Friday, October 31, 2008

Extinct: Products from the Soviet State Store

Soviet consumer products always reminded me of weeds. Cheap, anonymous, notorious for their clunky robust look, they proliferated in great numbers at all levels of Soviet society. Like the Soviet State itself, it seemed they were destined to live forever.

Once Russia turned capitalist in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before “the weeds” got cleared out. Presently, most Soviet products are extinct, or at least endangered; perhaps they still could be found on flea markets, or far in the provinces. We picked them at random during our early visits to Russia, driven, in part, by collectors’ instinct, in part – by a desire to amuse our American design colleagues.

Today, these products may still amuse someone, but their unpretentious simplicity can also teach us a few design lessons. Eventually, they will pass into the realm of historical artifacts. In November 2008, part of our collection has been presented in a small exhibition at KIOSK Gallery in New York City. A few highlights are shown below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tiles of Disaster

Deruta is a charming Italian town known for its ceramics, universally judged best for its quality of hand-painted decoration. For me, the most unusual of Deruta’s sights was a small church of Madonna dei Bagni, located on an undistinguished highway just outside of town.

The church is filled with ceramic votive plaques, given to the Virgin for saving one from an imminent disaster or death. The plaques, known as PGR – an acronym for Per Grazia Ricevuta (For Saving Grace) – show in graphic detail car and airplane crashes, muggings and fires, falls from a tree and vicious dog attacks. The oldest ones date to the 18th century; the newest are only a few years old.

These strange artifacts never fail to amaze. It is hard to imagine a more startling and disturbing clash between a traditional craft and our contemporary tabloid culture. Remarkably, the tiles have been done without a trace of irony, not by hipster-artists, but by devoted craftsmen who believe in redeeming quality of their (unsigned) work.