In the late 1950s, Soviet designers created something unprecedented in the Soviet Union — lightweight, modular furniture for the entire apartment. However, their progressive take on interior design clashed with reality. The system trumped common sense, with the result that the best entries in the first national competition for furniture designers remained little more than good intentions. HSE University Art and Design School instructor Artyom Dezhurko studied the history of the competition. Here, he tells IQ.HSE the results of his research — published in the journal Communications, Media, Design — how and why modernism never made its way to the Soviet people.
In 1961, the Soviet Union began producing ‘Moscow’ furniture sets ‘based on an original design’. They took their inspiration from a project first developed by Yury Sluchensky, who disavowed the factory version as too different from his original vision.
He initially created modular furniture sets to fit individual needs and rooms. Although this doesn’t raise eyebrows today, it was a new idea in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. Not intended to ‘oppose’ officialdom in any way, his designs actually dovetailed nicely with state policy for overcoming housing-related problems.
In 1958, this policy spawned the first competition of Soviet furniture. More than 30 design bureaus across the country took part. The result: the authorities recommended 28 works for mass production, including those by Yury Sluchevsky and Alexander Belorussky.
The idea was to give consumers a fundamentally new type of furniture — domestically made instead of imported, light instead of cumbersome and less expensive and made from modern materials instead of the usual expensive kind made from solid wood. This was the idea, but it is not what the people received — and not what designers had intended to give them.
‘The competition played a key role in shifting Soviet furniture design from historical stylings to modernism’, said Artyom Dezhurko. After studying the history of the contest, he managed to identify the names of the participants and organisers and, for the first time, determine whether any of the winning projects had been produced. As it turned out, none were even manufactured: the furniture industry rejected progress — even when it was officially approved by the state.
Starting in the second half of the 1950s, the Soviet Union began building the ‘Khrushchyovka’ (Khrushchev-era apartment buildings). These were standardised buildings containing from one-bedroom to three-bedroom apartments measuring from 18-20 sq. m. to 36-40 sq. m., with tiny kitchens of 6 sq. m., ceilings reduced to a height of 2.7 m., combined toilets and bathrooms, narrow staircases and no lift. In this way, the Soviet authorities planned to solve the housing shortage quickly, economically and on a huge scale.
The CPSU had predicted that the country would achieve full communism by 1980. In the Communist Party’s new programme of 1961, the housing and utilities sector was to move towards that goal as follows: the first decade would put an end to the ‘housing shortage’ by relocating all residents of communal apartments into new apartments; the second decade would see each family given a free modern apartment.
The state designated furniture one of many things that ‘improve and adorn the life of a Soviet person’. But as it turned out, not much actually required improvement. Factories were already cranking out large furniture sets made specifically for the living room, dining room, bedroom and office. In the new, smaller apartments, one room might have to combine the functions of several traditional rooms, with the result that these homes required a different type of furniture.
In 1956-1958, furniture developers (they were not yet called ‘designers’) knew what type of furniture was needed because the topic was often discussed in the press and at industry meetings.
‘The task was to design not large pieces of furniture, but sets of smaller pieces,’ explained Dezhurko. ‘This was how to furnish the entire apartment, from the entryway to the children’s room. The idea was not to include wardrobes, the largest and most expensive pieces of furniture. In the new apartments, all large items and clothing were supposed to be stored in built-in wardrobes or closets that would be part of the apartments themselves. Multi-functional furniture was discussed: writing desks and beds that could fold away into a cabinet as well as sofas and armchairs that turned into beds. Plans called for making wide use of new industrial technologies and materials — metal, moulded plywood and laminated plastic,’ he said.
In 1958, theory took the first step towards widespread application. The Council of Ministers instructed the State Construction Committee of the Soviet Union to hold a national competition to create ‘the best designs for furniture for apartments designed for a single family’.
The competition was announced in June. Only organisations were permitted to take part, and they had to compete in three categories: sets of furniture for the entire apartment, sets for the kitchen, and furniture sets for built-in closets or wardrobes.
The jury considered 104 submissions from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. No First Place was awarded, but two Second Place and two Third Place winners were named.
The goal was met. The winning furniture sets from Moscow, Leningrad and Tallinn met the requirements: the furniture could be used in different combinations and ‘transform’ (‘including beds that folded up into the wall’). The cabinets were modular units with shelves and did not include wardrobes. And they used new materials.
The contest produced 19 complete sets of furnishings for entire apartments, six sets of kitchen furniture and three sets of furniture for built-in wall spaces that were recommended for ‘industrial production’.
‘These were to soon become the main assortment available in Soviet furniture stores,’ said Dezhurko. ‘The plan was to produce them by the millions so they would appear in the homes of every new Soviet apartment dweller of the 1960s’. And they were not to appear as separate items: ‘The furniture of each apartment comes as a complete system that, as it was planned, the consumer would purchase as a set’.
The drawings for the recommended furniture items were sent to the factories along with instructions to begin production, and in a number of cities, the process began. However, the winning designs either never reached the stores, or else did not remain in the showrooms for long.
Some similar compact furniture appeared in Leningrad stores two years later, but these were variations created by local designers. Some sets went on sale in Moscow in late 1959 but were discontinued the following year.
The set by Yury (that took Second Place in the competition) did not go into production until 1961. Although they were produced for the next two years, it was not as full sets, and in a form far from that which Sluchevsky presented to the jury. The factory refused to use aluminium legs, white plastic surfaces and modular construction, turning what was meant to be separate pieces into freestanding cabinets.
The stores were not happy with the modular furniture, contending that ‘buyers like dark veneer more’. That was not the only problem, however. The designers’ vision encountered more obstacles than just salespeople’s tastes.
Producing the new furniture required working with new materials and advanced technologies. Soviet industry was unprepared for this and even lacked the necessary equipment. What’s more, the traditional ‘points-based’ system of manufacturing put an end to the Party’s and government’s plans.
In the Soviet ‘points-based’ system, factories were graded according to the overall purchase value of their products, not the quantity they produced. Thus, it was more profitable to manufacture simply made but expensive furniture — without the advanced techniques and materials that the new designs required.
‘The economist B. Bitekhtin,’ said the author of the study, ‘offers an amazing example: Moscow Furniture Factory No. 2 accumulated more than a million rubles of unsold furniture in its warehouse and yet still placed first in the socialist competition. “And to chalk up more points”, the factory director confided, “we even went so far as to replace cheap materials with expensive ones….We lined not only the cornices but even the doors of cabinets with scarce mahogany. Although the wardrobe lost its modern, austere look, it no longer cost 139 rubles, but 157”, he said.’
As a result, the fairy tale collided with reality. On the one hand, the competition highlighted and promoted modernist interiors in the Soviet Union. ‘Russians began to view extremely light objects, smooth cabinets, chairs with sculpted forms, chiselled chair and table legs placed to the side and relatively one-dimensional (or even abstract) ornamental designs on wallpaper and fabrics as a new, officially approved norm of style and taste’.
On the other hand, it failed to achieve its primary goal of introducing modernist design into the cramped, everyday home life of Soviet citizens. Reality continued to live by its own rules, and not only because the Soviet furniture industry was so stuck in its ways: Soviet citizens could not afford to buy complete sets to furnish their apartments all at once anyway.