What are You Sitting On: (Non)mass Furniture in the USSR

A Soviet design scholar explains why constructivist furniture never became popular.

A Soviet interior

Alexander Semyonov is a designer, Soviet furniture scholar, and winner of the ADD Awards prize for the best design of 2015. He has written and published two books on furniture design in the USSR from 1920-1955. Semyonov is currently working on a third book dedicated to the history of mass furniture from the second  half of the 1950s to the 1980s. Strelka Magazine spoke to him about who worked in design in the USSR and how the constructivist style influenced the Soviet furniture industry.

– How did the idea of writing the history of Soviet furniture come to you?

– At the Stieglitz State Academy, we mostly designed and created furniture using our own sketches, and were able to see how the paper design became a complete piece. Four years ago, the only vision I had of Soviet furniture design was a huge wall in my grandmother's apartment and a few chairs from the storeroom. This situation started to change after my trip to Copenhagen. I found some books on Danish furniture in the Danish Museum of Art & Design ( Børge Mogensen: Simplicity and Function101 Danish Design Icons, and Contemporary Danish Furniture Design). I wanted to figure out how interior objects were designed in the USSR, so I went to grad school and started writing books. I’m going to create an illustrated album based on the results of my research in the future.

A folding bookshelf / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
A folding bed / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
A folding bookshelf / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
A folding bookshelf / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926

– What sources did you use in your work?

– Most information about furniture in the USSR was presented in reports on work undertaken during manufacturing or in exhibition catalogues. Generally, those are just formal texts, so I found unusual examples among student projects. The authors of these texts, who were not burdened with the conditions of mass production, were much more sensitive to the spirit of the times. One can find experimental and “paper design”, or unrealized projects, among the work of Selim Khan-Magomedov and in the magazines “Contemporary Architecture” and “ Krasnaya Niva” in the 1920s; and “Technical Aesthetics”, “Decorative Art of the USSR", and “Nauka I Zhizn” in the 1960s-1980s.

Many of the “paper projects” were simply tossed out onto the street at the beginning of the 1990s. People are still getting rid of finished furniture. We are familiar with the work from the 1920s due to the work of the constructivists, while the first information about mass furniture only appears at the end of the 1950s. For now, in my work, I try to summarize the scattered information and use it as a foundation for a coherent history of Soviet design.

– Design was called “technical aesthetics” in the USSR – who was working on it?

– In my opinion, “technical aesthetics” is a more concrete term. One can instantly imagine what the artist-engineer’s job was: conceptualizing the aesthetics of a mass product, its interrelation with the environment. Aside from “artist-engineer”, there was another term, “artist-designer”. These professions were mostly quite similar: both studied at art school, for example, at the furniture design faculty at the Leningrad Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design (now known as the Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy), or at Moscow Higher School of Arts and Industry (now known as Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry). They would study Russian and foreign achievements in design, and read magazines like “Technical Aesthetics” and “Domus”. I think the only difference is that the term “artist-designer” was applied to those who more often specialized in “paper”, or concept designs.

A folding bookshelf / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
A folding bed / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
A folding bookshelf / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926

Soviet furniture design adhered to global trends. In the 1920s, the constructivists like El Lissitzky exchanged experience in design with the representatives of the Bauhaus. Joe Colombo and other foreign designers were known and beloved in the Soviet Union. So much so that the largest international conference in design, ICSID, was held in Moscow in 1975. Light, compact, easy to transport, affordable, and organic furniture made of corrugated cardboard was  developed specifically for the occasion.

– The first part of your research is dedicated to the constructivist period. They suggested rationalizing housing as much as possible. They also designed new types of apartments, living units, and convertible clothing. Which designs have stood the test of time?

