Organisers' Research Interests

Jessica Jenkins

Public art and design in the urban spaces of Communist East Germany

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under communist rule (1949-1989), public art was a major artistic genre. It served both the political and social programme of the government, both internally to GDR citizens and externally, promoting the image of a culturally mature nation with attractive, modern cities. Not only did this art form receive substantial funding, it was also the subject of an ongoing and intense critical debate within political and artistic circles.

The evolution of public art over the country’s forty year history reflected oscillating positions on the function of art and the role of the artist in socialist society. Whilst artistic expression was a subject of contention between politicians, cultural functionaries, and artists, forms of public art ranged from the Socialist Realist imperative, to designed and illustrative forms and techniques of the applied arts, through to otherwise politically unacceptable abstraction and what is retrospectively described as architectural East Modern.

Was public art “propaganda art" or visual communication? Its visibility made it the ideal genre for propagating political ideas. This research conceives the discourse of public art as a territory of negotiation between artists, architects, critics, political actors and ordinary people, as the government sought to satisfy the ever increasing expectations of its citizens within the non-negotiable socialist system. The genre was not only a way of communicating the success of the socialist project, and offering a sense of security in rapidly modernising society; its function became also one of offering diversification and orientation in the built environment within the perceived monotony of system built architecture. The thousands of artworks commissioned for the exteriors and interiors of libraries, schools, nurseries, workplaces, restaurants and hospitals were intended to perform identification, decorative, and uplifting functions, and drew on a range of visual and cultural traditions.

The complex terrain of the genre of public art offers insights into the political and artistic discourse of both the ruling SED party and art political interests. This research will examine the functions of public art and design in forming and representing an east German socialist identity, and ask whether ultimately, public art and design did indeed meet the aims which the GDR cultural programme had set itself.

Tom Cubbin
The dominant theory of industrial design that emerged during the ‘scientific-technological revolution’ was called ‘technical aesthetics’. With its roots in the Khrushchev thaw of the mid-1950s, it was founded on the belief that by applying scientific methodologies to design, systems could be developed which could regulate the activities of the designer and his relationship to industry in the interests of the socialist citizen. It became institutionalised in 1962, when the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) was established. This was a multi-disciplinary organisation; home to scientists, sociologists, ergonomics experts, psychologists, historians, demographers, architects, engineers and designers. Here, designers working on issues as diverse as transport, materials, consumer goods, ergonomics, electronics and machine tools were redesigning not only the objects intended for the communist future, but also the industrial processes and economic structures that would support them.

I am detailing VNIITE’s endeavour to create a ‘scientifically managed’ programme for domestic goods production. This was an attempt to regulate the relationship between design and production on a technological level. Through the correct interpretation of sociological, anthropometric and economic data it was thought that normative documents could be created which would specify the functions, dimensions and quantities of objects required by the population.

This programme also included a prognostic element. In the second half of the thesis I am analyzing how technical aesthetics and western avant-garde architecture influenced VNIITE's futurological projects. I will be discussing mobile furnishings and the 'domestic information machine' (an early version of the Soviet internet). Here I will be analyzing how technology supported/threatened the rhetoric of the scientific-technological revolution

Rebecca Bell
My research proposes to address myth and privilege in the field of Czech design from 1945 to 1989, spanning a period of Communist centralisation of design production. International exhibitions serve as access points for analysis of objects considered tacitly Czech, becoming in the process vehicles of national identity. I will question the latter, taking into consideration the complex history of the geographical area producing the objects wherein German and Slovak ethnicity play a key part often excluded from official histories of design in Czechoslovakia during the period under survey. 

The twentieth-century history of Czech design is biased by the story of glass. Glass as a material rooted in Bohemian identity met Communist requirements as an industrial product with which it could participate in the global economy via international exhibitions from 1945 to 1989. Despite a reduced need for luxury goods in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia’s production of glass for export and domestic sales flourished and artists working in the medium were privileged compared to those working in alternative materials. The mythological wonder of Czech glass was used as a political PR tool and exhibitions were proclaimed spectacular: exhibition design in the field was adventurous and architects collaborated with designers to create exciting displays such as those seen in the infamous Moscow exhibition of 1959.

