Cold War Modern: An ideal for living

Superman, 1968 Cover image for Opus Magazine, by Roman Cieslewicz Copyright ADAP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Superman, 1968 Cover image for Opus Magazine, by Roman Cieslewicz Copyright ADAP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Up to London at the weekend to visit Cold War Modern: the V&A’s new exhibition on the politics of the cold war told, unusually, through the contemporary design, architecture and popular culture of the time.

My first impression was that it had bitten off far too much. To try and tell the broad sweep of world history in just four rooms – and from both sides of the Iron Curtain – would be a lot to ask of even a whole museum. The first of the four rooms was cluttered and claustrophobic and lit from above with red lighting to give the feel, perhaps, of a war room at battle stations. The curation seemed a mishmatch of product design, through Piccaso’s plates, Eero Saarinen’s chairs and a delicious Gio Ponti coffee machine all thrown in together and used as evidence that the superpowers sluggged it out in the battlefield of product design. Well, possibly, although the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller KR200, single-seat electric car was fascinating, the argument was unconvincing, partially because so many of the objects were too familiar. At times it felt a bit like an upscale flea market: enjoyable but not really enlightening.

From there on in, it got better. Particularly when the curators told the eastern side of the story where they were far more fluent. Here many of the objects were much more unfamiliar: everyday objects, like Lubomir Tomaszewski’s beautifully alien coffee service spoke volumes about how design and ideology worked hand-in-hand; while the architectural renderings of the studio of Ivan Zholtovski told of the Utopian dream many of the designers once had. His drawings of housing estates look as attractive now as they must have then with perfectly cut trees lining attractive public spaces. It struck me how empty the drawings and models of architects always appear. No washing despoiled the facades of Zholtovski’s buildings, for instance, and few people were shown to inhabit his developments, which were designed to house thousands: only a group of perfectly attired footballers play a game watched by a handful of spectators, while a solitary blue car parked in the middle distance indicated that his estate was populated at all.

Despite much good work, Cold War Modern was too busy for me.  Screens project cuttings from Cold War films: Solaris, Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Godard’s La Chinoise added little insight but much noise.  Great exhibitions tackling epic political narratives can work much better than this, I remember the Hayward’s Art and Power in the mid-nineties with much more affection. For me Cold War Modern, for all its boldness, failed to tell a coherent narrative, or to test is main premise:  that design was used primarily as an instrument of war. Saying here a bunch of chairs, there a model of a futurist city designed in a period lasting 25 years (the exhibition stops at 1969) isn’t enough for me.