(De)constructing Utopia: Design in Eastern Europe from Thaw to Perestroika, a conference hosted by the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield (May 2nd–3rd 2014), brought together speakers from the UK, Germany, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Croatia and Hungary to discuss design in post-war Eastern Europe. Central concerns emerging from panels included: investigations into how the design profession sought to construct and criticise the material environment of socialism; aesthetic turning points in relation to socio-political contexts; commonalities and exchanges among former Eastern Bloc countries; the role of post-socialist curating and heritage. The debate regularly returned to the term 'socialist' when linking design and production across the Eastern Bloc and Russia, as well as attempts at mapping the application of further terms such as 'design' and 'modern' in respective countries. Some speakers questioned whether 'socialist design' even exists; if so, which socialism and in which country?
Prototyping was another recurring topic speakers applied to the design landscape. Examples from this panel of papers ranged from the model interior displayed at the 1959 Milan Triennial Yugoslav Pavilion conceived by industrial designers but falling short of production; dummy cabinets in the model flats of the Invalidovna experimental housing project (Prague, 1961); and a hand-coloured paper record player displayed at the Moscow Design Museum's 2012-2013 exhibition Soviet Design 1950s-1980s. Each speaker addressed the notion that Eastern Europe and the USSR systematised design production via organisational directives and theoretical criteria but often did not have the economic capacity for real production. Patents, for example, provide researchers with essential information such as product origin; however, in the Soviet Union, these projects were not always realised. Instead, a patent offered proof of a designer's efficiency and ideas. If one cannot produce a product, one can at least show the patent. This notion linked to papers presented by Tom Cubbin (Sheffield University/Royal College of Art) and Andres Kurg (Estonian Academy of Arts) concerning Soviet paper and cardboard architecture in the 1970s. Cubbin and Kurg opposed the conclusion that the inability to build projects meant architects created unrealisable projects. Cubbin argued that the conceptual and educational realm was an important space for the redefinition of formerly rigid concepts. Another line of related discussion was voiced by keynote speaker David Crowley (RCA) in his paper 'The other children of Marx and Coca-Cola: Pop Art and cinema in Eastern Europe'. In order to have a consumer society and associated pop sensibilities, Crowley proposed, images are perhaps more important than the objects themselves, thus raising questions around fetishism, pleasure and counterculture.
The notion of theory and development versus production was discussed in relation to factory employment structures: András Szilági (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) highlighted the example of a toy factory in Hungary, which made four products and employed 8,000 workers, 20 designers and 60 ergonomists. The complex issue of ergonomics arose in relation to multiple countries and practitioners. Keynote speaker and former employee of the design centre of the Soviet Institute for Technical Aesthetics' (VNIITE) spoke to importance of ergonomics and industrial products that resulted in exhibitions and educational practice. Margareta Tillberg (Stockholm University) addressed this area further in her paper on the 'science' of design in relation to ICSID '75, “Design for Man and Mankind” hosted by VNIITE. Debates around modernism, design theory and functionalism circulated throughout the conference. Fedja Vukić (University of Zagreb) explored early 1950s Yugoslavia, where greater self-administration allowed active debate around 'design theory and self-management Socialism' that led to the 1950s idea of 'form-giving' (oblikovanje) and the 1960s use of the concept of design (dizajn) in relation to economic development. Siegfried Gronert (Bauhaus University) argued, following the 1950s debate around Functionalism and Realism in East Germany, structure plans experimented with industry operations and the elimination of 'bad taste', resulting in the contemporaneous assertion that the latter could only truly take place in a centrally planned economy.
The meaning of labour, skill and notions of craft as components of the socialist project drew together diverse strands of discussion. Yulia Karpova (Central European University, Budapest) explored the 'general stylistic tendencies' of Suprematist influence in 1950s and 1960s Leningrad art porcelain. She suggested despite a movement that rejects materialism in favour of feeling, the resulting porcelain works followed formal trends whose influences can be mapped via personal biographies that link avant-garde and Soviet practice. Iliana Veinberga (Art Academy of Latvia) carried on in this vein with her research on the personal biographies of older workers in Latvian porcelain factories. These interviews spoke to directives and the rationalisation of working processes, evening classes and supposed financial incentives. Mari Laanemets (Estonian Academy of Arts) explored notions of individualisation in relation to professional identity by including the principle that socialist designers should not create an amazing vacuum cleaner, for example, but solve the problem of dust.
Several panels, including those already mentioned, addressed 'in between spaces', such as the encouragement of co-production in relation to landscaping between social housing blocks in East Germany. Torsten Lange (Institute for History and Theory of Architecture, Zürich) touched upon this as did Tom Cubbin who spoke to the colourful model sets associated with the Soviet Senezh Studio in the 1970s. Cubbin refers to these as displays of 'visual agitation' justified on semiotic grounds due to their lack of appropriate urban design methodologies. Instead, the feature colour schemes and environments that could allow citizens to creatively build their own environment. On the same panel as Lange and Cubbin, Łukas Stanek (University of Manchester), explored how commissions in Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Syria provided the experience of postmodernism as the new mainstream in architectural practice and discourse for Polish architects.
The final panel of the conference addressed curatorial practice and heritage in relation to socialist design objects via exhibitions including: Our Metamorphic Futures: Design, Technical Aesthetics and Experimental Architecture in the Soviet Union 1960-1980, National Gallery of Art, Vilnius, 2011-12; Soviet Design 1950s-1980s, Moscow Design Museum's first exhibition in 2013; and displays at the Museum of Everyday Culture founded in Germany, 1993. A few years after hosting the seminal V&A exhibition Cold War Modern: Design 1945−1970, the Vilnius exhibition aimed to position itself against presumptions embedded in local Baltic art historiography and museum policies ('national peculiarity', 'marginal cultural value'). In the context of a rising interest in Soviet period architecture, design, and popular culture in Lithuania, curators endeavoured to counter the emergent interpretations of Soviet-period Baltic modernisation. In a similar context of rising interest, the Moscow Design Museum's 2013 exhibition broke new ground in challenging the Russian rejection of the past. Designers were interviewed for the first time, thus allowing them to affirm their roles and contributions. Designers have consequently donated large amounts of objects and archives to this fledgling museum, opening up issues of custodianship and resourcing in relation to socialist design. This issue is well-understood by the Museum of Everyday Culture in Eisenhüttenstadt, which asked people to donate things relevant to their lives and explain their importance. Andreas Ludwig (Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam) asserted that these were not design objects but objects of use in his exploration of the transition between home and museum.
This engaging conference clearly demonstrated that scholarship around socialist material culture has much to offer and many questions to pursue from identifying alleged, shared 'socialist' traits across diverse cases (teapots and chairs, to urban design) to questions around labour, gender, and profession, within which directives and factory worker oral histories are prominent. The methodological validity of personal biography also left room for discussion. However, the discussion demonstrated a need for critical frameworks for evaluating sources and the aims of designed objects, especially when considering patents, prototypes, process as 'scientific', conceptual sites of exploration and the role of the image in relation to the promise of consumption. Ongoing discussion amongst the community of scholars and curators in the field is welcome and required to address these compelling issues.