The story I wish to explore is two-fold: the official story of institutional framework and the unofficial story of artists working outside of the framework or within it but in more experimental or alternative ways. The multiplicity of government institutions set up to regulate production and education in design meant that alternative materials were also encompassed in the official structure, however their story has not been told internationally to the same extent as glass. These include tools, jewellery, textiles, ceramics (particularly architectural commissions) and toys. They are included in many of the official international exhibitions, such as the key Brussels Expo of 1958. But their production is different to glass and they often draw on alternative elements such as folk and craft as opposed to industrial production. My research proposes to analyse these contrasting methods of production and look at individuals within and outwith the centralised systems. Vocabulary around craft, handmade, industry and design will be analysed as will the reception and representation of non-glass objects abroad and their contextualisation into international vocabulary around folk art and craft. 

Party to the above is an analysis of the usefulness and function of objects, what was deemed successful and for what purpose i.e. economic, for effect in grand exhibitions, or as politically demonstrative pieces, all of which are official categories. But in contrast to this, how was their success measured by their maker? I will analyse the conceptual narrative of Czechoslovakian design from 1945-1989 using approaches from historians such as Adrian Forty, Jean Baudrillard and Richard Sennett. All three writers introduce themes of economy, purpose and making as thinking. Using Sennett’s term “morale” in relation to workers in a centralised system I will question the role of individual artist in a complex institutional structure. 

My thesis will provide a new reading for the works produced in Czechoslovakia during the period under survey and move away from the key Anglo American scholarship which is still primarily focused on the official glass story.

Anda Boluza
Graphic design in Latvia in the 1980s and 1990s

The struggle for freedom in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic took different forms in the 1980s. For instance, during the peaceful political demonstration known as the Baltic Way two million people joined their hands to form a symbolic chain across the three Baltic States in 1989. Although Soviet power was realised through numerous control mechanisms exerted on society, such as the censorship exercised by the state agency Glavlit (The Main Directorate for Literary and Publishing Affairs), artists, writers and designers nevertheless found ways to express ideas critical of official politics. For example, in the 1950s posters were used to convey political propaganda, but paradoxically  - perhaps through their internationally acknowledged artistic quality, they became an effective tool for expressing a sophisticated protest against the official authorities in the 1970s and 1980s.  

The aim of this project is to examine how a new graphic language emerged in Latvia after the collapse of the USSR. The research does so by focusing specifically on pre and post Soviet Latvian graphic design models, which shifted after Latvia regained its independence in 1991. The project analyses the main influences, which affected design made for commercial purposes, and asks whether they were influenced by a graphic expression of protest or a form of socialist advertising, or simply a naïve vision of Western consumerism. In relation to these questions this research focuses on re-branding, print advertising and editorial design.

The work investigates the particular ways in which the visual aspects of periodicals and advertisements changed due to the shifts in consumerist desires. For instance an important case study is the magazine ‘Avots’, which was published in Latvia between 1987-1992. The decision to publish a magazine such as ‘Avots’, which was dedicated to literature, was made centrally at that time, yet the content and design of the publication was radically contrary to approved standards. Paradoxically the magazine couldn’t be published after 1992 without funding provided by the state. Moreover, the need to protest against the totalitarian model was no longer relevant. Instead new tasks became important, which included a reassessment into the new ways of attracting consumers through marketing following the re-direction of the economic system, which had changed from socialism to capitalism.

Kasia Jezowska 
Design exhibitions and exhibition designs - representing Poland between 1945 and 1975

 In summer 1969, an retrospective of Polish design celebrating 25 years of the Polish People's Republic was presented on the grounds of the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, Moscow (VDNKh). Five thematic displays featuring ceramics and glass, textiles, furniture, industrial and interior design that initially were presented at home, for Moscow become united under the title “Man and his house”. One part of the jubilee show was excluded from the main section and presented separately. “Designing exhibitions and mass events” was originally presented in Zachęta Gallery, Warsaw and organised in partnership with the Association of Polish Artists (Interior Design section) and The Bureau for Cooperation with Consumers. It displayed examples of industrial, cultural and historical expositions, both temporary and permanent, that were conceived between 1944 and 1969 by about 60 designers.

This exhibition of exhibitions is an interesting example of how important the discipline was for the socialist country. Polish stands and separate pavilions, “salons” of interior designs and model “living interiors” were presented at international trade fairs, industrial exhibitions or in galleries. They aimed to illustrate prosperity, however, what was showcased by no means reflected the status quo: models, prototypes and images of goods that were never to be produced were displayed in settings arranged by architects, artists, graphic designers, who had limited opportunities to realise their innovative concepts in a large scale. What I find particularly interesting is how their experience of working in different disciplines was translated into exhibition design. 

My research looks at how the relationship between designers and the government who was commissioning Polish displays was shaped and to which extend artistic ideas were working towards the official vision which evolved around the broader concept of social modernity.