When we think about “Soviet design” in the West, it’s usually the crimson, sharp-angled Constructivist works that spring to mind—the propaganda posters bearing spiky speech bubbles, Alexander Rodchenko’s arresting red-and-black diagonals. Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than that, and a new book from Unit Editions shines a spotlight on likely the most exciting design studio you’ve never heard of.
VNIITE-Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design traces the history of VNIITE, a complicated acronym for an even mouthier studio name: The All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics. By any name, though, the work it produced is breathtaking, and VNIITE is described by Unit Editions as employing “Moscow’s most progressive designers,” a resolutely future-facing bunch who “developed new theories and approaches to design.” Formed in Soviet Russia in 1962 by Yuri Soloviev, much of VNIITE’s truly radical work was thought to have been lost since the collapse of the USSR, but has since been uncovered, largely by the Moscow Design Museum.
VNIITE was created as design in the USSR became part of official state policy, and its scope was wide-ranging; the studio developed and implemented “artistic design methods,” approved scientific research in industrial design, defined design requirements for goods produced in the union, and collaborated with international design studios. Alongside the main Moscow office, VNIITE went on to operate across 10 other satellite studios across Soviet republics, from the Baltics to the Far East.
Yet despite its success, the studio emerged at an interesting and somewhat tricky time when it came to Soviet design. Elsewhere in the USSR, Western design products were being copied, and such copies were being celebrated. “There were numerous cases of promising Soviet designs, worked on for anything from three to seven years, being shelved in favor of copies of Western equivalents,” write Alexandra Sankova and Olga Druzhinina in the book’s introduction. Although design was “well-promoted” in the USSR, the pair writes, “in practice there was a significant gap between industry and design there.” This meant that only a fraction of the designs the team worked on actually went into production; and many that did differed considerably from the designers’ original intentions.
That’s not to say that the designs (at least the ones shown in this book) show any indication of that compromise; the work here is stunning, as is the way it’s shot, with colors that Instagram-filter devotees can only dream of. The product imagery is straight out of a Kubrick film; all space-age shapes, soft curves, and hard black edges. Everything seems astonishingly ahead of its time, but simultaneously so retro as to almost look like pastiche. As far as the graphics output is concerned, the blocky, Glaser-esque typography and simple, punchy layouts on posters look as fresh today as ever; while the covers for late 1970s/early ’80s magazine Technical Aesthetic merge warm, autumnal tones and no-nonsense lettering to arresting affect. As with so much of Unit Editions’ output, this book is one firmly intending to make graphic designers unwittingly drool all over their coffee tables.
Just as some of the most beguiling images from the Bauhaus are of the students as much as their work, the real gems in this book show the designers themselves—a sweetly stilted, bespectacled bunch. One of my favorite images shows a trio of designers sitting on a couch, each clutching a strange Hoover-like contraption. It’s part awkward family photo, part promo for a modern-day Brooklyn noise art outfit.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, VNIITE was relegated from its role in coordinating and overseeing the designs, and many designers left the country, often to become prominent in their fields in the west. Much of its archive was lost, and more’s the pity when you consider the forward-thinking, bold, and brilliant work presented in this small tome alone.