Constructivism: the ism that just keeps givin’

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Compos­ition, c. 1921. Courtesy UEA Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design
No movement in art has found more favour with designers than the short-lived creative revolution that became known as Constructivism, writes Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Why should a design movement so strongly identified with a nation and a moment in history so remote from, and apparently irrelevant to, most of our lives speak so clearly to us? Is it just a question of nicking the style and ditching the politics?

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Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Compos­ition, c. 1921. Courtesy UEA Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design

No movement in art has found more favour with designers than the short-lived creative revolution that became known as Constructivism. Why this lasting impact? asks Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The handful of brilliant artists who came together around the time of the Russian Revolution succeeded to a large extent in devising a visual vocabulary that could take the place of language and so speak more directly to the people. Constructivism celebrated the anonymous hero-worker of the new communist state. Its simple geometric elements, assembled into complex structures, suggested (or in the case of the few realised projects, memorialised) the teamwork of men hefting steel beams. The aesthetic was both more abstract and more coded than anything that had gone before – an apparent impossibility that in the event caused the Soviet public no difficulty at all. Red and black, circles and triangles, steel and glass worked then and they work now. “Away from the utopian, revolutionary politics, there is still an engagement of these forms with the eye and mind that is tremendously stimulating,” says Amanda Geitner, head of collections at the Sainsbury Centre which is currently staging Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collection, a major show of Constructivist work. Their pure geometry seems to avoid any reference to nature and yet has the power to beguile us.

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“We have seen a tide of increasingly jejune depoliticised versions of Constructivism perpetrated by western graphic designers over the years. The most conspicuous – and egregious – recent example of this is the Franz Ferdinand album You Can Have It So Much Better [above, designed by Matthew Cooper] which reworks a famous Rodchenko photomontage of 1924 for a Moscow publisher in which Lilya Brik, the muse of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, joy­ously cries out ‘books’ [below]”

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But it still seems odd that a design movement so strongly identified with a nation and a moment in history so remote from, and apparently irrelevant to, most of our lives should speak so clearly to us. One obvious explanation for why it does is that it has been easy to nick the style and dump the politics. We have seen a tide of increasingly jejune depoliticised versions of Constructivism perpetrated by western graphic designers over the years. The most conspicuous – and egregious – recent example of this is the Franz Ferdinand album You Can Have It So Much Better which reworks a famous Rodchenko photomontage of 1924 for a Moscow publisher in which Lilya Brik, the muse of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, joy­ously cries out “books”. By inserting the words “franz ferdinand” in their place, the band has scored an ugly victory for commercial egotism over intellectual idealism. The spurious revolutionary aura of the cover is all the worse because it comes so late in the day, years after the noted critic Hal Foster skewered the whole 1980s trend of “fetish­istic Constructivism”.

Steven Heller, the long-time art director of the New York Times Book Review, well remembers that period, “when you couldn’t turn around with­out seeing a lame version of Lissitzky. I remember a Sherlock Holmes poster done by [the illustrator] Paul Davis. That made no contextual sense.” Good designers, such as Davis, could at least marry the formal vocabulary of Constructivism with their own language, but most could not, so that now, says Heller, “it’s no more than a commercial code”.

In the Soviet Union at the same time, some designers were trying to keep alive not just the style but also the spirit of the movement. The Paper Architecture group formed at the beginning of the 1980s ironically took for their name the sneering label applied to the Constructivists during Stalin’s Terror. Fundamentally out of step with the Brezhnev era, their projects had even less chance of getting built than Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International [below], Constructivism’s greatest icon in three dimensions. Fantastic now rather than utopian, they did however possess a critical edge rarely seen further west.

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Vladimir Tatlin’s concept for the never built Monument to the Third International

In the west, a few designers have sought to exploit Constructivism for more than just its easily imitated style. For them, there is genuine affection for a look associated so closely with political ideal­ism. Their hope is that through a kind of ideo­logical osmosis their work communicates their belief in a cause. “It doesn’t hurt that there was a political component to the movement,” observes New York designer Alex Isley. “People believed in something that was radical in its day. That’s seductive.”

One of the most striking examples of this influence occurred with Red Wedge, a collective of musicians, including Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, who sought to excite young people about left politics at the height of the Thatcher era. The name comes from Lissitzky’s diagrammatic 1919 image, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge [below], representing (two years after the fact) the (red) Bolsheviks driving out the (white) imperial regime. Neville Brody created the group’s logo, but carefully avoided too literal a reuse of the Constructivist design. The black, white and red, type-only cover of Naomi Klein’s anti-consumerist bestseller No Logo can be taken as another example of Constructivism indirectly used to create the right ethos. And of course, it’s all done more literally on every second vodka label and Shostakovich CD.

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Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919

It is hard to decide which of these factions is ultimately more naive – those who use the style alone, or those who seek the right-on association with revolutionary Leninism. Many designers may be idealists of one sort or another, but the idea of any political campaign coming with its own off-the-peg design style these days seems wrongheaded to say the least.

