies to make better products, the Soviet Union came up with another way to improve the quality of its material goods during the mid-20th century. In 1962, government established the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), charging it with the task of improving the quality of mass-produced industrial designs. Employing philosophers, psychologists, historians, and engineers in addition to designers, it not only came up with new product concepts and prototypes, but established quality standards, published a monthly journal on design research, and birthed a subset of design organizations focusing on toys, furniture, and other specialties. The institute and its 10 branches in the Soviet republics lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
There was a reason that VNIITE was called the "Institute for Technical Aesthetics" rather than the "Institute for Design," though. “There was a period when the word design was a bad word—not just the word, but the activity itself,” Igor Zaitsev, the chief designer at the Leninist Communist Youth Automobile Plant in the 1970s and ‘80s, says in the book. Designers were called "artistic engineers," and design itself was "technical aesthetics."
The Designers Society of the USSR, the first independent design organization in the Soviet Union, wasn't established until 1986. It took on commissions and allowed Soviet designers to establish private studios for the first time. (This promotional brochure was created for the union’s first congress.) Before that, designers were limited to working at government institutes like VNIITE or at state-run factories.
Nevаlyashka dolls, also known as Vanka-Vstanka dolls, were ubiquitous figures in Soviet toy collections. The roly-poly toys were weighted on the bottom so they always returned to their upright position, no matter how hard they were pushed—a feature reflected in the name. Nevalyashka means “one that never lies down,” and Vanka-Vstanka means “Ivan get up.” Originally designed by Igrushka Scientific Research Institute, they came (and still come) in a variety of shapes and sizes. These ones are named Anton, Masha, and Grib Nevalyashka.
The Atmosfera was the Soviet Union’s first mass-produced transistor radio. While it wasn’t a rip off of Western designs, some of the other audio technology sold in the Soviet Union was. The USSR was filled with radios, cameras, cars, scooters, and other technology copied directly from models made in Europe and America. “This parallel world of ersatz knock-offs was encouraged by Party dignitaries returning from foreign trips with souvenirs that they would drop off at the konstruktorskoe buro (design department) of the relevant factory so they could be reverse engineered,” design writer Justin McGuirk explains in the forward to Designed in the USSR.
One of the Atmosfera's predecessors, the Zvezda 54 valve radio (produced between 1954 and 1959), was no exception. Its roots can be traced to Lavretny Beria, a high-ranking Communist official. When he first saw the French Excelsior-52 radio, he reportedly liked it so much he tried to have it remade in the Soviet Union. In the process, it had to be redesigned to work with available Soviet hardware, as well as to conform to Soviet audio standards of the time.
Not all of these rip offs were poor imitations. The USSR didn’t started mass producing vacuum cleaners until the 1950s, decades after the first Western devices were invented at the turn of the century, and early Soviet designs copied European and American products made years earlier. The Saturnas, which the book calls a “remarkable example of Soviet space-age design,” was based on a Hoover vacuum cleaner, first released in 1955, called the Constellation. But it improved upon its American counterpart by swapping an air-powered base for wheels, giving it greater mobility than the original.
The Soviet space program provided ample inspiration for product design and packaging, from candy tins featuring Belka and Strelka, the first dogs to return from space orbit, to multiple products named after Sputnik, the world's first satellite. The Sputnik wind-up shaver combined two quintessentially Soviet characteristics—it was both space-themed and a knock-off of a European product. Sold from the late '60s up until the 1980s, it was modeled after a similar shaver made in the 1950s by Thorens Riviera in Switzerland.
Some foreign-inspired products came at the expense of Soviet-bred designs. The odd-looking Belka A50 (Squirrel) could fit four passengers with its innovative front-panel doors, but only five were ever produced, in part because the government decided to focus on recreating the Italian FIAT-600 car, a “proven design solution,” instead. That Fiat imitation was released in the USSR as the popular ZAZ-965.
Shortages of goods were common in the USSR, meaning that if you saw something scarce for sale—whether it was butter, soap, or toilet paper—you didn't want to miss your chance to buy it. The avos'ka was designed to ensure that people always had something to carry their purchases in. With a name that roughly translates to "just in case," the collapsible string bags fit easily into a pocket, and most people never left home without them. They fell out of favor upon the introduction of plastic bags in the 1980s, but they may be making a comeback as an environmentally friendly alternative to disposable bags.