Cold Comfort? to Coincide with 'Cold War Modern', a Major New Exhibition at the V & A in London, Its Consultant Curator, David Crowley of the Royal College of Art, Looks Back on the 1959 Kennedy-Khrushchev 'Kitchen Debate' and Explores How Modern Design Became an Active Part of That War

Article excerpt

The Cold War was fought on many fronts. It was contested in space, with the Soviet Union and the United States competing in the race to send satellites into orbit and men to cast their shadows on the dusty surface of the Moon. Olympic stadiums and chessboards also became sites of conflict where socialist and capitalist bodies and minds fought each other. And, of course, the tension between the two systems was kept in nervous check by what American military strategists candidly called MAD (Mutually-Assured Destruction), i.e. the threat of nuclear war. Less well known, perhaps, are the ways in which modern designs--sometimes of products for ordinary consumers--were drawn into the East-West struggle.


After the successful launch of the Sputnik--the first manmade object to orbit the Earth--in October 1957, the Soviet Union was keen to flaunt its superior technology. During a short period of East-West rapprochement in the late 1950s, it was invited to mount an exhibition in New York. Not surprisingly the Soviet display in spring 1959 was dominated by space technology and heavy-duty engineering, like nuclear reactors and Arctic icebreakers. Later in the year, a reciprocal fair in Moscow was organized by the United States Information Agency. The US exhibition emphasized a rather different image of modernity by stressing 'personal' consumption rather than 'national' production. The point being made to the visitor was simple: why struggle to build socialism tomorrow when you could enjoy the bounty of capitalism today? This technique was not new. Exhibitions--sometimes mounted with Marshall Plan money--had toured Western Europe in the early 1950s promoting the material benefits of the free market and democratic politics. What was different about the 1959 exhibition was that America was on display at the centre of the Soviet Union.


The American National Exhibition had many faces; it included multi-media presentations and modern art. But at its heart was a vision of the everyday world of middle-class American life. Five thousand consumer goods items--from Tupperware to tennis rackets--were suspended by a massive frame structure in the main pavilion. All twenty-two models of automobile in production in the US that year were on display outside. Elsewhere, a real supermarket was filled with 'heat'n'eat' convenience foods.

At the opening of the exhibition, Vice-President Nixon took the Soviet premier Khrushchev on a tour. They paused in the kitchen of a model American home, furnished with standard consumer goods. Their angry conversation there became one of the famous arguments of the Cold War, now known as the 'Kitchen Debate.' Nixon seized the opportunity to represent America as a land in which householders held the whip hand; manufacturers and housing developers were, he suggested, compelled by market pressures to meet the every whim of the all-powerful consumer. Nothing could be better for the economy than the fact that ordinary citizens grew tired of their new homes within a few years. This kind of psychological obsolescence was, he argued, the engine of progress. Khrushchev countered by boldly claiming that minor miracles such as washing machines and refrigerators were nothing new: 'You think the Russian people will be dumbfounded to see these things,' barked the Soviet premier, 'hut the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now.'


While Khrushchev admitted that America was more advanced in many ways, he claimed that this was only a temporary state of affairs. In fact, at the Twenty-second Communist Party Congress in 1962 he said: 'For the first time in history there will a be a full and final end of the situation in which people suffer from the shortage of anything ... [by] 1980 this country will far outstrip the United States.' Citizens of the Eastern Bloc were to enjoy new levels of domestic comfort: high-rise housing was the first and most important aspect of this promise. …