From Russia with love

Fierce competition between designers on both sides of the Iron Curtain became fertile ground for ideas.
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Pablo Picasso’s Peace Dove scarf<br />
© ADAP, Paris and Dacs, London 2008
Pablo Picasso’s Peace Dove scarf - commemorates the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace, which took place in Berlin, in August 1951 - forms part of the new exhibition
The notion of the president of Russia and the US’s vice-president arguing about the superiority of their countries’ kitchens is bizarre, as is the idea that the disagreement could lie at the heart of their policies. How could kitchen design be a part of international policy?

But, according to Jane Pavitt, curator of new exhibition Cold War Modern (1945 to 1970) at the V&A, during those frosty years it was. “The Cold War was a fertile time for design in the East and West,” says Pavitt. “Competition to be modern shaped the world around us.”

The news in 1949 that the USSR had detonated an Atom bomb sent shock waves through the West, and the US Information Agency decided that promoting design and lifestyle would be a major tool in its propaganda war against the East.

Hearts and minds

The glossy American kitchen at the 1952 Better Life Exhibition in West Germany won over hearts and minds. As early as 1951, writer David Riesman parodied the idea by imagining “carpet bombing” the USSR with Western consumer goods.

The Whirlpool Kitchen at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 was the stage for a discussion of the quality of life of US and USSR citizens, in which vice-president Nixon demanded of his host Nikita Khrushchev: “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strengths of rockets?”

This marked the beginning of “the Thaw”, or what was nicknamed “Refrigerator Socialism”, where East European designers were encouraged to contribute to socialism through developing new products.

Chair of the Djinn series, 1963, by Olivier Mourgue<br />
© V&A Images
Chair of the Djinn series, 1963, by Olivier Mourgue
Materials and technologies developed for military purposes were applied to consumer products. Designers such as Charles and Ray Eames used their know-how in developing leg splints during the Second World War to create formed plywood furniture, and plastics developed for aircraft fuselages to create shell fibreglass chairs.

Iron Curtain

This was true on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the East, plastics were declared to be “socialist” and the “raw material of our nation”. The space-age look of the Sixties was typified by the Eero Aarnio Globe chair, the flowing forms of the Olivier Morgue Chaise Longue and Peter Ghyczy’s Garden Egg Chair.

Post war, both East and West wanted to improve living standards. There were Modernist housing schemes in West Berlin designed by architects such as Le Corbusier, Arne Jacobsen and Walter Gropius. Modernity came to be symbolised by the new American corporate Modernism of curtain-walled skyscrapers, such as the Lever Building.

Techno architects

Architects became besotted with technological developments. Buckminster Fuller’s project “Dome over Manhattan” in 1962 foresaw a climate-controlled eco-city that could provide a giant shelter from radioactive fallout.

Diablo Mug
© V&A Images
Diablo Mug, £30, by Cor Unum, at V&A shop
While many of the new consumer designs were glitzy and showy, some very influential designers embraced the minimalism that held sway until the late Eighties. Braun's in-house designer Dieter Rams produced utilitarian products and is still very influential — his “Snow White’s Coffin” radiogram is a design classic.

Cold War Modern helps make sense of design developments over the Cold War period. Its iconic designs continue to affect the world today.

Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70, from 25 September 2008 to 11 January 2009 at the V&A, South Kensington.
Admission £9 (senior citizens £7; students, 12-17 years, ES-40 holders, £5). For tickets, call 0870 906 3883, or visit

Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70 by David Crowley and Jane Pavitt is available to H&P readers at the special price of £31.50 (rrp £35), plus free UK p&p. To order, call V&A Publishing on 01256 302699, and quote reference ‘1EX’. The offer ends on 30 January 2009.

Garden Egg Chair by Peter Ghyczy
© V&A Images
Garden Egg Chair by Peter Ghyczy, £1,250, at V&A shop

Get the look

110 Drury Lane, WC2 (020 7557 7557;
Furniture and products designed in the period.

30 Clerkenwell Road, EC1 (020 7608 6200;
Eames and Nelson furniture.

72 Wigmore Street, W1 (020 7935 4968;
Dieter Rams shelving and chairs.

South Kensington; (
Furniture and domestic objects, including: Roman Modzelewski armchair, £650; Globe Chair by Eero Aarnio, £6,000; Cor Unum ceramics jug, £40; beaker, £15.

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