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Cold War Modern. Design 1945–1970 Transforms Curation and Collection of Twentieth-century Design

While exhibitions are to some extent events defined by their impermanence, Cold War Modern. Design 1945–1970 continues to influence what we mean by post-war design. 

In addition to challenging the assumptions, omissions and geographical emphases found in previous studies of mid-twentieth-century design through its publications and other research outcomes, the project has also transformed how design is curated and collected in museums across the world.

Most directly, institutions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, and the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, have extended their collections of post-war design to include objects first featured in Cold War Modern. This saw the V&A acquire Roman Modzelewski’s armchair (designed 1959–60), the earliest example of a fibreglass chair made in Poland, which was donated by the designer’s widow.

Supported by a four-year research project and part of the V&A’s major series of exhibitions about twentieth-century design, Cold War Modern was the result of a sustained collaboration between Professor Jane Pavitt, Dean of the School of Humanities, and Professor David Crowley, Head of Programme for Critical Writing in Art & Design. Deliberately conceived as an exhibition, the project explored the impact of the cold war on modern art, architecture and design, and brought its cutting-edge interpretations of the history of design to visitors across Europe.

In the tradition of the best public-facing research, Cold War Modern was the product of innovative scholarship. The result of a rigorous programme of primary research, the exhibition and its accompanying publications saw Crowley and Pavitt trawl archives and museum collections across Europe, and interview artists, architects and designers who were active at the time, including Vaclav Cigler, Francisco Infante, Jack Massey, Alex Mlynarcik, Ettore Sottsass and Günter Zamp Kelp.

In addition to shaping the exhibition’s content and intellectual objectives, this research actively addressed considerable gaps in existing scholarship. Particular attention was paid to Eastern Europe, which resulted in the development of new conceptual tools for understanding how architecture and design operated socially, culturally, economically and ideologically in the region.

Object-led research also restored to view the cold war roles of previously neglected objects and buildings. From the networks of telecommunication towers built across Eastern Europe to the discovery of surviving objects, including prototypes for plastic furniture and original architectural drawings, the exhibition featured objects and interiors that have considerably enriched our understanding of the era.

Significantly, Cold War Modern also engaged in material- and process-led research through restaging key works for the exhibition. Remaking ‘Oasis no. 7’, a large-scale inflatable devised by the Austrian architectural group Haus-Rucker-Co for the Documenta art fair in 1972, brought together the original architects with the exhibition’s designers and specialist contractors, Inflate Products Ltd.

Such advances in scholarship were more than matched by Cold War Modern’s wider impacts and the extent to which it brought new ways of thinking about post-war design to diverse audiences. Opening at the V&A in October 2008, Cold War Modern subsequently toured to MART Rovereto, Italy, and the National Gallery, Vilnius, Lithuania, where it formed the centrepiece of the city’s European Capital of Culture programme in 2009. In total, an estimated 183,000 visitors saw the exhibition across the three venues.

Through its supporting publications and rich programme of events, Cold War Modern, clearly demonstrated how complex design historical issues could be repackaged for different audiences. The exhibition’s core publication, Cold War Modern. Design 1945–1970, comprising a series of scholarly essays, was complemented by short books aimed at general readers and school children. The curators contributed further articles to popular history magazine, History Today, and professional art and design publications, such as Creative Review.

Similarly, while the exhibition in London was marked by a two-day conference that brought together expert speakers from nine countries, it was also accompanied by events, including film screenings, designers’ talks and public workshops, which were devised to appeal to wider publics.

Cold War Modern’s legacy is evident, too, in the projects that have adopted its pioneering combination of histories of politics, art and design. Directly influenced by the exhibition, the National Gallery in Vilnius and Tallinn City Art Gallery have established a research project to explore the history of modernism in the Baltic States in the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in the major survey show, Modernisation. Baltic Art, Architecture and Design. 1960–70s (2012), and a book, Our Metamorphic Futures. Design, Technical Aesthetics and Experimental Architecture in the Soviet Union, 1960–1980 (forthcoming).

Elsewhere, the Council of Europe initiative, The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945, saw Cold War Modern’s thinking and curatorial approach inform an exhibition of the same name, which toured to Berlin, Milan, Tallinn and Cracow between 2012 and 2014, and resulted in related projects in Prague, Sarajevo, Budapest and Thessaloniki (2014–15).

In the estimation of Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and an expert in twentieth-century design, Cold War Modern ‘fundamentally altered the way in which curators working in former Eastern-bloc countries, as well as a wider world of collectors and the interested public, viewed post-war design. No one looking at this era through its material culture can do so without reference to Cold War Modern and, with the publication of its accompanying catalogue, many former overviews of post-war design have been rendered significantly less useful or credible’.