Legends of Soviet Life: Industrial Art Why Soviet Estonian design is so simple, so elementary Estonian Institute
Kai Lobjakas
Tarbeklaas Soviet design is mostly anonymous. In the 1950s and 1960s the new rule that opposed the preceding periods (both Stalinism as well as the period of Estonian independence in the 1920s and 1930s) initiated the creation of a new environment in which norms and standards generated new choices, the results of which surrounded the majority of Estonians for the coming decades. An item that was already in production remained for a long time and seemed to be almost eternal. Seldom was there any hope that it would be replaced by something newer and better. The new rarely reached the common consumer and even then it was a struggle. As objects that used to influence people's lives, these articles may represent proof of the difficulties of the everyday: endless queues to purchase something elementary, chronic shortages etc. An item, once obtained, shaped the home for decades. This was supported by the mentality of the planned economy that preferred the process of production to the consumer. This might also explain the reluctance of Estonians today to accept such a "compulsory" environment of items. All this has resulted in these items not being valued.


Standard On the other hand, the normal world of the Soviet period that obstructed self-actualisation through things, provided the possibility of depersonalisation. On the one hand, a person had to fit into unified frames, but on the other, this satisfied and served the paradoxical need to stay ordinary, not to stand out, to be "normal". In the context of the Soviet Union, Estonian art of design held a very special position. Being less dependent on the satellite countries of the Soviet Union (Czechoslovakia, Poland) and the closest to Europe (mainly Scandinavia), Estonia achieved the position of the "internal abroad", where items were symbols of the desired "West". The possibility of product design was created by the period of Khruschev's thaw (1953-1964) which allowed forms of art other than ideological painting and sculpture to come forward. The social status of such art, relating to the design of the spatial environment and daily surroundings of the people, improved. Art and the artist were to become an important part of improving human existence. Design acquired a new status.


Standard It was the first time that the organisation of the everyday through design received such attention and, through the opportunities it offered, attracted so many newly graduated young artists. The symbol of the times was scientific-technical revolution and one of the most important fields of applying its ideals was the construction of buildings. The optimistic programme expected every family to have an apartment; soon, every person was to have his or her own room. The new era made the use of new things somewhat unavoidable. The confined space of small apartments could not contain a suite of soft furniture or a bulky cupboard. The standardising industry offered new types of products: firstly, small and light, pastel and poly-functional single items, then sets of furniture for the whole space and apartment, which could be enlarged when needed. By the 1970s, the hearts of consumers were won by dark and shiny, huge combined cupboards and shelves covering whole walls, and once again, heavier, more "respectable", soft furniture. Under the ideal of standardisation, the appearances of towns, homes and everyday items as well as attitudes were to change.


Standard The rhetoric of the time emphasised the contemporary and modern, as opposed to the bulky items of the previous period, conveying however the same contents that were meant to be expressed in the form that is now called modernism. The contemporary as a sign of progress became the main criteria of the quality of art. Its characteristics, such as its clear-cut lines, laconic finishing of surfaces, and simple form, advanced rapidly when new people started to shape the new environment.
Even though applied artists only began to be taught again after the end of the war, and the independent Chair of Industrial Art was only founded in 1966, the first artists in the industry appeared in the second half of the 1950s when they started to take over this field from the builders who had no special training in design. The activities in the field of design of the latter mainly suggested rationalisation proposals which allowed some true curiosities to be created. Successful groups of designers were now working at larger enterprises, which radically altered the appearance of the products - their form, materials and technologies.



Standard This change became a sign that brought a high status to Estonian design in the Soviet Union. Reasons for adopting this successful approach to design can be explained in many ways. Firstly, the balanced and simple use of form can be seen as something inherently Estonian, which was achieved, half-instinctively, in relative isolation. On the other hand, when discussing this direction of development, we cannot forget Estonia's proximity to the most successful representatives of post-war design, the Scandinavian countries: in 1961, an overview exhibition of Finnish industrial design took place in Tallinn. In 1965, a ship route between Tallinn and Helsinki was opened so that the relations between Estonia and Finland became relatively strong for Soviet times. But it may well be that the most important factor was that this language of form suited the ideals of production well.
The first half of the popular slogan "More functional and beautiful objects for the population!" was in fact taken more seriously; attention was focused on the amount. The usage of light and simple formal elements served modernity; on the other hand it balanced well with the ruling ideals of standardisation and the model of the economy which prioritised the quantity of production. It was possible to produce a large number of items with only a minor cost in time and materials. The second favoured idea of the contemporary rhetoric was the sense of moderation - meant to control the excessive desire of consumption and craving for more than what was reasonable. Therefore, the results of the designers' work, in their laconic and unornamented nature, fit well with the sensible needs of the Soviet consumer.
Along with the anonymous design of products, there was another alternative. An institution specific to the time, called the Factory of Art Products, offered a combination of two opposing entities - art and production, providing thus a middle way for the design. Balancing between relatively unavailable exclusive craft, exposition art (art), and mass production (product), it created an identifiable design. The factory producing serial products was in fact creating handicrafts produced following the sketches of artists and carrying the names of the artists. The production of such small series of items was enough to create popularity and maintain the demand for the items in order to stimulate the generally very impersonal environment. But this is a topic that requires an altogether new discussion.



Lilian Linnaks In the 1950s, the production of the Tarbeklaas factory changed considerably as a result of the work of a group of artists attached to the factory: Helga Kõrge, Mirjam Maasikas and Ingi Vaher. The design of the items abandoned the previous heavy sculptural foems in favour of simplicity and functionalism. Especially popular was the tableware in greyish 'smoked' glass, unknown elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
In the early 1960s, the ubiquitous cabinet of moderate size was something of a universal solution in a new living space - a rather small flat. The multifunctional cabinet-cum-shelving had enough space for books, bric-a-brac and tableware.
Cupboards built up of sections appeared in the late 1960s when Teno Velbri became head of the Standard furniture factory design group. The light timber and 'criss-cross verticals' was replaced by darkly varnished furniture, which could be extended to cover the whole wall. Standard dominated the entire local furniture industry after 1959 and thus became a monopoly enterprise in the context of creating the indoors environment.
In the age of television, a new type of furniture appeared in addition to the radio cabinet. Instead of a mere place on a shelf, in 1963 Gunnar Holmi designed a new TV set table of a suitable height with a rotating plate on top, and equipped with drawers covered in a fashionable plastic. This was produced by Viisnurk which was one of the few manufacturers besides Standard that had its own design function.
Lilian Linnaks, who took up a job with Estoplast (lamp manufacturers), managed to radically change the hitherto dominant shape and form of lamps, replacing the fibrous plastic and pleated paper shades with simple glass shades. In the eagerness of innovation, the new shapes could be combined, forming more complicated lighting units.

EXHIBITION
From April to June, the Museum of Applied Art exhibited products representative of Soviet Estonian industrial design.
This is an era that usually arouses negative associations, so the exhibition attempted to look afresh at the period, and examine different trends and points of emphasis. The aim was to explain the development of a certain field of activity in its temporal context. The restrictions at the time were pretty severe, yet nevertheless offered possibilities that were vastly different from the rest of Europe. The exhibition follows the development of the Estonian home - the everyday personal space - through a presentation of industrial art. The exhibition Things in My Life tries to look at industrial design in double focus. It examines the production of items during a specific time, and their place in an intimate sphere - the home, in order to find an answer to the question: what does home and things selected to be used there actually mean? The exhibition attempts to unravel the problem via the physical environment where people lived their lives during the Soviet period.



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