Whilst capitalism has given the West diversity in goods design, and opened the world to endless possibilities for innovation, some ex-Soviet European countries are still in the transitional process from a monochrome economy to the era of rapid growth of consumerism, defined by wildly heterogeneous variety of purchase options. A good illustration of this is the display of conceptual works by visionaries of Soviet Russian design, which was held in the first London Design Biennaleduring last month. If capitalism equals disparate abundance and socialism equals nauseating shortage, can societies in transition find a way to synchronise a new economic structure with a cultural and aesthetic one reminiscent of a different era?
In Soviet Russia, the economy was planned and regulated by the state, a period characterised by a restricted list of goods, limited diversity, and almost exclusively functional design. Many of the people who lived during that time are currently in the journey towards a new view on life. A period of transition to a new political system is generally understood as a crisis in values: old values are no longer viable, but new ones are not strong enough to replace them.
Translating this in the field of art and design, and looking through a lens of consumerism, we are left wondering whether in these cases we deal with a hybrid of sorts, when the deeply embedded instrumentality of objects is still at work, affecting the mechanisms by which people can create and express new aesthetic judgments in relation to the multitude of purchasing options they now have.
In the 1960s, the desire of owning a car was on the rise throughout the Soviet Union. In fact, the automotive industry had been one of the economy boosters in this region during the previous 30 years. In 1970, Lada, one of the main automobile manufacturers, presented its first car in the VAZ series. They were dull and gloomy cars that soon became very popular thanks to their price and unpretentious functionality.
However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lada was strongly hit by crisis. In fact, sales decreased because many of its models, including VAZ, were unable to meet emissions requirements in foreign markets. Moreover, in the 1990s, Lada cars were at least a decade old. Innovation and research were not a priority, as long as competitiveness was at a minimum. Transition from Socialism proves that a competitive market is a fertile ground for development and innovative design, but is wild, unsustainable consumerism the price we have to pay for better, more satisfying design? In a market flooded by diversity, quality makes the difference. Following the law of the jungle, only the best will survive, which has resulted in an often hostile competitive environment, where you either improve or die.
On the other hand, romantics will always look at these remnants of Soviet designs and recall a time when goods were largely defined by the function they served, rather than reflecting or assigning social or economic status. As new generations grow to become the leading economic forces of many ex-Soviet European countries, it is interesting to investigate what type of consumers they are, what is left of the inherited approach to the very idea of ownership, and what aesthetic choices they make.