Author Jim Lewis does a beautiful job describing the metamorphosis of a conversation, to an idea… all the way until that idea becomes a MUSEUM! We at Unbranded Designs can understand this process, both in creating a business and in designing furniture. The story of the Moscow Design Museum is one of creativity and perseverance, and serves as an inspiration for everyone working to turn an idea into reality. Read the article in it’s entirety below!
New Kids On the Bloc
This is how it happens: you’re young, you’re frustrated, you have very little to lose. You and your friends sit around a shabby studio, drinking and talking excitedly about what you’re going to do. The talk turns into a plan. You meet someone with a little bit of pull, show them the plan, get another meeting; and you’re talking, always talking. Soon enough, someone says yes, you have a sponsor or two, a commitment, and then — quickly — you have resources and a program, and then a building, and suddenly you’re an institution. You are, in this instance, the Moscow Design Museum, and you’re about to open, in a huge and magnificent 200-year-old building called the Manege, right by the Kremlin. It’s like dreaming up an exhibition space over whiskey shots in the East Village and finding yourself, a year later, in a building on the National Mall.
There are four core members of the team that founded the Design Museum. They range in age from early 30s to 40; half are men and half are women. All have held multiple jobs: curator, architect, designer, journalist, artist, teacher. They’re very much a crew: they hustle and joke a bit, they pass the conversation to each other quickly and easily. The energy never flags, the rhythm rarely falters, and the effect is both charming and relentless. Here in Moscow there’s opportunity, and quite a lot of money looking for somewhere to go.
Their M.C. is Alexandra Sankova, a 33-year-old graphic designer with an unnervingly direct gaze and a never-stop energy. In the two and a half days I spent in her company — through dinner, a trip out to the country, a tour of the Manege, and a very late night of very heavy drinking in the half-lit studio of one of her colleagues (Velvet Underground on the stereo, bottles of Stolichnaya lined up on the table, books being pulled off the shelves and passed around) — she almost never stopped talking, in more or less fluent English, until the sheer wear of it turned into a curious kind of charm, almost childlike in its lack of guile.
A couple of years ago she was working for the Dutch Embassy, as a cultural affairs adviser, when she started dreaming of a museum of her own, one that would house the history of Russia in objects of everyday use. Why wasn’t there already such a thing? The Soviet avant-garde was central to Modernism: El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko, working off ideas from Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, both designed revolutionary posters, and Constructivist architecture had a strong influence on the Bauhaus. And even more ordinary objects bore that curious and unmistakable air of isolation and striving. You know a Russian radio when you see one: you recognize the lines, at once sleek and ungainly. You recognize the off-kilter futurism.
But in their country of origin, these things were ignored — the more radical work suppressed by later Soviet regimes, the more banal forgotten when perestroika reset Russian history. All that’s survived in consciousness are baubles like the video game Tetris, campy artifacts like the Lomo camera and the Lada car, and — perhaps the most enduring design to come out of the Eastern bloc — the Kalashnikov rifle.
In fact, when the Soviet Union collapsed, its design collapsed with it. Fashion, furniture, technology: “Everything is imported,” Sankova told me, her eyes widening in frustration. “Ikea is making incredible business here.” But the last few years have brought a half dozen books in English about this lost and unremembered world; and now here’s the museum crew, the youngest of them too young to remember the years before 1989. They see Soviet-era design not as propaganda but simply as patrimony. “Part of the purpose of the museum was to change perception,” Natalia Goldchteine told me. She is 23. “We wanted the museum to give context to everyday things, because to say that Russia doesn’t have design history is incorrect. It may be good or bad but it’s still there, we should know it, it’s our history.”
Sankova and her crew started putting together a prospectus, forming alliances, setting up meetings with potential sponsors. They began interviewing anyone they could find who still remembered the old days, and collecting what existed — posters, tableware, vacuum cleaners — in some cases simply by taking them from their parents. They’re still trying to hunt down whatever’s out there, but it won’t be easy: a lot has been discarded, magazines and journals tossed, buildings in disrepair. As we sat in the plaza of one of Moscow’s infamous Seven Sisters — Stalinist schlock, though it frankly looks quite nice these days — someone pulled out a laptop and started showing me the collection they’d managed to put together so far: radios and clocks, flatware, reusable chain link grocery bags, all cleaned up and looking new. Later, they took me to see a fine old Constructivist apartment house with a radical, almost Le Corbusier-like design, and we weren’t so lucky. It was out by the American embassy and it was practically a ruin, though people still lived there. We couldn’t get inside, which was fine by me, since it looked like it was ready to collapse.
This is the way it happens: you get one contact from another, you keep talking, you remain both focused and flexible. At first the idea was to outfit a large bus as a mobile exhibition space and drive it around from town to town. The museum’s founders collected more than a dozen supporters and partners. “We said, ‘We are going to go to the banks, to the foundations, we need endowment funds, we need private sponsorships, we’re going to run Kickstarter campaigns,’ ” Sankova told me. “It was like an old Party meeting and we were Young Pioneers, and we said, ‘We are ready. We want. We will do. We know how to do.’ ” The waters began to part: registration with the Moscow city government is typically a slow process through a bureaucratic thicket. But Sankova met a man on an airplane who turned out to be an adviser to the minister of justice; she gave him her pitch, he steered her in the right direction, and a month later they were on their way.
“We are ready. We want.” And then they got. The Manege is a stately edifice, built after the War of 1812 — 100,000 square feet in the center of Moscow. When it wasn’t empty, it was mostly stocked with trade shows and conventions. Then last year the city appointed a new minister of culture, who decided the building was better used as an exhibition space. In July, he chose a curator to run the place, to whom Sankova had reached out months earlier; the curator immediately chose the design museum as one of four institutions to occupy the lower level. The museum’s first show, “Soviet Design: 1950s to 1980s,” opens this month; 10 more exhibitions are planned, on everything from film posters to Olympic graphics.
The Moscow Design Museum has gone from idea to reality in record time. The elements of setting up such an institution — collecting, planning budgets and shows, insurance, coming up with a look for posters and signage, holding press conferences — have been foreshortened drastically, and as the opening nears, the process is gaining speed. But with each new deadline, the crew behind the museum seems to get more animated and more organized — and to double their support. How did it happen so quickly and without a misstep? “We will do. We know how to do,” they said to anyone who would listen. If someone came to you like that, wouldn’t you give them what they asked for? You’d think they were the ones you’d been waiting for, and you’d give them anything they wanted.