In January 2020, Moscow saw the opening of the first exhibition on the history of Russian design “WORLD! PEACE! DESIGN!”. This exhibition marks the opening of the new home for Moscow Design Museum at the New Tretyakov Gallery. Elena met with Alexandra Sankova, the founder, to find out more about the extraordinary journey of the Moscow Design Museum.

Alexandra Sankova, Director of Moscow Design Museum. Photo by Alexandra Nikonovich.

Elena Shampanova: Sasha, please can you tell us how and why you came up with the idea of the Moscow Design Museum?

Alexandra Sankova: As a design student at Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts I often travelled to other countries. There are many design museums in different countries, sometimes even two per country, for example, in Belgium, Denmark, or the USA. And in London there are even more: London Design Museum, Design department at the V&A, Textile Museum, National Design and Craft Gallery, and also Design Museum in Scotland. So there are so many design museums across the world, and in Russia there has never been a single one! As design students at the university, we had nowhere to go and see exhibitions on design or to study design following real examples. We were all waiting for a design museum to appear in Russia, and at some point I thought, “There is no point in waiting, we need to found the museum ourselves!”

Moscow Design Museum Identity by Lava Amsterdam.

For many years, I have been organising exhibitions and design contests as a curator. Then I started to work at the arts department of the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. I ​​was responsible for creative industries (architecture, design, and fashion). I often travelled to the Netherlands, met with colleagues from museums and foundations, and studied the way everything was arranged there. In the Netherlands, design is part of export and contributes a large share to GDP. Design is really important in the Netherlands – it is an intellectual product that the government relies on, and I could see this approach in many other European countries. Following this, I started having conversations about design with key representatives of design community in Russia, and realised that there was no dedicated permanent place for design exhibitions, there was no platform, including a communication and networking one, that would showcase and support development of design in Russia on a regular basis. Therefore, we began working on the idea of a design museum in Russia with a team of like-minded friends. We very soon understood that it almost impossible to find a venue to host a design museum in Moscow. Thus, to start off, we decided to open Moscow Design Museum in a bus: this way we did not need a huge start-up capital, could be mobile and travel around the country. We saw it as a road-show, travelling across Russia in a bus converted into an exhibition hall and showing multimedia exhibitions telling the history of Russian design.

Moscow Design Museum. Mobile museum in a bus. Designed by Lava Amsterdam.

Elena Shampanova: This is fascinating. How has the idea of the museum developed? I remember that following your mobile museum in the bus, you started to put together exhibitions of Soviet design that toured across Russia and abroad. I understand it must have been not easy with low budgets, no permanent venue or storage, but I feel your enthusiasm and support of your team, friends and family helped you to get through. 

Alexandra Sankova: When I told our story to the director of the London Design Museum, he was surprised. He couldn’t believe there were no prominent Russian designers who could help set up the museum. Look at Sir Terence Conran, he is a designer and an owner of a successful company, and he founded the London Design Museum, found a building for it, donated his collection, and, to date, has invested more than 70 million pounds in it.

In our country, things are completely different: most of our very prominent designers can only afford a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow and a summer house (dacha) in the countryside. They have either no collection at all, or just some documents and sketches they managed to take home when the organisation, which they worked for, wanted to throw them away as they were not needed any more. Russia has it’s own history and European experience is not applicable to us in this case. In the USSR there was a planned economy and everything was state-owned, design belonged to everybody and to nobody.

We didn’t have any investors or family fortune when we decided to set up this museum. We started Moscow Design Museum collection with what designers gave us. Many objects and archives were gifted to us by our teachers and friends. That was a natural gesture for the benefit of the design community.

Postcard “Moscow in the Future” by Einem Ltd. Moscow Design Museum Collection.

We contacted many companies asking for support, and it was “Motorcade 14-17” from Kolomna who agreed to help us and provided a bus for free, which we renovated and turned into a mobile design museum, touring it across the county. A year later we were invited to host our exhibitions at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow. We are very grateful to Marina Loshak (now the director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), who at that time was appointed as the director of the Manege and invited us to do exhibitions there. No doubt Marina took quite a risk inviting a young unknown team to the central exhibition venue in Moscow. But it was worth it: our first exhibition “Soviet Design” was visited by more than 150,000 people! Visitors literally queued for Soviet design. The museum opening and our first exhibition were widely reported in the media. The exhibition was covered by all Russian TV channels and professional publications, and even The New York Times sent their journalist to write about the event.

