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Entry no.: 299

16 Oct 2007, 10:28 AM

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments: 10

Design Communist design

Red decay, Cristian -Kit- Paul, 2004

Googlers

I see incoming hits coming from Google searches for "communist design" keywords. They drive me mad and determined me to write this post.

However, what these searches find is A communist design law in the making page about SDPR's "design law" is only fair, if not also a bit amusing.

But that's not about communist design per se, but about a professional conduct that reminds of communism: people with mindsets imported right from "the old times" and an appetite for control by monopoly and lack of choice that can only make sense in a centralized economic model.

Parenthesis

Communist economy was utterly inept at building a nice spoon.

IKEA opened their first Bucharest store a few months ago. One of the first items my friends bought from IKEA was—among other items—a tea spoon. A very simple yet beautifully designed little metal spoon, featuring a clear line and a matte sandblasted texture, almost soft to touch.

I look at it for a long time, trying to understand. How hard is to design a spoon, and—I remembered—why during communism exactly those small day-to-day domestic life objects were the most horrendous?

Because everyday life objects don't have any political propaganda potential. They don't serve the regime.

Communist economy could manufacture spaceships and send people on orbit, but was utterly inept—and will always be, in any if its iterations—at building a nice spoon.

Contradiction

Communist design is a contradiction in terms: there is no such thing as communist design.

In fact, communist design is a contradiction in terms: there is no such thing as communist design. The rudimentary exceptions you'll find can only confirm this statement, because communism and design are incompatible and mutually exclusive. Here's why.

  • Communism despises people1 while design is an effort to help and dignify people2;
  • Communism is a centralized economy which means that market competition is heavily discouraged until complete obliteration, while design is an instrument for outperforming competing players in a market economy;
  • In a centralized economy it's not the market that decides what's good—someone else decides what's good for you and what you should like: centralized taste. Design stands for differentiation and plurality, design teaches and encourages a democracy of taste;
  • Communism is about eradicating the freedom of choice by lack of options and by coercion, design is about encouraging choice by seduction;
  • Graphic design in communism is closely linked with propaganda. So closely that anything that's not propaganda it is regarded as hostile to the regime and subject to censure.2
  • Without plurality there is no need for identity, consequently identity design is either pointless or diverted to propaganda, also.

Now really, please—if you find this—quit searching for "communist design"—it's not only a deceptive oxymoron, it's plain bullshit. There could exist an appropriate term, however: communist antidesign.


1 Romania's president officially denounced the Communist regime as "illegitimate and criminal" in 2006. Before that, in July 1993, the Czech Republic passed an act condemning its Soviet-era government, and Bulgaria's Parliament passed a resolution condemning the former regime there in 2001. In 2006 also, Ukraine's Parliament passed a bill labeling the Stalin-orchestrated famine of the 1930s that killed an estimated 10 million people an act of genocide. [See article in International Herald Tribune.]

2 Informations architecture helps people understand messages better, ergonomics helps people use products with less effort, usability helps people accomplish their goals, and so forth.

3 Graphic artists and book illustrators explained me the numerous revisions that were forced upon them by the censors for mere poetry books illustrations. In one instance a Communist Party censor asked that all earrings and bracelets from a series of book illustrations to be airbrushed out because they were "decadent" and "bourgeois".

Comments

Reply no.: 1

17 Oct 2007, 4:57 PM

Ionut Buzoianu:

On your IKEA parenthesis.
I've had a very similar discussion with my mother(who was mesmerized by her first visit at IKEA), regarding why people in the communist regime seemed unable or unwilling to spend the smallest amount of time thinking about how to improve the things around them.

Your point is very true, and it also became clear to me during the discussion. The improvement of things was allowed and supported only if it served a propangandistic purpose.

However, I continued to wonder why people couldn't improve, for their own sake, at least those little things that didn't require the approval of the party secretary. Like a better grip on a hammer. Or a glass statue that's not a fisherman or a ballerina. Or a spoon.

She couldn't say why. She just said "those were the times".

From were we're standing right now, I think the system worked so "well", that reached a point were people didn't feel the necessity of improvement. So much so, that 18 years later, many still don't. They don't see that the spoons are ugly, and better spoons are something close to an alien sighting.

And that is a real tragedy

Reply no.: 2

18 Oct 2007, 12:04 AM

color:

Ai noroc, la mine cel mai cautat termen este: "frizuri" :)) care duce aici:
http://dictando.blogspot.com/2007/06/frizuri.html

Note from blog owner: Next time please comment in English or provide English translation. Thank you.

Reply no.: 3

18 Oct 2007, 1:39 PM

sorin:

During communist regime, the only thing people were concerned to design was their own survival.

Reply no.: 4

23 Oct 2007, 5:34 AM

bogdan:

Design means problem solving. So there IS communist design, because there are problems to solve in communism too. The difference is in priorities. In communism the individual is secondary to 'the people', so everyone can have the same functional ugly spoon.

That's the theory, at least. In reality, more important than the ideology is the quality of the real humans who apply it. That's why the Romanian 'capitalism' is as pathetic as the Romanian 'communism'. We simply are not smart enough (as a society, but that's crucial) to do a good job in no matter what field (invented by others). And that's why, for example, the koreans are equaly effective in both :) I don't want to see the Japanese version of communism though.

Democracy of taste is good, but then again, good taste is better. I see it badly lacking in today's Romania. I would not praise any ideology more than the care to (your)self development, good will and introspection. Whatever comes out of these is good.