“I was always a bit wary about this nostalgia for Constructivism,” says the New York-based Russian émigré designer Constantin Boym, pointing out that the idea of nostalgia for this movement of all movements is quite an oxymoron. Pale western imitators may be happy to steal the look with the ideology considered as an optional extra. “I was always attracted by the opposite approach,” says Boym, whose work bears no stylistic resemblance to Constructivism, but shares with it an irreverence for authority and a populist appeal. “Obviously, their ideology is hopelessly obsolete, not only in a political sense. Everything was about ‘usefulness’, and artistic expression was largely discredited. Yet there was some general democratic idea in the air – ‘Art for everyone! Art for the people!’ – which is appealing even today, maybe especially today. In the time of Marc Newson and Ron Arad six-digit (or seven-digit?) furniture sales, one is longing for some kind of artistic work that is more accessible.”

By this yardstick, the Constructivists’ goal is today perhaps most nearly approached by Ikea. The Swedish company’s furniture and household objects are simple, sparing, and sometimes delightful. They are useful and affordable, too, and the designers are credited – even if that leaves many buyers none the wiser. Yes, Ikea bizarrely seems to fulfil Tatlin’s cry to chuck out the Romanov chintz: “Not towards the old, nor towards the new – but towards the necessary!” But somehow it doesn’t feel like Art for the People. There isn’t any sense of the struggle that would warrant the capital letters.

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Could Ikea be today’s most faithful adherent to Constructivist principles?

What’s missing? “I think it is a general compla­cency, lack of pathos, absence of criticism or any kind of controversy,” says Boym. “On a deeper level, avant-garde is only avant-garde when it counters some other established order. Since Ikea has won all over the world, it’s become that established order. Nowadays, to do Art, one almost has to take a stand against Ikea, or at least provide a critique of some kind.” For something in this vein, Boym points me to Domestic, a French design collaborative set up by Stéphane Arriubergé, Christine Montard and Massimiliano Iorio in 2005 that began life with the Vynil [sic] collections of wall stickers intended to allow people scope for self-expression – and hence for subversion of conventionally tasteful surroundings. Rodchenko and other artists and designers of the Productivist movement that was the immediate forerunner of Constructivism counted among their ideals a wish “to reduce the number of objects in the human environment, to rethink and simplify the material qualities of everyday life”.

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Domestic’s Vynil collections of wall stickers intended to allow people scope for self-expression – and hence for subversion of conventionally tasteful surroundings

This credo chimes with us today. But contemporary design companies concerned to see greater environmental sustainability in their work see little advantage in using a monolithic style to get the message across. For example, the London communications design firm thomas.matthews may have used red-and-white bold caps for the stark fascia of their “No Shop” for Friends of the Earth [CR April 07], but elsewhere their aesthetic derives directly from the constraint of using recycled materials. “Construct­ivism appeals to designers because its references are graphic, and graphic art appealed to the Constructivists because it was the means to mass communication for all,” explains Sophie Thomas. “The Constructivists were looking for behavioural change within their society and saw graphics as a way of integrating art into the new society they were building. The worry for the designer now should be how we can sell reduced consumption or educate people to make informed decisions to be able to survive and adapt.”

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“Construct­ivism appeals to designers because its references are graphic, and graphic art appealed to the Constructivists because it was the means to mass communication for all,” says Sophie Thomas of Thomas Matthews

There can be no final answer to the question of style and intent in design. But at the height of the 1980s ‘Constructivist revival’, Brody had given careful consideration to the matter. He told me in an extended interview: “What matters is that design is a way of reflecting social undercurrents. The Futurists supported Mussolini, whereas Rodchenko was a socialist revolutionary. I draw a sense of dynamism and optimism with no intention of a political connotation. If you look at some of Rodchenko’s paintings, you’ll see he anticipated abstract expressionism by a good 50 or 60 years. It’s so abstract, it’s completely apolitical. Rodchenko was more about humanism and humanitarianism than communism.”

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The Face, 1984, art directed by Neville Brody

Unlike the Bauhaus teachers who fled when Hitler came to power, the Constructivists mostly stayed in the Soviet Union, making what sense they could of Stalin’s regime. Rodchenko and Lissitzky both eked out their days producing wartime propa­ganda. But by this time, their ideas had been thoroughly assimilated by the Bauhaus and brought westward. And this provides one final reason for the enduring influence of Constructiv­ism. The pedagogic inheritance of western design schools from the Bauhaus, and from Vkhutemas, its Soviet counterpart, means that their associated styles are now deeply embedded. “For me,” says Brody, “what happened between 1914 and 1935 has dictated everything that has happened since in any area of design.”

Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, Isley notes: “Many graphic designers get excited about Constructivism as students. It’s inspiring to students to see how nonrepresent­ational shapes can be laid out to make a pleasing and dynamic pattern. Constructivism can be seen in the history books as proof positive that what designers do can have meaning and change people’s ideas. As everyone knows, you can’t go wrong with red and black. You don’t have to be able to draw, and you can use a couple of basic typefaces and make your own powerful-looking designs.” Heller agrees, suggesting that even the laziest borrowing can serve an important purpose. “Despite the ignorant uses of style, there is a need to recreate history if only to embrace knowledge. Writers write in the style of other authors, just as artists paint in historic styles. Constructivism – which is an amalgam of geometries – is one of those entry points for designers to understand history.” 

This article appears in the August issue of Creative Review. Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collectionis at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, until December 14. Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ latest book is Panicology, published by Viking Penguin

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