– The constructivists were suggesting readymade solutions for interiors. The design for standard furnishings for an F-type living unit in El Lissitzky’s house on Novinskiy Boulevard, or the décor of the reporter Vasilchikov’s room in Lev Kuleshov’s film “Zhurnalistka”/“Vasha znakomaya” (“The Journalist”/”Your Acquaintance”, 1927) can serve as examples. When designing, the author had in mind a certain program for how people would live in the newly created environment. He would invent things that the world had never seen before, and he assumed that people would quickly adapt to new multifunctional convertible clothing and learn how to use them effectively. That didn’t happen, largely because most of the designs remained on paper. Although, to be honest, I don’t think that if we were to transpose or recreate the avant-garde furniture today, it would serve us as efficiently as it was meant to. In the 1920s, design as a field related to the creation of concepts and mass production had only started developing, so the engineers were busy solving other issues.

The artist El Lissitzky claimed that furniture is a part of a grand plan, the organization of the household, which included both, the architecture, as an outer casing, and all the interior details. The furniture had to match the architecture. Meanwhile, he had two kinds of designs. The first one was integrated furniture, which was attached to a certain building: a movable partition for a living unit that would divide the space of the apartment into various zones, depending on the time of day and the person’s desire. The second type was mobile equipment that one could use to make objects with various functions: a desk, a couch, a rack, a cupboard, a coffee table.

Sketch by A.M. Rodchenko
Sketch by A.M. Rodchenko
The Workers Club, 1925, sketch by A.M. Rodchenko
Sketch by A.M. Rodchenko

Even though the furniture for zoning first appeared long before the avant-gardists, they were the ones who applied it. The integrated interior items and partitions perfectly matched the concept of compact but multifunctional housing. These ideas continued to evolve in the 1960s-1970s. That’s how one extraordinary design came to be in 1975: that design was MEBAR (a combination of the Russian words “mebel” – “furniture” and “arkhitektura” – “architecture”), which allowed for changing the composition of the interior. It was invented by the designers Luchkova and Sikachev and the engineer Blekhman. Only one example of MEBAR was issued by Moscow Furniture Factory #3 for the 3rd All-Union Housing Furniture Competition. Design-oriented furniture organizations and factories rejected the opportunity of mass producing MEBAR after the exhibition. Those who wanted to have that it in their interior were suggested to order it in a nonstandard furniture production workshop or make it themselves.

The residents of specific buildings weren’t allowed to remove the furniture that was attached to the building. That’s how things were in the “House on the Embankment”. The furniture items, created based on Boris Iofan’s design, were given item numbers, and they were attached to a certain interior. There was no individuality in the furniture in each apartment. In comparison with the objects of Soviet Neoclassicism at the beginning of the 1950s, it looked quite plain and even  ascetic.

– The constructivists also designed subway cars. First, they wanted to place soft couches in them, but they abandoned the idea because there was no space and the flow of passengers was too intense. What other projects from the 1930s were never realized?

– Unfortunately, the quite successful Mossovet Architectural Workshop #12 was closed in the 1930s: aside from furniture, turnstiles and kiosks for the Moscow Metro were designed there. The designs created in the workshop seemed too pro-Western to someone at the top: it resembled the Art Deco style. The Higher Technical-Artistic Institute was closed at about the same time: at the time, it was one of the largest educational institutions in the world that was preparing specialists in artistic design. The Institute’s professors were accused of spreading utopian ideas among the youngsters.

The history of the Workers Club designed by Rodchenko is quite interesting. The construction of the building was planned specifically for the international exhibition of decorative art, which was to be held in Paris in 1925. The design demonstrated the interior organization of an educational-informative club for the working people of the USSR. It embodied the socialists’ vision of the absolute accessibility of education and collective housing. A zone for intellectual leisure was planned inside the club. It looked like a very original construction: a chess table with chairs and a tiltable tabletop – you couldn’t leave until you finished the game – and containers for chess pieces. The interior had quite a few successful presentations, but its further history is unclear. The only thing we know for sure is that the project was transferred to the French, and then it disappeared, probably during World War II.

