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Visions and Visualization of Sustainability: Leningrad Designers in Search of Soviet Recycling System, 1981-84

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  • Yulia Karpova
In the first half of the 1960s, Soviet design was predominantly techno-optimistic. Industrial design, officially recognized as a profession in 1962 under the labels “technical aesthetics” (theory and methodology) and “artistic engineering” (practice) was to become an aid to science and technology in boosting Soviet economy and creating modern consumer culture, thus cementing Soviet soft power in the cold war competition. Therefore, the initial concern of the All-Union State Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE, modelled after the British Council of Industrial Design), was the development of the optimal nomenclatures and assortments of consumer goods, in contrast to what they perceived as market-driven “chaos of forms” in the capitalist societies.
However, in the 1970s, influenced by Western theorists such as Victor Margolin and Abraham Moles, Soviet designers were increasingly concerned with environments rather than separate objects. Speaking of ‘environment’ (sreda), they meant complex and heterogeneous surrounding that includes built and natural elements, historical and newly designed areas. By the end of the decade, this ‘environmental approach’ evolved into the recognition of sustainability as a crucial requirement for contemporary design. In cooperation with environmentalists, philosophers, historians and other specialists, industrial designers sought for specific methods of environmentally affirmative design. This is a particular and little-studied case of the Brezhnev-era environmentalism.
While highly interested in sustainable design, Soviet designers made very few practical steps towards it. One of them was the program “Secondary Recourses,” launched in 1979 by the Leningrad subsidiary of VNIITE jointly with the All-Union Research, Design and Technological Institute of Secondary Resources (VIVR). The program’s goal was to optimize recycling across the Soviet Union. Polling and sociological research, conducted by VIVR in cities and the country, showed that personal households were the most disorganized source of waste, in comparison to state enterprises, which were obliged to collect waste regularly. The Leningrad team of designers approached this problem with the method of “scenic modeling” – creating a set of situations maximally close to actual conditions for collecting waste. As a result, Leningrad designer team proposed a flexible infrastructure of recycling service for different urban and rural areas, that included both visual tools (information graphics) and material elements (collectors and transport vehicles). This user-friendly and comprehensive design program would downplay negative connotations of waste and present recycling as attractive and ennobling enterprise. For this purpose, the designers propose an extensive use of media and involvement of local industries and cultural organizations.
Rather than dismissing this never-implemented project as a late socialist utopia, I will consider it as a specific vision of mass mobilization that presumed the interrelation between humans and things – a “universal thing-system,” envisioned by the avant-garde theorist Boris Arvatov. Drawing on archival and oral history sources, this paper will contribute to the studies of late socialist visual culture and to the emergent field of the histories of sustainable design.
Original languageEnglish
EditorsAga Skrodzka, Xiaoning Lu, Katarzyna Marciniak
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication year2019
Publication statusSubmitted - 2019

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