Wednesday, February 25, 2015


My new book Keepsakes: A Design Memoir, published by Pointed Leaf Press, is scheduled to launch in May 2015. The objects, discussed in the book, bring up stories about my life and work, my parents, friends, and design colleagues with whom I was lucky to study and work in Russia, Italy, and America. In anticipation of the book, here is one of those stories...

For me, Domus Academy was a life-changing experience, in the most literal sense of the word. I arrived there as a Russian architect from Boston, and by the time of my departure in 1985 I became a designer, and headed for New York. Somewhere along the way, my Russian-American wife Svetlana and I had separated. In spite of the hardships of yet another start in America, I felt strangely liberated. The vast world of objects has opened up for me, as if I learned how to speak their language.

To own anything designed by Ettore Sottsass, was a longing shared by many young designers at the time. Yet his objects, no matter how democratic in spirit, were inevitably expensive and mostly out of reach. With much anticipation, I followed the development of the telephone set Enorme, which Sottsass designed in collaboration with David Kelly from California. An amalgam of Memphis style and Silicon Valley technology, the new phone was supposed to be colorful, functional, and affordable—in other words, perfect. I bought the phone as soon as it became available. The set’s monumental receiver could stand vertically, like a skyscraper, in a phallic gesture frequent in Sotssass’ work.  This erect monolith loomed larger than life in the tiny studio in which I was living. The heavy earpiece seemed to give substance to even the most trivial conversations.

By 1987 I started teaching at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In one of my evening furniture classes there was a student named Laurene Leon, a young art school graduate, who loved everything about Italian design. Obviously, we had much to talk about. By the end of the semester we were going out. I proudly demonstrated my Sottsass phone to my new girlfriend, but was taken aback when she soon got an identical one in her own place uptown.  In response to my inquiries, she told me a slightly incredible story about her co-workers pitching in to get her this “great present” for the holidays. Eventually, the truth came out. The phone was a gift, all right, but it came from Laurene’s old boyfriend, a French dude who was well versed about her design tastes.

The battle of the two Enorme phones continued for a while. Needless to say, I won. Soon, Laurene and I moved in together, and after the completion of her graduate design program at Pratt, we started to work together. Throughout the years, Laurene has been my indispensable guide through the intricacies of the American cultural landscape. With me, she went through the ups and downs of our studio, sharing everything, including most of the projects in this book. Twenty years later, our collaboration goes on.

We still have both of our Sottsass phones. Laurene’s was barely taken out of the box. Mine has been used well and happily, until new technologies gradually rendered it outdated. We no longer need landline telephone service, but who cares? Product obsolescence does not apply to keepsakes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The 9/11 Souvenirs

The opening of the 9/11 Museum has predictably generated a stream of media coverage, Internet responses, and images on social media. Not so predictably, the long-awaited event has initiated another, smaller, stream of reviews related to the museum’s gift shop and its souvenir merchandise. This second stream greatly differed in tone and attitude from an overwhelmingly supportive and positive reaction to the Memorial itself. “The 9/11 Museum’s absurd gift shop”, called it an article in New York Post.  “Just how crass is the 9/11 Museum’s gift shop?” asks the website Gothamist, citing the cheese plate in the shape of the continental US with hearts indicating the places of terrorist attacks. Some visitors go further, questioning the very presence of shop on the site.

The gift shop is, of course, there to stay. The museum’s spokesman sites the financial needs, and notes that “many of our guests from the 9/11 community have visited the shop and purchased a keepsake from their historic experience”.  The truth is that a gift shop, just like cafeterias and restrooms, is an expected component of any museum, including the ones devoted to tragic and sensitive historical events. The real question to ask is what kind of merchandise is acceptable, and what is not acceptable, in these very special circumstances.

The idea of a souvenir of 9/11 is almost an oxymoron. After all, we all remember that day too well, whether we witnessed the tragedy directly or watched it unfolded on television screens. What kind of object is needed to keep memory of this already unforgettable event?

When such object is conceived as a functional item (like the above mentioned cheeseboard), the very idea of combining the “sacred memory” with a trivial use renders the object distasteful. The memory is trivialized by the suggestion of a banal everyday activity. A poster with the 9/11 graphics is OK, but the same image on a shower curtain is not.  A postcard is fine, but a placemat is not.  The 9/11 toy fire trucks and stuffed search dogs were criticized not only because of their inappropriateness for children, but also because of the association with game, playing, and the overall context of a toy box where such items usually end up.

Then, there is an issue with decorative pieces of jewelry and clothing.  Vanity items with 9/11 imagery, like earrings, tie pins, scarves, tend to belittle the memory of the event they are attempting to commemorate. Once again, the context is wrong: the memory cannot be worn in the earlobe, affixed to a lapel, or get tied around one’s neck. One exception might be the T-shirt, a quintessential American typology, which since 1960s served as people’s personal billboard for expressing their opinions, preferences, and memories.

In my opinion, 9/11 memorial merchandise should be devoid of all unrelated functionalism. The souvenir will be interpreted as an abstract object, a psychological “container”, where the users could put their own personal memories and emotions. Imagine a series of cubes, like miniature memorials, crafted out of marble, bent steel wire, glass…

But would people buy those metaphysical objects? That’s another story.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Monument Without a Hero

Not many people know that there is a Soviet monument standing in the middle of Manhattan. It has been there for over fifty years, still intact, even though two decades have passed since Soviet Union’s demise. The site of this sculpture represents a unique opportunity to be re-imagined for the proposed Cold War Victory Monument.

