Armageddon revisited

Was the Cold War all about kitchens? And do we need
the threat of disaster to produce daring work? A visit
to the V&A gets Adrian Shaughnessy thinking

Prior to the global economy being chucked into the deep fat fryer, it was commonplace to read in the glossy interiors and architectural magazines about £250 000 kitchens. Readers were treated to beautifully art-directed picture spreads showing sleek metropolitan types cooing over marble work surfaces and industrial-sized hobs. But as a dazzling exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum reminds us, the fetishisation of the kitchen isn’t new.

There’s an image in the Cold War Modern/ Design 1945-1970 exhibition at the V&A that shows it wasn’t just the space race and the arms race that were the battlefields of the Cold War. The 1950s kitchen, with its Formica surfaces, washing machines and labour-saving appliances, was one of the more unlikely staging grounds for the ideological battle that raged between East and West.

In an unforgettable photograph taken at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon are seen shoulder to shoulder, gazing at a modern fitted kitchen. They have such serious-browed expressions that they might be surveying the arsenals of weapons that both superpowers were amassing. It’s tempting to think that as the world shivered under the threat of nuclear Armageddon, the humble kitchen with its utopian promise of the end of drudgery was really what the Cold War was all about.

It’s just one of hundreds of images and artefacts on show at this most engaging exhibition. Cold War Modern is a bravura melding of political history and design history, and provides a ringside seat to that white-hot moment when the world changed faster than it had ever changed before.

The exhibition celebrates the transformation of the developed world from the machine era into the era of space travel, scientific discovery and mass-produced technological goods. And it tells us that it is the design of buildings, products and clothes, as well as the art of the time, that defines this era best.

This was the first time that design was the defining characteristic of the age. If we think back to the Victorian era, design was something that only the rich could enjoy. Later, with the Modernists, it was for the avant garde. But here was design that had freed itself from the yoke of Formalism and the aping of natural forms. Here was design that could be enjoyed – and used – by everyone. Here was design that offered a utopian sense of universal enfranchisement. And it is astonishing to think that this design revolution was made possible by the same technological and scientific revolution that produced the atomic bomb. Annihilation and salvation in the same package.

What Cold War Modern shows is that artists, designers and engineers working under the tension of the nuclear threat produced work of visionary daringness. It suggests that the creative spirit, to perform at its best, needs a dizzying mixture of opportunity and fear. Perhaps, as we face our own equivalent of the post-war nuclear nightmare – ecological disaster – a new design vision will emerge to get us through it.

Cold War Modern is brilliantly curated (by Jane Pavitt and David Crowley) and brilliantly designed (by Universal Design Studio with graphics by Bibliotheque). It made me nostalgic for the future. It made me want to go back to the future. It looks like a much better place.

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