In hindsight, it was one of the more fitting locales for a cold-war standoff. While touring a mock-up of a gleaming General Electric kitchen, American Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of communism versus capitalism. The year was 1959, and the two leaders were in a Moscow hall attending the American National Exhibition, part of a U.S.-U.S.S.R. cultural exchange. While standing in one of the four kitchens brought over for the show (at a cost of $3.6 million), Nixon began boasting about things like TV dinners, Cadillac convertibles and lawn mowers. Khrushchev countered that at least Soviets concentrated on things that really mattered. "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?" Nixon asked the Soviet leader.
The "Kitchen Debate," as it became known, was significant because it not only opened dialogue between the two superpowers but also demonstrated that the cold war was a competition over more than space and arms. In "Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970," London's V & A museum argues that the hegemonic struggles between the Soviets and the Americans were as much about landscape, design and architecture as about weapons. The show (through Jan. 2009, then traveling to Italy and Lithuania), explores how the Soviet Union and the West competed for technological, social and aesthetic dominance. "The absolute magnetic power about architecture and design is that it is about human experience, [so] the idea that the home might be a battleground had this very powerful way of capturing the imagination," says cocurator David Crowley.
In the period following World War II, there were high hopes for peace and prosperity, but also the challenges of rebuilding a demolished Europe and the nagging nuclear threat. Artists, designers and architects took these concerns onboard. In "$he" (1958-61), an oil-and-paint collage on wood by British pop artist Richard Hamilton, a surrealist housewife stands beside her refrigerator amid a kitchen apocalypse: an appliance resembling a cross between a toaster and a vacuum cleaner has shot off projectiles and appears to be leaking blood, which the fridge is sopping up. The work is a witty riposte to the sanitized image of Western suburban life.
The growing use of malleable plastics captured the drama as both sides raced "to fashion the world in new shapes," says Crowley. A 1960 Viktor Koretsky poster shows oil pipelines and a superimposed hand spilling out particles that become Soviet-designed spoons, a telephone, glasses and plates. The Western answers show up in a plastic West German record player (1963), and a 1951 Vespa scooter from Italy. Superpower architecture was also a duel: there is a drawing of the never constructed Zaryadye skyscraper, meant to be the eighth and final of the Stalin skyscrapers erected to celebrate Moscow's 800th anniversary in 1947. The seven that were completed forever changed the city's skyline. Telecommunication towers that sprang up from London to East Berlin gave the cities a futuristic look.
The engaging exhibit veers away from its main design thesis in sections on space travel and revolution. And it peters out at the end, as if the curators weren't sure how to wrap it up. But given the current state of relations between Russia and the West, this show is a relevant reminder of how much—and how little—the world has moved on.