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New Ideas: Estonian Design after the Second World War / Kai Lojakas

From the catalog of the exhibition "Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe"

This article centers on several important milestones in the history of Estonian design in the decades following the Second World War, and provides an overview of the key developments that impacted the shift from product based design to a wider range of design-related activities.

The Art Products Factory (Kombinat)

By the mid-1950s, improving the general standard of living became a major concern in Soviet society. New residential districts composed of standardized housing projects were built throughout Eastern Europe, while the fields of applied art and design gained new recognition as an important means of achieving this objective.

In Estonia, this new concern with art and design led to the establishment of the Art Products
Factory - an enterprise consisting of a number of small workshops, and based on the successful model of nationalized business enterprises established in the 1930s. The Art Products Factory was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and involved the reorganization of several decorative arts workshops under the supervision of the Applied Arts Center of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. These workshops were relatively small art studios where most of the work was performed manually; due to the artists' highly developed technical skills, they were able to create high-quality products that were successfully marketed abroad, and formed the basis for a new production model.

The Art Products Factory was part of the Estonian Artists' Union, which in turn was a branch of the Artists Union of the USSR. This ambitious enterprise was charged with providing suitable working conditions for the artists, marketing the objects they created, and adapting the handcrafted prototypes produced in the workshops in small series for industrial production. The factory was organized into eight studios specializing in different materials such as textile, metal, leather, and so forth; it also operated a series of shops known as "salons," where its products were sold. For a period of almost two decades, the Art Products Factory thus mediated between the world of hand-crafted objects and industrially manufactured products.

Art into Industry

The post-war slogan "More products!" soon evolved into "More beautiful products!" In this context, artists were viewed as important agents charged with introducing this desired aesthetic shift into the sphere of everyday life. Applied artists were traditionally trained at the State Art Institute, where they specialized in industrial production. During this period, the discourse on design centered on the need to thoroughly engage these artists in the production process, and on the results of the failure to do so.

During the 1950s, the applied arts were seen as a platform for creating successful industrial products; over time, however, they came to be viewed as an elite artistic genre that was primarily showcased in the framework of various exhibitions. The reasons for this shift may have to do with the general lack of materials, which precluded mass production; the high price of such products, which was due to the manual aspects of the production process, and limited scope of production; and the use of outdated technological equipment, which forced the artists to compromise and led to unsatisfactory design solutions. This state of affairs was further sustained by a system that largely excluded artists working in the industrial sector from the artists' union and thus from participation in art exhibitions; as a result, these artists - who were systematically directed to work in the industrial sector as members of a team - remained largely anonymous.

Despite their poor working conditions, however, by the early 1960s their endeavors began leading to splendid results. The products they designed, however, continued to be seen mostly at trade exhibitions and in display windows, rather than on shop shelves or in people's homes.

Art and the Domestic Sphere

The design of new homes and of one's personal living environment were central topics in the country's only domestic design magazine, Kunst ja Kodu (Art and Home), which was first published in 1958. This magazine provided ideas, plans, and DIY instructions - offering an opportunity to break away from the standardized living environment and to create one's own everyday environment. The articles featured in this magazine were written by prominent local designers and artists, who offered their expertise and provided new ideas. Kunst ja Kodu was published both in Estonian and in Russian, and reached a broad Soviet market.


In 1966, the first industrial art course was launched at the State Art Institute. Two years later, in 1968, it became a full-fledged department. This new discipline came to exist alongside applied arts programs, which focused on specific materials. At that time, "design" as a field in its own right had yet to be acknowledged both in the sphere of education and in the field of production. The creation of this program, which was initiated by Bruno Tomberg, triggered a significant degree of interest in approaching the everyday environment from a design point of view. In contrast to an object-focused understanding of design, this approach offered a broader understanding of the possibilities inherent to design. Based on the demand for designers from fields ranging from industrial production to packaging and information graphics, the new department focused on educating a universal (rather than a strictly specialized) designer who could work with different environments and objects, as well as in the field of communication. This emphasis led to a considerable shift in the local design discourse - from a concern with product-based design to a more holistic analysis of various problems and environments.

Young designers who graduated from the industrial art department beginning in 1970 subsequently found their way into different fields - including product and packaging design, education, and additional fields. One company that offered opportunities for these newly graduated industrial designers was the plastics producer Salvo, which started to develop and design sports equipment (such as helmets and ski boots) in the 1970s. At the same time, Estonian design began to expand into previously unexplored areas. The regatta held in Tallinn as part of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics provided one such opportunity for designers, and one of its outstanding results was the urban redesign of the Estonian capital. The directors of this project were part of the team at the Art Products Factory's design workshop who worked on numerous commissions, including ones from the Soviet Union aircraft industry.

The Experimental Alternative

The attempt to expand the definition of design led to the exhibition series "Ruum ja Vorm"
(Space and Form), which was initiated in 1969 - introducing both designers and the public at large to an experimental approach to design. The organizers of this exhibition sought to develop creative initiatives and thinking, and to introduce the audience to contemporary problems concerning the design of various environments. This approach was free of strictly functional concerns - enabling the designers, as well as their audience, to break away from everyday considerations. From this point onwards, the term "design" began to replace references to "industrial art."

Each of these exhibitions followed a special concept, and the display spaces were designed accordingly as spectacular, total, and unfamiliar environments. Central to the first exhibition was the theme of experimenting with standardized details and using them to offer non-standard, individualized solutions in terms of forms, materials, and colors. The second exhibition (1972) shifted the focus from actual furniture samples to "primary, abstract processes," and centered on the experimental value of the design exhibits. The third exhibition (1976/77), "Man and Vacation," was organized around a more clearly defined theme, as was the case with the following annual exhibitions. Although the public's ability to understand the ideas presented by the exhibition organizers was a subject of discussion in the course of the second exhibition, the number of visitors as well as exhibition-related reviews and publications was remarkably high.


The Soviet period offered Estonian designers opportunities in the spheres of both everyday and experimental design. This article has addressed only a small number of the design phenomena that developed during the postwar period. The wide range of design concepts that were executed or which have survived in some other format form a valuable part of Estonia's cultural heritage. Over the past decade, a range of materials and products prevalent during the period in question have been gathered and preserved, and are now part of the collection of the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design.

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