Revolutionary initiatives in the 1920's in the Soviet Union gave momentum to the practice of design. Outstanding projects took place in the field of poster art, graphics and fashion. Artists such as Malevich, Lissitzky, Popova and the Sternberg brothers contributed to an international art and design process. Belarus played a significant role, primarily by establishing the phenomenon of UNOVIS, a group of experimental artists, in Vitebsk in 1919. But after Stalin’s state doctrine was launched all of alternative artistic initiatives became unwelcome. Revolutionary experiments in the field of art were forgotten for many decades and even considered unsuccessful by some loyal art historians.
It became clear that the Soviet economic system was not able to provide a high living standard on a large scale, as indicated by such sacrifices as design. The culture of the West and its lifestyle has always been strongly criticised. Western music, art and design was nevertheless always of a big interest to many people in the Soviet Union, even if the country was isolated.
The use of the word ‘design’ in the Soviet Union was very limited; the Soviet equivalent was called ‘technical aesthetics’. The development of this concept was nonetheless an achievement, as the state was imposing Marxist and Leninist aesthetics as the only right approach to art. The first courses of technical aesthetics, introduced in technical schools, were the first attempts to speak about the phenomenon of design in Soviet society. My grandfather was a creator and lecturer of one of such courses at the Polytechnic Institute in Minsk in the mid 1960’s. He remembers the challenge of organising a course at which one could speak about Western modern art initiatives. This was one of the few well attended courses, even by students from other universities.
A big interest for the public were the few exhibitions of Western design. An exhibition of Finnish design took place in Minsk in 1974. Two years later the Belarusian public had a chance to see works of West German and British designers. Living in isolation created an increased excitement towards Western culture. Western culture came to the Soviet Union through the Socialist countries of Eastern Europe, who were much more linked traditionally with Europe. The Polish art magazines like “Sztuka” or “Projekt” often contained summaries in Russian and were very popular among artists. Thanks to these opportunities Belarusian artists were familiar with some key personalities in a Western art.
The Soviet Union had also its own infrastructure for design. The All-Soviet Scientific Institute of technical aesthetics had branches in the all former Soviet Republics. The branch in Minsk specialised more in designing tractors, agricultural machinery and received orders were from different parts of the USSR. The production of the “Neman” glass factory was of a high design standard. The factory received several international awards for its production, such as Grand-Prix at the International Expo in Brussels (1958) and others. A truck MAZ-630 was also awarded at this international exhibition.
An alternative and a new approach to design was formed in a community of young designers, who obtained qualifications from the Academy of Arts starting in 1982. The beginning of their professional career coincided with a relatively liberal period of Perestroika. The area in which they worked most extensively was poster art. The impact of Belarusian poster art during this period was significant because Belarusian artists were represented for the first time on the international stage. By creating challenging posters on environmental and social issues the artists confronted the totalitarian Soviet mentality. The poster art of the mid-1980’s and 1990’s was the area where Belarusian design was able to fully express itself. A creative potential for Belarusian designers and the use of new media in applied arts was, for the first time, on the international stage. By creating challenging posters on environmental and social issues the artists confronted the totalitarian Soviet mentality. The poster art of the mid-1980’s and 1990’s was the area where Belarusian design was able to fully express itself. A creative potential for Belarusian designers and the use of new media in applied arts was, for the first time, presented on a large scale.
There is a proverb, which says that the soldier who does not want to become a general is not a good soldier. It could be rephrased for a designer who wants his own ideas and projects to be represented on a large scale. Industrial design is such a dream for every designer. Although Belarus is considered an industrial country, it is obvious that our products are not competitive against Western products of the same kind. Besides quality, a good design is a reason for a customer to choose that particular product. Belarusian industrial production still relies on unpretentious tastes typical of the territory of the former Soviet Union. That is why the Belarusian designer's dream to reach an industry with creative decisions remains unrealistic. The luck of a good design with Belarusian origins is based on the way the whole economic and administrative system is structured. It doesn't matter that the industry, good educational facilities for studying design and professional designers themselves are all present.
The Soviet design model was working in a way where a lot of designing projects were undertaken, but almost none of them were transformed into practice. The transition to an independent Belarus was even worse for designers, because the design infrastructure was liquidated but the situation with the industry remained the same. The numerous attempts launched by the Belarusian Designers Union to convince the state that design needs state support and state development programs, remained without prevail. At the same time, the situation was in their favour as well, because now designers could work more for private initiatives, being more independent. A lot of them started to work extensively in advertising, interior and fashion design. New independent initiatives were launched, such as the appearance of a design magazine “Prodesign” which specialises every year in a design exhibition at the National Expo centre.
The situation of the last decade created a chance for artistic freedom for designers. A lot of them became famous for creating projects that represent something between design and applied arts. Interesting art objects were created. Of a huge interest is the project called “Project of a century,” where the most significant artists of the twentieth century were represented in the shape of an egg that was comparable in size to a dinosaur’s egg. You can distinguish Picasso, Dali, Malevich, Vasarely and other important artistic figures. The project was created by designers Tsesler and Voichanka duo and exhibited abroad for several times, including the stage of 51st Venice Biennale. Tsesler and Voichanka also created a chair as another creative solution.
By Yahor Sursky
One of the most prominent examples of Belarusian design in the last decade is a design of oil stations by Belarusian designer Shishko. Some of his projects received critical acclaim in the West. This is a good example of how Belarusian design can expand its activities abroad.
It is not clear if Belarusian design is going to be requested on a large scale in industrial production or not but it is always ready to demonstrate its creativity of thinking. This ability always remains a valuable and distinguishing feature for Belarusian design.
MAZ “Perestroika”, Stanislau Palanevich, 1988
United Nations General Assembly, Syarhei Sarkisau, 1982
8 March – International Women’s day, Uladzimir Tsesler, Syarhei Malisheuski, 1986
Design magazine “Prodesign”, Covers, 2003-2004
International specialized design exhibition in Minsk, 2008
Project of the century, Uladzimir Tsesler, Syarhei Voichanka, 1999