Discarded financial documents, burnt archives at dachas [countryside houses], and metal closets missing keys for more than a decade. A Russian spy drama? It’s actually the true story behind the building of the Moscow Design Museum’s archive.
The institution, founded by two graphic designers, a journalist, and an architect (Alexandra Sankova, Stephen Lukyanov, Nadezhda Bakuradze, and Valery Patkonen) has been racing against time to recover the quickly disappearing artifacts of Soviet design history. For a period that stretches from the 1920s to the dissolution of the union seven decades later, this means sifting through what has become discarded as junk and tracking down elderly designers who are surprised to be remembered at all.
“When we started collecting Soviet design artifacts, many designers cried out, ‘Where were you two months ago? I’ve just burned all my archives at dacha!’” explains Sankova over an e-mail interview. “They couldn’t believe that someone would ever want their archives for the museum.”
But for Sankova, who is also the museum’s director, the question was why wasn’t anyone documenting this important cultural heritage of Russia, one that included movements that were hugely influential to Modernist design, like avant-garde and Constructivism. A graduate of the Stroganov State Academy of Arts, Sankova was up on her design history, so to preserve the works of this era and bring attention to them in Russia, she her friends started the country’s first museum dedicated to design.
The original plan was to retrofit a bus, but after a fortuitous meeting with the director of Moscow’s biggest exhibition space, the Manege, the museum found a home and opened in 2012 with its first show, Soviet Design: 1950s to 1980s. This era is also the focus of the museum’s archive, which was born out of the personal collections of its founders (Sankova had acquired contemporary Russian graphic design while curating exhibitions on her own, and co-founder Lukyanov had a family archive from his father, Miron Lukyanov, a movie poster designer and head of the poster section of the Moscow Union of Artists). When the museum took off, the archive expanded to include industrial design objects with the help of the founders’ former professors and their friends, many of whom worked in the All Union Institute of Technical Aesthetics (known by its Russian acronym VNIITE), a government design research organization that ran for from 1962-2002.
Made up of 10 branch offices in cities from Baku in Azerbaijan to Kiev in Ukraine, the VNIITE played a leading role in the development of design in the centrally planned economy. It sought to develop products to improve everyday life in the Soviet Union, and its activities were recorded in various ephemera that have been donated to the museum, including a full collection of the institute’s Technical Aesthetic magazine, as well as photographic slides that have been locked up in metal closets—two of which are missing keys. The archive also has some rare VNIITE prototypes, like the closed-cabin snowmobile that proposed using fiberglass to replace steel (it never went into production).
“To a great extent it was a theoretical institute, although it had a huge impact on the development of Russian design. However, it’s history is now forgotten, and we try to work with archives and with people who still remember those times as we understand that this is a hidden treasury and we have to bring it to the world,” says Sankova.
Aside from the output of VNIITE, the museum also holds the archives of the Union of Designers of the Soviet Union that was established in the 1980s, as well as avant-garde period publications including Left Front of the Arts (LEF), which was edited by poet Vladimir Mayakoysky, and 30 Days magazine, which was the product of collaborations with designers such as Rodchenko, Irina Schtenberg, and Yuri Pimenov, amongst others. It also holds several private archives of designers, including that of Vladimir Runge, the chief designer of Krasnogorsk Mechanical Factory, where many legendary cameras were made, including the Zenit-E.
While the museum’s archive has grown considerably, it faces the arduous task of properly documenting each object. There are plans to digitize the materials for public access and include them in future exhibitions, but for now the non-profit organization can only rely on volunteers and a single dedicated archivist, Valentia Mokrousova, who resumes her role at VNIITE—a worrying situation for Sankova as there’s so much more work to be done to record the changing face of Russian design for future generations.
When she recently met the last director of VNIITE, Sankova was dismayed to hear he had thrown away the institute’s financial documents, a crucial map of who its designers were and what they worked on. “We know that time is running out now, and the countdown is in seconds, not even minutes. And if we do not collect this heritage, it will be lost forever,” she says. “People are getting really old, and we understand that the information is disappearing—and this is heartbreaking.”