Soviet Space Graphics: a cosmic journey to Cold War-era Russia

Curated by Moscow Design Museum’s Alexandra Sankova, this new book is more than just a reminder of the Space Race – it also serves as a visual cue to the fascinating graphics that accompanied it.

Date
31 March 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

During the 20th Century, in Cold War-era Russia, there was a hasty competition between the Soviet Union and the United States to achieve spaceflight. Known as the 20th Century Space Race, the first to reach this goal was the Soviet Union, which successfully launched Sputnik 1 in 1957 and sent its first human into space in 1961.

Progressing alongside these interstellar developments was its indoctrinating counterpart, Soviet space design. Here, scientific discoveries, technological innovations and extraterrestrial characters played protagonists to the Soviet Space graphics that dominated the media at this time – particularly in form of posters, magazines, books and brochures, due to the fact that they were the most effective means of propaganda.

This focus point forms the basis to a new publication from Phaidon, aptly titled Soviet Space Graphics. Comprising more than 250 illustrations, the book has been compiled and curated by Alexandra Sankova, the director and founder of the Moscow Design Museum, established in 2012 with the aim to preserve and celebrate the rich design heritage of Russia. Alexandra comments on the vast amount of design museums in different countries – two per country, to be exact, besides London that has five. “There are so many design museums across the world, and in Russia, there has never been a single one,” she tells It’s Nice that of her motives for launching her own. “As design students at the university, we had nowhere to go and see exhibitions on design, or to study design following real examples. We were all waiting for a design museum to appear in Russia, and at some point, I thought, ‘there is no point in waiting, we need to found the museum ourselves!’”

GallerySoviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR, published by Phaidon

Above

Young Technician, issue 7, 1968, illustration by R. Avotin. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 105)

Initially, Alexandra and her team of friends, designers, architects and curators decided to launch the museum with a focus on “agitation and propaganda”, delving into the trains of the 1920s and the Russian avant-garde artists that were moving across the country to educate and enlighten people. This led to their first exhibition project on Soviet design, “a subject that is absolutely unknown and underestimated, even in Russia,” she says, counting for its great success with more than 160,000 visitors.

While working on this exhibition, the museum had become acquainted with Soviet designers who were donating their private archives and collections. “A real treasure trove,” the museum collection contains a mass of popular science publications from the period between the 1920s and 1980s. “My dad, his friends and their parents were subscribed to these magazines as children,” she says, “and copies or filings could be found in almost every Soviet family.” Alexandra continues to explain how, for most Soviet people, these publications were part of their everyday life, with covers featuring innovative projects and ideas of that era. Then, following an exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre where the gallery had sent a number of Soviet books and magazines, Alexandra instigated the idea to create a separate project. And that’s where Soviet Space Graphics began.

Within, the illustrations are divided into four parts. First, there’s Space Exploration, a selection of images dedicated to the act itself and “dreams people had before they started to explore space.” This is followed by Cosmic Pioneers, with astronauts and human activities in space. Then there’s Future Visions, which sees a selection of imagery of the “future of life in space and on earth,” and finally a section on Alternative Worlds – imagery that depicts life on other planets, “below the Earth’s surface and in the ocean as imagined by people.” Alexandra tells us how there was a mammoth archive to sift through for this project, and the final selection was chosen with difficulty. But with it being such an incredible topic, visually and contextually, to be able to present almost 100 years of history was always going to be a tricky task.

A recurring theme throughout this archaic (but completely relevant) imagery is that they all depict a new kind of reality, one “that had nothing to do with their real environment.” Fantastical and highly conceptual, each has been designed and illustrated with various motifs – “textile factories produced fabrics printed with stars and rockets, the furniture industry produced satellite-shaped three-legged stools, tables and lamps,” says Alexandra, while “children played with all-terrain vehicles, moon rovers and astronaut dolls.”

Not only is this publication a sure reminder of the era of the Space Race, but it also serves as a visual cue to the fascinating graphics that accompanied it. “I think people of all ages will find something interesting there,” Alexandra concludes, stating how the works and the topics they permeate are ever more so relevant now. “We are discussing ecology, alternative energy, reasonable consumption, overpopulation and waste recycling. Back then, it was regarded as futurology, but for us, it’s already the reality.”

GallerySoviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR, published by Phaidon

Above

Young Technician, issue 10, 1964, illustration by R. Avotin for the article ‘Space Greenhouse’, which hypothesizes on the creation of an environment suitable for growing plants in space. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 226)

Above

Technology for the Youth, issue 11, 1965, ‘Satellite for Everyone’, illustration by O. Yakovlev. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 186)

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Knowledge is Power, issue 2, 1949, illustration by K. Artseulov for an interview with Vasily Romanyuk, the first person to complete a parachute jump from the Earth’s stratosphere, at a height of 13,000 metres (42,650 feet). Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 91)

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Youth, issue 4, 1976, illustration by V. Kotlyar. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 65)

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Technology for the Youth, issue 4, 1961, illustration by G. Pokrovsky for the article ‘Steps to the Stars’, depicting a spacecraft passing over Mars. A system of intricate inflatable structures is attached to the tail of the craft, comprising a mirror for photography, a telescope, a radio relay antenna and a solar power plant. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 54)

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Knowledge is Power, issue 10, 1960, illustration by V. Viktorov depicting space dogs Belka and Strelka. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 30)

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Radio, issue 6, 1956, illustration by N. Grishin, for the article ‘Television of the Future’, which discusses the potential for communications satellites to transform television. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 23)

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Technology for the Youth, issue 5, 1969, ‘Oh, that Mysterious Moon!’, illustration by R. Avotin for an article that presents photographs from the Luna 9 unmanned space mission. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 209)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and continued to work with us on a freelance basis. In November 2019 she joined the team again, working with us as a Staff Writer on Mondays and Tuesdays. She's contactable on aa@itsnicethat.com.

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