It's unfair to ignore what the people achieved in those harsh days, trying to be normal in a incresingly toxic atmosphere. What about the Polish posters, the Bulgarian logotypes, the Hungarian buses, Czechoslovakian cars and trucks, Slovenian industrial design, Russian graphic design? Is this nothing at all? How come that some of these countries recovered sooner than us and you admire their present work? Did this came out of the blue when they were free? Don't confuse communism - which I agree is a bad idea after all (it looked good because of the xix century circumstances) - with the weakneses of our country. Romania's problems are rooted deeper than just in the communism. You want to know the truth or to construct a thesis for the sake of it?

Design means solving problems. But it depends what's in the brief :)
One last thing. I find dishonesty as communism biggest weakness. Design on the other hand is at it's best when is honest.

Reply no.: 5

24 Oct 2007, 10:10 AM

Kit:

This is why once in a while I do love blogs! :) Thank you guys for putting together such elaborate replies—I really appreciate.

I find it interesting that those who live here—often dealing with the same people or the same mindsets we were dealing with 20 years ago (Ionut developed on this)—tend to stumble through a maze of personal dark memories, national preconceptions and cultivated neuroses: communism as an airtight system leaves people (a professional category in this case—designers) with no chance.

On the other hand—although I feel that through the filter of my personal grim neuroses his opinions appear in a rather romanticized light—Bogdan's view from abroad (distance holds many benefits) might be less prejudiced than mine: people make the system and consequently count more than it.

Two contrasting angles for the reader to take into consideration: food for thought.

Reply no.: 6

1 Nov 2007, 9:59 AM

matt cook:

You're far too negative about communism. Sure, communist regimes have done lots of terrible things to lots of people. Much more so than democratic ones. I'm not trying to defend communism as a form of government.

But your dot points are almost entirely rubbish.

"Communism despises people while design is an effort to help and dignify people"

Design is people neutral. One can design a neutron bomb. The pleasant "green room" for performers was designed just as much as the unpleasant "pink room" for visiting opposition football teams.

"Communism is a centralized economy which means that market competition is heavily discouraged until complete obliteration, while design is an instrument for outperforming competing players in a market economy"

Design is a tool. You can use it to compete in a market economy. You can use it to compete in a market economy so well that you form a complete monopoly (like say a communist government).

"In a centralized economy it’s not the market that decides what’s good—someone else decides what’s good for you and what you should like: centralized taste. Design stands for differentiation and plurality, design teaches and encourages a democracy of taste"

Design can be used to differentiate. It can equally be used to form the single perfect design that everyone has to use.

"Communism is about eradicating the freedom of choice by lack of options and by coercion, design is about encouraging choice by seduction"

Did the Windows design encourage choice by making most operating systems obsolete? Any monopolistically successful design reduces choice.

"Graphic design in communism is closely linked with propaganda. So closely that anything that’s not propaganda it is regarded as hostile to the regime and subject to censure."

Yes. Does that make propaganda any less designed? No.

"Without plurality there is no need for identity, consequently identity design is either pointless or diverted to propaganda, also."

Yes. Does that make pointless design any less design? No.

Reply no.: 7

1 Nov 2007, 2:41 PM

Juanjo Seixas:

I'm disappointed. All design is political; and the objective is to transmit the message —and the world vision— of that has ordered it.

Reply no.: 8

4 Nov 2007, 5:28 PM

Mihai:

Matt, for me it will be always shocking to hear "You’re far too negative about communism"!! Only Goebbels' ‘When I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my gun’ can beat that. But don’t mind me, I’m biased because I lived in communism, while obviously others didn't.

Apart from that, I think your comments are rubbish and your point (if any) is cluttered with nonsense. Just for one, communism didn't need to employ design to impose the monopoly - it plainly used the hammer to smash and the sickle to slash.

Reply no.: 9

21 Dec 2007, 12:56 AM

sanja:

I think all of you are confusing 'communism' with
'communist regime'. the concept of design, atleast design in the past, especially in italy after the war, all the greatest designers, from enzo mari to castiglioni, designed objects that can definately be considered communistic. we are speaking of the ideology here, not it's application.

another thing, design today is not problem solving. we do not need any more chairs, or any more tables, etc. the only thing that is being done in design today, is inventing problems so that we can solve them and convince people that they have those problems. a pillow with a whole in it to put the pop corn plate in it, a lamp that becomes a drycleaner, a glass that can be lit up, etc etc. we are creating extensions for the human body and mind that simply create ridicule. i, personally, prefer the communist spoon, which if i may add, is not at all ugly.

oh and, democratic taste chooses britney spears and tiger printed belts.

my compliments to matt cook. very good.

Reply no.: 10

5 Jan 2008, 11:27 AM

ciprian:

I still have a few spoons and forks bought by my parents in the '50. They look more than OK, simple and elegant. I also like to watch post cards from the same period, and noticed that, for at least their first decade, communist towns looked exactly the same like before.

What's the point? I think communism (at least Romanian one) didn't had a project to create an ideological, "communist" material culture. This project lacked the force, coherence and intelectual resources to do so. That's why for a while material reality looked very much the same, and I think that's why, after a while, lots of indescribably atrocious furniture, chandeliers aso obviously mimmicked, in the worst way possible, the "bourgeois" ones.

Therefore, if there is something specific "communist" in these objects, I'd say that it is the tendency to create nightmarish simulacra. It is political and ideological if we see it as an perverse attempt of the regime to legitimize itself through the old culture or through international forms of culture (think of the Romanian bloc of flats which mimmick functionalism, its simple shapes aso, but in reality have absurd ornaments, even folkloric ones!!!). Of course, in addition to that is a lot of stupidity, bad government etc.

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