The History of Soviet Design. Tyumen, 2019.

After a while, we found like-minded people willing to help. For example, we are supported by the Dutch company “Voerman” that still keeps our collection at their depot and sometimes helps to transport our exhibitions. We built the first exhibition ourselves; there was no money for installation and equipment. Stepan Lukyanov, our art director, came up with an idea of ​​making exhibition stands out of cardboard boxes, and the museum team together with our friends have been putting up the stands with the help of industrial staplers for a week. Other friends, “Cinefantom”, presented us with TVs for our first exhibition, plus they shot and edited interviews with 10 Soviet designers (these interviews are available on our website).

At our first exhibition in Manege, we showed Soviet objects from everyday life, told their stories and who designed them. Before, Soviet design was nameless. People came with there families and told each other about the past: for the older generation it was nostalgia, for the younger one – a desire to find out what Soviet design was about. And certainly it was a success. Then the exhibition travelled to Belgium, the Netherlands, Vladivostok (Russia), and now we are looking for partners to show it in other countries.

“The History of Soviet Design”. Nizhny Novgorod, 2018.

We could not to find any publishers willing to print the exhibition catalogue and a book on the Soviet design history in Russia. It was Phaidon, a London-based publishing house, who got interested in  our book on Soviet Design. Today the book “Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989” is being sold worldwide in English, French, and Japanese. You can find it on Phaidon or Amazon today.

Soviet Designers and Moscow Design Museum team at the presentation of “Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989” book at the Tretyakov Gallery.

After the Soviet Design exhibition we held a lot of exhibitions dedicated to this period in history. In 2017, the Moscow Design Museum presented the exhibition “Design System in the USSR” on the occasion of the opening of the Fashion and Design Center in Moscow. This project has become an important research stage for us; we showed the results of many years of our work. The exhibition showcased projects and information on Soviet organizations working in the field of artistic design and technical aesthetics. We revealed the way they interacted with each other and the role they played in the development of industrial production in our country. We told about the formation of Soviet design as a project method and professional activity.

Shot from “History of Russian Design” documentary

For the exhibition “Design System in the USSR” we synthesised information, archival information, interviews, and research on the state design system that existed in the USSR in the period from 1960 to 1980s. In the early 1960s, a whole network of research institutes was established in the USSR: the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), the All-Union Institute of Furniture Design and Technology (VPKTIM), the All-Union Institute for Light Industry Products (VIALEGPROM), the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Typical and Experimental Design (VNIITEP), and others. Each of these institutes was linked to a particular ministry and was responsible for the development and implementation of design projects in its field. Since 1962, there were also organised specialist art and design bureaus, which were responsible for important cross-sectoral issues, as well as theoretical and methodological studies. And there also were design services at factories.

“Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design”, book cover. Published by Unit Editions.

On February 8, 2020, the Moscow Design Museum together with Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, USA opened the exhibition “Everyday Soviet: Soviet Industrial Design and Nonconformist Art (1959-1989)”, which will run until June 2020. This exhibition brings together two collections: the Zimmerli Art Museum has the world’s largest collection of nonconformist art and the Moscow Design Museum has the world’s largest collection of Soviet design.

“Everyday Soviet” Exhibition Poster, 2019

By this exhibition we explore the way Soviet design influenced the work of nonconformists. After all, their paintings are often a direct quotation of Soviet lifestyle and propaganda, which depict, as in a crooked mirror, a new meaning of what was happening. Such a juxtaposition of art works and design objects reveals new connotations both in art and in design. The exhibition showcases both the works that were mass-produced and could be found in every Soviet apartment, and those designed by research institutes but never put into production. If new projects had been mass-produced and there hadn’t been such a huge gap between design and production, the Soviet living environment would have been completely different and perhaps there would have been no nonconformist art the way we know it. However, in the conditions of a planned economy and no competition at all, developing design was only possible within specialized institutes, and those were just faint echoes of perspective designs that reached the end-user.

You may watch the “History of Russian Design” documentary here.

Continue to Part 2 by clicking here.