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20157/17

What If… There Was Such A Thing As Post-Soviet Design?

Greetings, Comrades.

This morning I read The Designers Pt10 – Steve Mattin, Lada on the Car Design News website (subscribers only article, unfortunately). Lada, of course, is a Russian nameplate left over from the Soviet era but their newest designs, typified by the Vesta, don’t give any hint of that part of their history. Not exactly a surprise, I’ll grant you.

Lada-Vesta-XRay-Concepts-27_616

Nowadays the two main aims in car design are brand-building and mass-market acceptability, the search for a distinctive look for each brand without alienating a large number of potential customers. In the case of Lada, I think we can probably expect to see the body-side sculpture accentuating the wheel-arches and T-shaped bumper/grille graphic on future models, at least for the next few years.

But there is nothing particularly Russian about the design, in the same way as there is nothing particularly Japanese, German, American, Italian, British, Chinese etc. about any professionally executed contemporary car. And by “Russian” I don’t mean Kremlin-dome-type onion motifs, any more than I mean kimono, bierstein, cowboy hat, Renaissance, teapot or pagoda motifs for any of the others.

In the mid-20th Century cars were more “quintessentially” of their home countries: the Citroën 2CV, any 1950s Cadillac, almost any kei car. Even two cars with similar design themes, the VW Beetle and Morris Minor, are unmistakably German and British in execution without any kitschy or clichéd features.

Minor_&_Beetle_616

Morris Minor                                                                  VW Beetle

Move on half a decade and 21st Century industrial and product design have converged to the point where they have become almost stateless. High-speed communications and transport, the elimination of economic borders, the power of marketing and the concentration of technology in fewer and fewer highly specialized global suppliers are major reasons, but the major culprit for me is the maturity of industrial design as a profession – whose practitioners all come from a similar “design education” background.

This is especially true of the automotive industry, where necessary economies of scale exaggerate all of the above and whose designers mostly join the profession from just a few schools, closely allied to the automotive industry from which they derive almost all of their design methodology. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a subject for another blog – I just wonder what might have happened had world history taken a different course and industrial design tradition was still divided into major geopolitical blocs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a global industrial powerhouse were both almost simultaneous and quicker than anyone honestly expected. Their new capitalist enterprises (even with Russian and Chinese characteristics) required help in achieving a rapid conversion to modern industrial production and US, Western European and Japanese companies were more than happy to take up these new business opportunities. Soviet and post-revolutionary Chinese manufacturing were swept away or drowned in a tide of consumer goods whose design roots were almost completely foreign.

It is hard to imagine any possible alternative, independent direction for Chinese industrial design. The revolution was nearly 30 years later than in Russia and was followed by intermittent upheavals in Chinese society. Coupled with the sudden switch over to industrialization and consumerism, this left Chinese design with no roots to build on.

On the other hand, by the 1960s Soviet design had developed its own unique direction that provides a base to imagine a unique 21st Century Soviet design tradition.

What if the Soviet Union had remained strong and independent, but not by force of arms and suppression of the general population? What if before it reached the peak of its power, perhaps in the mid-‘50s, the Soviet government had moved towards fulfilling the aspirations of normal citizens for more control over their own destinies? What if it had managed to do this while maintaining a strong military, an advanced space exploration programme and created a vibrant popular culture as an alternative to the general Americanization of society that happened elsewhere?

Contemporary consumer goods are a fusion of two powerful design traditions. One is the constantly changing, hopeful, forward-looking US tradition drawing much of its inspiration from the technology of the day. The other is the slowly transforming European tradition based on industry, the arts and craftsmanship. The major influence from Japan was to meld these traditions and realize them as readily available, high quality consumer products.

Globalization and high speed communication have blended all of these together, to the point where design and high-quality manufacturing are now almost borderless and brands have overtaken nationality as the distinguishing factor for consumer choice. By the time any real choice became available to the people of post-Soviet and Chinese society, this was the only “aspirational” choice available.

If the Soviet Union had developed its own competitive design tradition before this could happen, what would have been its inspirations? Slavic arts and crafts are a possibility but unlikely, much as there is very little Renaissance influence visible in European industrial design, frontier aesthetics left in American industrial design or pre-Meiji influence in Japanese industrial design. I like to think it could have come from the distinctive functional and pragmatic aesthetics of the Soviet space programme and military equipment.

American space technology, aerospace products and military equipment tend to be “slick”. NASA engineers, aerospace suppliers and military equipment manufacturers would probably insist that their designs are purely based on functional considerations but it is as though they can’t help themselves – the outcome is almost always slick and attractive. Soviet equipment always seemed more pragmatic with nothing sacrificed to conventional Western ideas of style. This became a style in itself – there is no mistaking which is the Soviet and which is the US space equipment in the following photos.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (1975)

Curiosity_&_Lunokhod_616

USA Curiosity Mars Lander (2011)                          USSR Lunokhod 1 Moon Rover (1970)

The Soviet equipment has a utilitarian look that is not so “high tech” but has a distinct charm of its own, similar to Soviet-era vehicles like the Lada Niva and UAZ mini-van. While most Soviet vehicles were copies of Western designs, these two have an original Soviet feel that makes them desirable still.

1987_Lada_Niva_616

Lada Niva

soviet mini-van

UAZ-452 (2206)

The Range Rover look evolved from a utilitarian vehicle designed for farmers; what if Russian design had reached a similar level of glamour and the Niva offered an alternative to the Range Rover derived from a completely different design tradition?

Rangerovers616

NextNiva

I don’t know what the result would be but for the 3-wheeler design I have asked our designers to think about these ideas and try to come up with something that hints at them. Meanwhile, out in the depths of Kuno, Haruyama-san is going very Soviet space programme on the latest rebody of his own 3-wheeler.

DSC_1842_&!&

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