When Herman Miller took on the USSR

A ‘jungle gym’ of US capitalism went on show in Moscow 60 years ago today - Herman Miller was there too
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The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress
The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress

What did people really want back in 1959? Space satellites, or a really good kitchen? Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings last week, it's worth remembering a time, a little further back, when the West was behind in the space race, but ahead in other fields.

Some within the American government believed that domestic advances might beat aerospace advantages, in the hearts and minds of the Soviet Union's citizens.

Sixty years ago today, on 24 July 1959, the American National Exhibition in Moscow opened in Sokolniki Park, Moscow. It was the first exhibition staged by the USA in the USSR, and its capacious modular display space was overseen by Herman Miller’s director of design, George Nelson.

“In September 1958, the United States Information Agency selected Nelson to be the chief designer of the American National Exhibition in Moscow as part of a mutual cultural exchange between the United States and the USSR,” explains our new book, Herman Miller: A Way of Living. ”The Nelson office devised a massive ‘jungle gym’ structure that allowed the space to be filled with consumer goods - from furniture and toys to a fully automated open kitchen.”

 

The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress
The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress

That culinary part of the show was also the site of a heated debate on the exhibition’s opening day, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev challenged the American Vice President Richard Nixon over the merits of capitalism versus communism.

The kitchen itself was not the work of Nelson or his employers, but instead was modelled on the cookery space in a modest Long Island three-bedroom house, that had been rebuilt inside the exhibition.

 

The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress
The American National Exhibition in Moscow, summer 1959. Photograph byThomas J O'Halloran, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Some within the Soviet establishment doubted whether this home was within reach of the quotidian American family. “There is no more truth in showing this as the typical home of the American worker than, say, in showing the Taj Mahal as the typical home of a Bombay textile worker,” argued the Russian news agency, TASS. 

While there might be some room for debate in this respect, it was hard to argue with the wider array of goods on offer. Around 3,000 tons of material was sent from the US to Moscow. Visitors could see everything from canned foods tractors, vinyl records to furniture and fittings, such as Herman Miller Bubble lamps; as well as a multiscreen film, Glimpses of the U.S.A. by fellow Herman Miller designers, Charles and Ray Eames.

 

Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev tour the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow, 24, July 1959. Image courtesy of the State Department
Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev tour the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow, 24, July 1959. Image courtesy of the State Department

The USSR may have had Sputnik, but The American National Exhibition showed that when it came to earthly possessions the West had an important, popular edge.

For more on Herman Miller’s place within mid-century America, order a copy of Herman Miller: A Way of Living here. For more on mid-century domesticity across the world, take a look at our forthcoming Atlas of Mid-Century Modern Houses.

 

Herman Miller: A Way of Living

 


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