The bronze statue stands in the gardens of the United Nations. The monument is the work of Evgeniy Victorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), a preeminent Soviet sculptor of Socialist Realism, a recipient of Lenin and Stalin Prizes. It was a gift from the USSR to then newly built UN Headquarters in New York. Presented in 1959 as a symbol of Russia’s peace-loving policies (three years before the Cuban missile crisis would nearly put the planet on the edge of nuclear war), the sculpture carries an allegorical meaning. Its title derives from the Bible quote (Isaiah 2:4) – “We Shall Beat Swords into Plowshares” – a surprising source for a gift from an atheist State. In spite of its emphatically peaceful message, the statue has a strangely threatening appearance. A violent action is emphasized over a promise of harmony. Indeed, the muscular figure seems ready to crush the viewer with his giant hammer.  

It is hard to find a better symbol of the Cold War than this monument.  All attributes of Cold War are present: its bombastic propaganda, its sinister double-speak, its masculine impact of brute strength. The worker’s menacing hammer, while not as destructive as a Kalashnikov, still proved to be a fitting tool for building the Berlin Wall, for setting military bases around the globe, and for pounding many nations into submission.

I propose to send the old worker home to Moscow (to the Park of the Fallen Monuments, now known as Museon), together with his menacing hammer. His never finished job ­– a half-beaten sword – will remain on the original pedestal.

This new incomplete/ruined memorial, a monument without a hero, thus becomes commemoration of victory in the Cold War. The victory is seen as subtraction, as removal of a failed historical alternative, – and as opening the stage for new actions.

Recently, there was a short-lived opportunity to implement my proposal in Moscow, on the site of Museon. In the absence of real bronze figure, I proposed to install a full-size wooden crate, complete with the destination (from: UN, New York to: Museon, Moscow), the description of goods (the statue “We Shall Beat Swords into Plowshares”), and the message (Cold War is Over). Once again, a monument without a hero. Yet here, the sculpture’s suggested presence creates a tension: this monument is displayed and hidden at the same time. 

Altogether, these entries confirm the new understanding of monumentality when it addresses complex historical phenomena, such as the Cold War. We don’t have the need for a new Stonehenge (in the words of Clive Dilnot). Instead, more subtle, transitory, almost immaterial gestures should convey the message to increasingly critical and skeptical public.

This project is one of the winners of the public competition for Cold War Monument. A presentation On Monumentality will take place on March 18, 7pm at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare St, NYC

Monday, February 3, 2014

Too Cute for Comfort

I visit the New York Gift Fair under slushy freezing rain that sweeps the plaza in front of the Javitz Center, but the unexpected warmth awaits inside. This year, cuteness is in. It greets you straight from the cover of the Fair catalogue: a bathroom set in the shape of a toy submarine (by Seletti). This must be Zeitgeist: think of a hundred thousand possible images competing for this choicest spot.

The tone, set by the little submarine, is carried on by many companies it their great many products ­–cheerful, gimmicky, colorful, and toy-like. Multi-colored plastic with glossy finish appears to be a material of choice.

Unless you consider these goods as a form of design escapism, there seems to be very little in the current American economy, politics, or culture to warrant this light–hearted attitude. In a way, this reminds me of Japan and its famous culture of cuteness (kawaii).

While kawaii originated in Japan as a particular style of handwriting in the 1970s, it reached widespread popularity a decade later with products and brands like Hello Kitty. The burst of the Japanese bubble in the 1990s only solidified the power of kawaii over the country’s culture. Soon it spread around the world. Numerous books are written about the phenomenon, but still little is understood about its now multi-generational appeal.

According to one Japanese online source:
"Cute can reach across gender and generation.  Cute makes people feel needed, makes them feel like they are taking care of something helpless."

And closer to my topic:
"Americans embrace cute because they embrace youth.  They associate getting old with its negative attributes such as becoming less attractive and perhaps becoming less relevant.  American cuteness, similar to Japanese cuteness, lets its followers feel young again."

I think I am going to check out the Hello Kitty aisle at our neighborhood pharmacy.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Ultimate D.I.Y.

The 1956 film A Man Escaped by French director Robert Bresson is beloved by great many film critics. The gripping tale of Lieutenant Fontaine’s daring escape from a Nazi prison is shot with an incredible economy of means, with unprofessional actors and a basic set, mostly limited to an interior of prison cell.

The very title of the movie dispenses with any plot suspense – we know that the man does escape at the end. Rather, the story concentrates on the process of how he did it. In minute detail, and with “zero degree” detachment, the protagonist describes and demonstrates how he made ropes out of blankets, hooks out of mattress springs, a chisel out of a spoon, and so on.

As I watched the movie, I kept thinking how the subject of this film would provide a great assignment for a design studio class. In such ultimate D.I.Y. exercise, not only all materials but also all work tools would have to be conceived and recovered from a setting as limited as the inside of a prison.

In best traditions of Slow Design, time and efficiency is not a factor here. It took Fontaine weeks just to loosen door boards, or to produce proper tools for doing his work.

(Incidentally, Fontaine is not the only prisoner plotting to escape. Another inmate tries it earlier; he is captured and condemned to death. Before execution, he manages to pass on some important design advice – proper length of ropes, the need for wall hooks, etc. Like in science, the man’s failure enables the next one to succeed. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Presently we have entered the age of new 3-D printing technologies, which promise an instant creation of any given necessity, “magically” produced by uploading computer files into a printer. The lesson of Fontaine offers an opposite design alternative – slow working with immediate resources, responding to material and technological shortages with creativity and determination. It is important to continue teaching and practicing this alternative. 3-D printers will not be available in jail.