Designs for Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain

Vacuum cleaners and doe-eyed dolls are among the symbols of domesticity and innocence on show at a fascinating exhibition opening in June at the GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design in London.

Pyramid Packaging for Dairy Products, (2009 replica), produced from 1959

Source: Courtesy GRAD and Moscow Design Museum

Pyramid Packaging for Dairy Products, (2009 replica), produced from 1959

The exhibition, entitled Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain, examines design in the Soviet Union from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the Perestroika restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system under Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1980s.

‘It’s Time for a Grand Housewarming’, poster for a 1959 Soviet documentary on the new urban reforms.

Source: Courtesy GRAD and Moscow Design Museum

‘It’s Time for a Grand Housewarming’, poster for a 1959 Soviet documentary on the new urban reforms.

‘This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to examine everyday life, work and play in the Soviet Union, through the prism of its quirky yet iconic designs, be they quotidian items such as the Avoska string shopping bag or models for high-security military vehicles’, says the gallery.

Nevalyashka Dolls, produced from 1958

Source: Courtesy GRAD and Moscow Design Museum

Nevalyashka Dolls, produced from 1958

More than 50 pieces will be on show, featuring the cute, strange and colourful designs that characterised Soviet life from the 1950s. Demonstrating the years before that will be a number of models and photographs from the ZIL factory, which was responsible for creating objects for the contrasting spheres of the home and the warzone – producing both armoured trucks and domestic appliances.

ZIL workers adding the finishing touches to a limousine, 1940s

Source: Courtesy ZIL and GRAD

ZIL workers adding the finishing touches to a limousine, 1940s

These included trucks and military vehicles, exclusive limousines for party officials, and the ZIL refrigerator, which the gallery says ‘became ubiquitous in Soviet homes, even if it often stood empty’.

ZIL Refrigerator, 1950s

Source: Courtesy ZIL and GRAD

ZIL Refrigerator, 1950s

According to GRAD, the boom in Soviet design was largely the result of the advent of khrushchevkas, or standardised apartment blocks, in the late 1950s. Following the creation of the new-builds, products from the Chaika vacuum cleaner and the Vyatka scooter to the Raketa wristwatch and the Nevalyashka roly-poly doll were put into development.

Seltzer Bottle, 1960s.

Source: Courtesy GRAD and Moscow Design Museum

Seltzer Bottle, 1960s.

These will be displayed at the show alongside other examples of domestic appliances, food packaging, electronic devices, toys and sporting equipment, aiming to explore what GRAD terms a ‘lesser known side of Soviet society: consumerism and popular culture’.

The era’s countercultures didn’t entirely pass Russia by, either, as shown in the displays of bootlegged vinyl records of Russian and Western music banned by the state.

The gallery explains, ‘Ingeniously made using illegally obtained medical X-ray sheets, they featured fragmented images of human skeletons and were circulated secretly up to the mid-1960s.’

Soviet Music ‘On the Bone’ Vinyl Record, Copy on Medical X-Ray Fluorography, Sheet, 1950s–1960s

Source: Courtesy Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield, X-Ray Audio

Soviet Music ‘On the Bone’ Vinyl Record, Copy on Medical X-Ray Fluorography, Sheet, 1950s–1960s

Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain runs from 20 June – 24 August at GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, 3-4a Little Portland Street, London W1W7JB

‘Elektronika TS-401 M’ Television, produced since 1984

Source: Courtesy GRAD and Moscow Design Museum

‘Elektronika TS-401 M’ Television, produced since 1984

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.