When I was a teenager, I had very little awareness of art and design. I think my main ambition was probably to be a bureaucrat in the EU! I chose to study languages for my BA (Russian with Czech at Sheffield) because I didn’t want to give up history, or literature, and I didn’t want to commit to a specialism. I think it’s good to keep things open and studying languages is a really great way to do that.
I started thinking about Russian visual culture almost by chance. In my second year at university I spent the summer working in the Russian department at Sotheby’s. This was at the height of the 1990s Russian art boom, and I was a scruffy student from Sheffield, coming to a completely different world. That summer my eyes were opened to the importance of visual culture. At Sotheby’s I was working with painting, but I soon realised that it was the silverware, and the Fabergé, that was much more interesting to me: they seemed to have a social relevance that could be unpicked.
The following year I went abroad to St Petersburg. That trip also opened my eyes to Russian visual culture. I’d always been interested in the histories of socialism and communism, but after that trip I started looking for histories of Soviet design, and found that there weren’t that many. My supervisor at Sheffield suggested I look into the V&A/RCA History of Design programme. I think, perhaps unlike some of the other students, I came to the course with quite a specific set of questions: I knew I really wanted to study Soviet design.
The first essay that we were set was designed to get us to look very closely at a single object: we had to choose something from the V&A’s pre-1830s collection and write 9,000 words on it. I chose an educational children’s board game based on the Grand Tour, designed to teach young children about geography. For my next essay I was able to go back into Russian studies: I wrote about porcelain produced in 1920s Russia.
My second-year dissertation was on the revival of the industrial design profession in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. I focussed on the newly established All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE). Thanks to an award from The Montjoie Fund I was able to spend three months in Russia interviewing designers and carrying out archival research. I’m now doing a PhD in Sheffield. My doctoral thesis is on a design studio at Senzeh Lake, established in 1964 as a space for the development of design as an artistic, as opposed to scientific, discipline: this is a topic that sprang from my MA research.
My basic understanding of the notion of ‘critical design’, as well as the way that I work with objects, definitely came from that first year of the degree. All of those orientating frameworks that I was first introduced to there have been very important for my future work. As well as my PhD, I now also teach on the Critical and Historical Studies programme at the RCA, and make good use of the skills I acquired on my MA when supervising these students.
"The way that I work with objects definitely came from that first year of the degree. All of those orientating frameworks that I was first introduced to there have been very important for my future work."