Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

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

Roman Mars:
My friend, Julia Barton-

Julia Barton:
That’s me!

Roman Mars:
Is in a New York City apartment with Michael Idov-

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

Roman Mars:
And Lawrence (Lawrence squawks). A parrot that sounds exactly like the building’s door buzzer. And no matter how hard we tried to cut out Lawrence-

Julia Barton:
His door buzzer imitation cannot be denied.

Roman Mars:
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.

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

Michael Idov:
To define this aesthetic you first need to realize that most of these items were rip-offs of western sources of varying qualities.

Roman Mars:
They are imitations. Like the way Lawrence the parrot is imitating the door buzzer. (Lawrence squawks)

Julia Barton:
Shut up, Lawrence.

Roman Mars:
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.

Julia Barton:
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.

Michael Idov:
Basically, 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.”]

Julia Barton:
Vice President Nixon showed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev around the exhibit, and they stopped in front of a model suburban home to address an audience before new American color TV cameras.

Richard Nixon (archival tape):
“There are so many instances where you may be ahead of us, for example, in the 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 (crosstalk)… You see? You never concede anything!”

Roman Mars:
Michael Idov says that despite Kruschev’s bombast and the recent success of Sputnik, the Soviets were humiliated by all of America’s stuff.

Julia Barton:
Khrushchev 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.

Michael Idov:
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.

Roman Mars:
This system produced a lot of strange stuff. But sometimes the Soviets did better than the original.

Julia Barton:
Take the unbelievably cool magazine, Krugozor.

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

Julia Barton:
It was supposedly based on something Khrushchev saw while in the United States — a magazine with a record in it. Idov calls it the original podcast.

[Audio clip of Krugozor record]

Julia Barton:
It actually sounds like public radio.

Michael Idov:
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 forest or something like that. Or folk songs of some far-flung tribe.

Julia Barton:
Or this-

[Audio clip of UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song”]

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

Roman Mars:
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.

Julia Barton:
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 shelf-loads of, say, 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.

Michael Idov:
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, and you’re, you know, my age or older, I already know so much about you.

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

Michael Idov:
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.

Julia Barton:
Yeah, how does it go?

Michael Idov:
(sings closing theme from Soviet TV’s “Good Night, Little Ones”)

Julia Barton:
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.

[Audio clip of “Good Night, Little Ones”]

Julia Barton:
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.

Julia Barton:
Goodnight, Roman!

Roman Mars:
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 right here, all the time. (chuckles) Tell my kids, I love them. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design.

To find a link to Michael Idov’s “Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design,” a very fine book if I do say so myself, or just if you want to look at some pics of cool Soviet kitsch, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

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