Designed to kill

The Design Museum has announced the addition of 13 more design ‘classics’ to its collection, one of which is the world’s most prolific killing machine, the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle

The Design Museum has announced the addition of 13 more design ‘classics’ to its collection, one of which is the world’s most prolific killing machine, the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle

Designers like to envisage their fundamental role as one of making the world a better place. How does the signature work of Mikhail Kalashnikov fit in to that noble mission? In 1947, Kalashnikov won a Soviet competition to design a new sub-machine gun for the Red Army, fresh from its victory in Word War II. The AK-47 went on to become the principal weapon of one side or the other in virtually every war since. It is estimated to have caused most of the 300,000 combat deaths in all the many wars of the 1990s and is still a fixture in conflicts the world over.


Kalashnikov in 1949

Thanks to its simple, rugged design (famously, it has only eight moving parts), the AK-47 could be mass produced quickly in vast numbers. Once the Soviets started shipping it out to their client states during the Cold War, replicas soon began to be manufactured around the world. This simplicity also meant that it could be operated by almost anyone, without extensive training. Child soldiers, terrorists and, yes, freedom fighters – the AK-47 was, and continues to be, their weapon of choice.

In a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Kalashnikov acknowledged the grisly legacy he had bestowed upon the world: “I made it to protect the motherland. And then they spread the weapon [around the world] – not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and it began to walk all on its own and in directions I did not want.”


Witness poster by Pentagram’s Harry Pearce

However, he argued “the positive has outweighed the negative because many countries use it to defend themselves. The negative side is that sometimes it is beyond control. Terrorists also want to use simple and reliable arms. But I sleep soundly. The fact that people die because of an AK-47 is not because of the designer, but because of politics.”

There is no doubt that the AK-47 fulfills all the criteria for a ‘design classic’. It has a distinct form that has been copied many times over. It is known throughout the world. It is popular and has withstood the test of time. It has even crossed over into popular culture, with references in song and the art world (Italian artist Antonio Riello, for example, has consistently employed it in his work, shown below). You can find it on T-shirts and album sleeves. It truly is an iconic piece of design.



The rifle sits alongside such seemingly benign objects as the Sony Walkman and the Olivetti Valentine typewriter in the Museum’s current This is Design show. A plaque next to the rifle lists some of the conflicts in which it has been used and notes the deaths for which it carries the blame as the curators acknowledge the horrific effectiveness of Kalashnikov’s work.



But should it be celebrated in the Design Museum? ‘Celebrated’ is the wrong word, but it is important that it is there. Design cannot ignore those aspects of the profession that it finds uncomfortable. It’s not all Eames loungers and Alessi tea pots. Wounded in the war, Kalashnikov started work on his design when in hospital, spurred on by the memory of facing the Germans’ superior weapons. He always maintained that he would have been happiest left in peace to invent tools for farmers as he had done before the war. But designing the gun that eventually bore his name was, for him, a noble cause – he was saving his country, or so he thought.

Many of the other 12 items selected for the Design Museum’s permanent collection fit more comfortably into our notion of design as a benevolent or entertaining practice – Kinneir and Calvert’s motorway signage, for example, or The Face magazine. But the AK-47 is a reminder that design can have other consequences.

After the death of Steve Jobs, a great deal was written (including by me) about how he and Apple had changed the world. But the global significance of the iPod on the lives of the world’s citizens pales in comparison with that of the AK-47. It’s a grim, depressing thought, but, post-war at least, did any designer have a greater impact worldwide on the Twentieth Century than Mikhail Kalashnikov?



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