When curator and Wallpaper* editor-at-large Suzanne Trocmé was looking through Russian resumés for the designers who would ultimately form Born in the USSR, launched at Gallery Elena Shchukina as part of the London Design Festival, she noticed a peculiarity in the bio. 'It said he was born in Leningrad, but he studied in St Petersburg,' says the London-based designer and curator. 'It made me wonder what it means to be born into one cultural environment and practicing in another.'
Trocmé cast her net wider to include designers born in the former USSR before 1991, pre-Perestroika, yet on the cusp of their nation's dissolution - which eventually exposed them to a world of imagery. A student in Russia in the 1980s, she had a unique perspective in the matter. 'There was no advertising,' she says of life behind the curtain then. 'No one else's opinion got in the way. In fact, that absence of visual bombardment was a luxury.'
The final cut of 14 includes some designers who have never left what is now Russia. And yet they design with sophisticated clarity, humour and national spirit. 'The designs I found, out of hundreds of pieces,' says Trocmé, 'embrace Russian traditions but are truly contemporary.'
She points to the wood 'Dot' table by Lera Moiseeva, born to space engineers in Tarusa, Central Russia, in 1986. It is mobile, like a wheelbarrow, with a front wheel that pivots around the main surface 'like in the cosmos'. A collection of clay whistles in the shape of birds by Siberian-born Anna Denisenko reference the old acorn whistles used by Slavic watchmen to warn of approaching enemies.
The exhibition, launched in partnership with Wallpaper*, aims to upturn the stereotype of Russians in London. That the hub of Russian activity in London overlaps, Venn-like, with the Knightsbridge hub of the Design Festival is a stroke of luck.
As for the wider relationship between the two cultures, 'Sanctions are not always useful. It's important to support good talent wherever in the world you find it,' says Trocmé. 'I just wanted to show that Russian design is very cool and has a place in the world, and to support it - despite the geopolitical situation.'