Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: My friend, Julia Barton.

Julia Barton (JB): That’s me!

RM: Is in a New York City apartment with Michael Idov

Michael Idov (MI): My name is Michael Idov and I’m the editor of Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.

RM: And Lawrence. A parrot that sounds exactly like the building’s door buzzer. And no matter how hard we tried to cut out Lawrence.

JB: His door buzzer immitation cannot be denied.

RM: But maybe that’s okay. Because Idov’s new book on Soviet Design is an homage to the stuff of ordinary Soviet life. Cigarettes, drinking glasses, subway token machines. And it might be hard for outsiders to see what this seemingly random collection of Soviet consumer goods has in common.

JB: But Idov believes there’s something that unites them all.

MI: To define this aethetic you first need to realize that most of these items were rip offs of western sources of varying qualities.

RM: They are imiations. Like the way Lawrence the parrot is immitating the door buzzer.

JB: Shut up Lawrence.

RM: One look at the items in the book, even though they are shameless imitations, you’ll see that the Soviet’s stuff is unmistakeably soviet.

JB: Take your soviet soda machine. In those, carbonated drinks came not in bottles, but straight into a communal drinking glass. Something chained to the machine. And the excruciating soviet arcade games were designed by the Committee on Amusement. Most Americans haven’t even seen these artifacts, but in a way, we’re responsible for them.

MI: In a way it all goes back to the kitchen debates. In 1959, there was this wildly successful American exhibit in Moscow.

“It’s the official opening of the American Exposition. Counterpart of the Soviet Trade Show in New York, and dedicated to showcasing the highest standard of life in our country.”

JB: Vice president Nixon showed Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev around the exhibit, and they stopped in front of a model suburban home to address an audience before new American color TV cameras.

Nixon: There are so many intances where you may be ahead of us, for example, in your development of the thrust of your rocket for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances, for example, color television, where we’re ahead of you. But! In order for both of us to benefit – you see you never concede anything!

RM: MIchael Idov says that despite Kruschev’s bombast and the recent success of Sputnik, the soviets were humiliated by all of America’s stuff.

JB: Kruschev decided that soviet people needed stuff too. But it was a huge struggle for the communist party to switch soviet factories from producing tanks and rockets to cassette decks and hairdryers.

MI: Usually the way it worked was, you know, some party guy would come back from a foreign trip and bring in, you know, a German radio and give it to the engineers and say ” make one like it.” And then they would just reverse engineer it. And then they would look around for the guy who draws well and would say “alright, well, can you draw? Okay, you do the logo.” And that would be the logo that would last for the next forty years.

RM: This system produced a lot of strange stuff. But sometimes the soviets did better than the original.

JB: Take the unbelieveably cool magazine, Krugozor.

MI: Everyone should just bow down before the glory of Krugozor.

JB: It was supposedly based on something Kruschev saw while in the United States- a magazine with a record in it. Idov calls it the original podcast.

JB: It actually sounds like public radio.

MI: There would be an article in the magazine and then the contents of the vinyl disc would somehow illustrate the article. There would be the sounds of the forrest or something like that. Or folkd songs of some far flung tribe.

JB: Or this

[UB40 – Sing Our Own Song]

MI: What started happening over time was, you know, since the people who made this magazine had access to something unbelieveably awesome for the Soviet Union which is a vinyl press, they started slipping in a little pop music in there.

RM: It was the round tear-out discs in Krugozor that gave Russians their first non-bootleg recordings of everyone from Barbra Streisand to Pink Floyd to Michael Jackson.

JB: The main thing that unites the designs in Made In Russia is that they’re often the only designs. Michael Idov didn’t pick from, say, shelfloads of different cassette recorders. Most Soviets had one- The Vesna. And the BK Electronica personal computer probably made Russian-speaking hackers the best in the world, through its sheer awfulness. Nobody had any other choice.

MI: Far be it for me to suggest that this is actually a good thing, but it certainly simplifies getting to know one another because if you grew up in the Soviet Union, you’re, you know, my age or older, I already know so much about you.

JB: Including the song that put you to bed at night.

MI: You know, if you grew up in the Soviet Union, it’s just seared into your brain. I can sing it for you, if you want.

JB: How does it go?

Closing theme from Soviet TV’s “Good Night, Little Ones”

JB: This theme from a children’s puppet show aired every night at 8:15 on soviet television. You can’t really call the crude animal puppets icons of soviet design, but Idov put them in his book anyway.

JB: Because with their bright eyes and worn out fur, Khrusha the pig and Stepashka the bunny represent a lost universe. Eleven time zones, closed off from the rest of the world. Making their own stuff in their own way. “The tired toys are sleeping now,” that’s how the song goes.

JB: Goodnight Roman!

RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Julia Barton, one of the great radio reporters and editors! She’s also part of the Oberlin College public radio conspiracy. You can find her at juliabarton.com. It was also produced by me, Roman Mars. You can find me here all the time.

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