Five years ago the V&A attracted bumper crowds for its Art Deco exhibition, with sellout crowds flocking to see the eclectic mix of everything from footage of Josephine Baker dancing to radio sets the size of an average sideboard. Using the same template of a mix of everything from cars to posters, the museum has staged shows focusing on Modernism and Surrealism. This year, design on both sides of the Cold War, and the result is stunning. It’s rare to find something so interesting you don’t once feel bored in a ninety minute visit, and even rarer to find something so fascinating and expertly curated that you curse the fact you haven’t planned your visit better and allowed yourself double the time.
Like the previous exhibitions, each of the rooms of Cold War Modern is divided into smaller subsections that focus on areas as diverse as the Berlin Blockade and the race to outdo each other not only in the space race, but in the race to design the best washing machine known to man. There are moments some revisionist historians would probably prefer to ignore, such as the Czech poster that welcomes the Soviets to Prague with open arms or the IBM corporate film that never rises above (nervously intoned) propaganda, but in presenting these the curators remind us that not everything was as settled and inevitable as our post-Berlin Wall world seduces us into believing. What the exhibition makes clear is that the world that emerged from the Second World War was one desperate for a utopian vision, and design became a crucial battleground in the struggle between the Soviets and the Americans to convince the world that their vision was the best.
Put simply, a well-designed object was a weapon for the hearts and minds of the enemy, a fact reinforced by the way that many of the early designs here came out of processes and from design templates first developed during the war: the famous Eames chair was made possible by experiments in moulding plywood to make splints for US sailors; the Vespa was developed from motorbikes used by US parachutists; the Messerschmidt car had a steering wheel designed to look like a fighter plane’s controls, its driver still at war as he cruised the streets in his streamlined cockpit.
The highpoint of this design war appears to have come in the late 50s with the American National Exhibition in 1959, where Muscovites queued for hours to see ‘typical’ American kitchens, living rooms etc., and where actors daily played out scenarios including rock and roll dances, barbecues and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, white weddings. It’s the kind of thing that would send Baudrillard into paroxysms of joy, but the exhibition soon takes a more sinister turn as the design war shifts its focus from kitchens back to the military-industrial.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall signalled the move away from utopia to the decades where the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine ensured the world was only ever minutes away from nuclear dystopia, but the exhibition shows that even at those times, design was pushing the boundaries of the possible, both on earth and in space. A whole room is devoted to the space race, reminding us that the Sputnik satellite was a cause for world celebration, with people all over the globe tracking its signal on their radio sets, but also how dangerous the space race was for its protagonists – a cosmonaut’s suit on display was reputedly so rigid that its wearer could barely fit through the airlock after his space walk. It also shows how the space race captured the world’s imagination: one of the finest decisions by the curators is the showing of 2001: Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris on opposing screens. Yet it wasn’t only in the film studios that space left its mark: a subsection is devoted to the teletowers of east and west that sprang up at this time, permanently grounded rockets such as the Jested tower in Czechoslovakia and the Post Office tower in London.
The final section of the exhibition looks at the way the Cold War, and particularly the space race, made us aware of the fragility of the Earth as an ecosystem. It’s a sobering note to end on after the dizzying excitements of rockets and space age clothing, but one that reminds the viewer how our present is still very much shaped by this period where two superpowers tried to win our hearts for the future.