Furniture for the mobile theatre
A display cabinet
Furniture for the mobile theatre

– You mostly describe experimental furniture like the one made for the Gorki plane, the Lenin icebreaker, and the nest of the nomenklatura, the “House on the Embankment”. How did individual and mass furniture production and design correlate with each other?

– Experimental projects react quickly to the tendencies of the time, while mass furniture is designed to serve for years to come. The first often serve as the source of inspiration for creating the second, but they never match the concept one hundred percent. That is why the experimental projects’ fates are so interesting: for instance, no chair constructed on the basis of Nikolai Rogozhkin’s design remains today, only a single photograph and a description. However, it was recently decided to reconstruct it in metal and distribute it widely.

– Why didn’t the furniture designed by the constructivists reach a mass audience?

– The heritage of constructivism, like Melnikov House, now seems like an object from some sci-fi movie. The avant-gardists really did try to look forward and predict the future tendencies and issues for design. So it’s a logical question: why isn’t there avant-garde furniture as bold as avant-garde architecture? First of all, architecture is always emblematic, as it molds public space and has a much longer average lifespan than furniture. This means that it’s more beneficial for the government to emphasize the development of architecture. Second, the pre-revolutionary furniture industry was focused on individual production, and it couldn’t deal with large quantity orders. Besides, the first significant accomplishments in the extensive construction of housing were achieved only at the end of the 1920s, and mass furniture couldn’t keep up with the pace of architectural development. Third, the constructivists’ designs often were, indeed, too innovative, not only for industry, but for the average consumer as well. And finally, the lack of tough market competition among furniture manufacturers, as prevailed in the West, was one of the conditions for the existence of Soviet design. The factories didn’t feel the need to constantly refresh the technology and the product range, which led to homogeneity of the products and the rejection of many designs. That’s what happened to the experimental folding bookshelf designed by Alexander Galaktionov, the folding street stall designed by Alexei Gan, and Alexander Morozov’s convertible table.

– What do we know about furniture production during the war?

– The peacetime economy was rearranged to serve military purposes in the 1940s, so furniture, basically, stopped being produced. The reverse process began in Europe and the USSR after the war. Even though it was a little late, the Khrushchev program for extensive construction and furniture development for apartments of the new type were a part of that process. A tremendously large-scale program for the development of mass housing, and, what’s also important, the furniture industry and design began with the decree dated the 4th of November, 1955: “On the liquidation of excesses in design planning and construction”. What this meant for most of the Soviet people is that they would get separate apartments, and an opportunity to buy compact, affordable furniture that would look good in their new homes; the furniture, however, would be similar to everyone else’s. Soviet designers recommended using small folk art figurines, carpets, paintings, and samovars to decorate the interior.

Furniture designed by Nikolai Suetin
Design for a folding table / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
Design for a folding table / Illustration from the book “Contemporary Architecture”, 1926
Furniture designed by Nikolai Suetin

– How did Soviet furniture influence the appearance of apartments in modern Russia?

– Only compact furniture – lower than the ceiling – was being produced in the first few years after the appearance of Khrushchevkas. There were designs for built-in cupboards that would take all the niche space, but they were painted the same color as the walls. As a result of many surveys conducted in furniture factories, it was later decided that the time had come to introduce more massive furniture sets into production. By the 1980s, they took a major share of all the furniture produced.

Many small studio apartments – a combined room and kitchen and a separate bathroom – were built in post-Soviet Russia. One person or family’s belongings, recreation area, working area, and cooking area were supposed to fit into the 25 square meter space. One needed multifunctional and compact things for this kind of home. There were many great designs for such conditions in the 1920s and the 1960s-1970s. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information about good quality and exemplary designs left now. However, we should consider that the appearance of furniture is influenced by people’s mentality: in Russian apartments, a Singer sewing machine can be placed next to an Ikea cupboard; such combinations don’t really surprise anyone anymore.

Author: Sergey Sdobnov
Translation: Olga Baltsatu