Political history and popular culture: Researching Baltic design

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Triin Jerlei, a postdoctoral researcher at Vilnius University, Lithuania, and graduate of University of Brighton, shares her new research project in the history of design. 

I received my doctorate from Brighton University in 2016, following my MA in History and Design and Culture, for research on Soviet Estonian industrial designers from the 1960s until the 1980s. Until recently most of my research focused on Estonian local design under the Soviet power as a case study in the development of a ‘Western Soviet’ design system. However, in my research I noticed that too often I was comparing Soviet Estonian regional design systems and processes with those taking place in capitalist countries or in Moscow as the ‘centre’, instead of other so-called ‘peripheral’ Soviet states. Therefore it became my dream to conduct a transnational comparative study between the design systems of two former Soviet states.

In general there is not a lot of research on Soviet design systems, especially in the late Socialist period. While Stalinism and the Thaw are easier to define both in their political tendencies and their chronological span, Late Socialism, often also called Stagnation, is a complex era characterized by different processes of globalization and regionalization throughout the vast Soviet Union. As remaining isolated was not sustainable, foreign trade and tourists played an increasing role in the economy, facilitating  the spread of global trends especially in the Western Soviet regions. A complex combination of various political, economical and cultural processes shaped the development of regional design cultures, which is the topic of my research.

The delivery of a transnational project on the history of several former Soviet republics was complicated by political factors, as archives are not fully accessible in many former Asian Soviet republics. Additionally it was important that I could read the local language relatively quickly, which is easiest with a language that uses Latin script. For these reasons I chose Lithuania as my second country of comparison and I decided to focus on the construction known as ‘Baltic design’. While Estonia and Lithuania were similarly situated on the Western border of the Soviet Union and had close historical and cultural connections, there are still significant differences between the two countries, which this research will clarify to provide a better understanding of the interrelations between different ‘peripheries’.

I was incredibly lucky to receive funding from the Lithuanian Council of Sciences. Thanks for this, I have been able to take up a two-year postdoctoral position at the Kaunas faculty of Vilnius University, supervised by Professor Virginija Jurėnienė. The decision to move to Lithuania instead of working in Estonia was deliberate, not only to learn about the history of Lithuanian design, but also to understand its present state and its situation in the wider culture. Additionally it has been exciting to get to know a new local research environment and to discover more about the general cultural scene.

So far, I have discovered that in spite of close connections between the Baltic states in the Soviet Union, the design systems differ in some key aspects. These variations are largely caused by differences in local design traditions. A good illustration is souvenir production. Both countries used wood as a locally available material, but where Estonian souvenirs were often useful objects (or replicas of objects that had once served a function), in Lithuania one finds numerous small wooden figurines, often based on folklore. This difference between minimalism in Estonia and rich ornament in Lithuania can also be seen in other fields of design. In terms of the organization of design systems, the design institutions of the two states were connected and cooperated closely, but had different structures.

I hope that this research will contribute to global design history by diversifying the understanding of different local stories of design. The ‘mundane’ fields of design and the systems behind everyday material culture are often at risk of being forgotten. One of the most exciting aspects of working with the materials from the 1970s and 1980s has been the role that these objects still play in living memories and environments, thanks to their ordinariness and ubiquity.

P.S. As a part of my Fellowship I am organizing a symposium in Kaunas, on the subject of design and creative economies. Details can be found here: http://www.knf.vu.lt/en/making-and-shaping-things-in-creative-economies

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