Monday, October 31, 2011

My personal link to the residues of Soviet consumer culture

I happened to be reading a TLS review of a recent book titled Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, an edited collection that the reviewer describes as combining "tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for Soviet kitsch with important insights into how the Soviet economy worked."

My heading for this post is also tongue-in-cheek to some degree, but not entirely. Unlikely as it might sound now, the Soviet Union really did make an effort to compete with the capitalist world on the terrain of stimulating and then satisfying consumer desires. (For one illuminating account of this Soviet version of modern consumer culture, see Anna Paretskaya's 2010 article on "The Soviet Communist Party and the Other Spirit of Capitalism".)

Of course, that effort was not a spectacular success. It's not hard to think of some iconic triumphs of Soviet design, but the ones that come most readily to mind, at least to my mind, tend to be military—like the T-34 tank, possibly the all-around best tank of World War II, or the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle that continues to flood weapons markets around the world. The general run of Soviet consumer goods were notoriously drab and shoddy, or kitschy at best. And according to the reviewer, and presumably the book itself, the better Soviet-era products intended for purchase and everyday use by civilians often tended to be rip-offs of western designs.

But then I came across this passage:
One of the few items still on the market today is the bevelled twelve-sided glass, sturdy and pleasingly tactile. It is even sold in the West, in IKEA stores – the only item you are likely to see with a "Made in Russia" label. The glass was designed in 1943 by Vera Mukhina, the artist better known for her iconic statue of the male worker and the female peasant holding aloft the hammer and sickle.
Well, it so happens that my wife and I have a set of 6 of these glasses, with both "IKEA" and "Made in Russia" announced boldly on the bottom of each. (Purchased at a thrift store, not from IKEA directly. I do a lot of my shopping at thrift stores, and in the Main Line area west of Philadelphia, where we live, the thrift stores carry a lot of high-quality second-hand stuff.) I had no idea of their historic significance, but I can report that they are indeed well-designed: handsome, sturdy, pleasantly comfortable to handle, and reassuringly solid. None of them has ever broken or cracked. So the achievements of Soviet material culture continue to live on in our household. Who would have guessed?

—Jeff Weintraub
POKAL Glass, clear glass Height: 6 " Volume: 12 oz  Height: 14 cm Volume: 35 cl

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