Thursday, 13 October 2016

Two versions of socialist utopianism at the London Design Biennale

The theme of the 2016 London Design Biennale, was “Utopia”. This was explored in many different ways in the various national pavilions. The displays ranged from the abstract and conceptual, to practical projects and real objects, intended for use in the real world.

Two fascinating pavilions were those of two former socialist countries, Russia, and Chile, showing two different aspects of socialist utopianism.

The Russian exhibition, Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design, was a catalogue of projects from created at the All-Union Soviet Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) and Soviet Design Studios (SHKB) between the 1960s and the 1980s. Here were the designs for products which would contribute to realising the socialist utopia. The institute employed not only designers, but also philosophers, sociologists and historians of art and culture. On display were a wide range of products: vehicles, trains, a hydrofoil, kitchen utensils, electronic goods (including a precusor of modern computers and tablets), and much more. Some of these went into production, like the hydrofoil which was exported to Britain, but most were never realised due to economic or technical constraints.

Here are some examples of the projects, from the website of the Moscow Design Museum

Seating in this section was provided in the form of cardboard chairs, made from an old Soviet design discovered by the curators. They were very comfortable, in fact. But note, should you be tempted to have a go at making one, that the cardboard from which they were made was of a heavier grade than that used for your usual mail order delivery.


The Chilean pavilion, The Counterculture Room, was an exhibition about the Chilean Cybersyn project, which took place from 1971 – 1973 during the time of the socialist president Salvador Allende. Using the computer technology available at the time, such as telex machines, the aim of the project was to provide the government with real time data that would help them run the economy. The architect of the system was an English business consultant Stafford Beer. This was a sort of precursor of the internet and “big data” of today. The experiment ended with the assassination of Allende in a military coup.

The heart of the display was a reconstruction of the operations room , deigned by Gui Bonsiepe, with its futuristic swivel chairs, and screens for displaying data. Each chair had a control panel on one of the armrests. On the other armrest was that other essential accessory of the period, an ashtray.

Here are some images of the original design and the original room:

You can find out more about Project Cybersyn here

That's all for today. There was lots more at the biennale, so please come back next week.

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