In Russia, the apartment interiors have always been a reflection of people’s thinking, and together they experienced long stagnation… Until so-called interior design began to emerge in the country in the dashing 90s. Then the Russian soul just raced to heaven! To the paradise of the rich carpets and the crystal, of course.
Did the tastes of Russians change since the 90s? Where should one look to find an alternative for IKEA? Which furniture cannot be found in Europe and what is sustainable production? We discussed these and many other topics with the designer, and founder of the London-based furniture brand Dotdotdot Furniture, Leonid Davydov.
MOSKVAER: It seems like the whole world already knows what a nightmare the interior of Russian flats were like in the 1990s. Have things changed much since then? What are some of the cardinal, iconic changes in this area?
LEONID: What happened in the 90s was a very unique event. The Iron Curtain finally fell and things that were forbidden by law became commercially averrable: products, movies, music basically everything that promoted the “Western” lifestyle. The country was flooded with huge varieties of goods, customers did not really understand how to consume those. Generally speaking, consuming culture was formed mainly by curiosity and vanity.
Moreover, let’s not forget that the country was reformed socially, and economically. Reformation was followed by a deep economic crisis. In such conditions, the difference between Memphis (postmodern design movement) and Bauhaus was not very important. Nobody cared much about style and harmony, very often aesthetic value equaled exchange value. Nowadays, consumers are more educated and style conscious. Anyhow, taste is a very subjective matter and one could not be wrong or right by their sense of beauty. However, one thing that should not be forgotten is a knowing of the limits and appropriateness.
You recently visited Moscow and, as far as I know, had the opportunity to visit many of the capital’s apartments. Can you describe the overall impression from what you’ve seen?
LEONID: There were really delirious interiors with a chandelier occupying 40% of the dining room: it was nearly touching the dining table. On the other hand, there were quite good interiors. To be honest, I never understood latent Ludovics XIV. Those with a sleeping King of the Sun in themselves, the King awakens when it comes to a refurbishment–he simply started to recreate the Versalles look in his 1 bedroom. I’m not against absolutism or classics–I stand for appropriateness. A clear vision and understanding of what will look nice and feel well in the interior. There are some basic rules that should be taken into account while designing an interior.
What furniture trends in modern Moscow would you highlight?
LEONID: I’ve spotted quite a few: The Scandinavian style is getting stronger, you know this white and simple with clean forms and shapes? We have quite similar weather conditions as Scandinavia–a long and dark winter, short and bright summer. Reclaimed materials will gain popularity. I’ve seen some interesting things in the Artplay Design and Architecture Center. Price wise it’s more expansive then IKEA but theatre tickets are also more expensive then cable TV. I have a feeling that things are slowly moving away from import reliance and towards local manufacturing. There is a huge market with many talented people and nobody is really making anything.
What is now the most up-style interiors in Europe? What do you think we should have to learn?
LEONID: Speaking of London, where I was living for the last three years, I would highlight that the eclectic and shabby chic styles are very popular. People are also more cautious about their consumption in terms of sustainability and ecology. Therefore everything that was reclaimed or sustainably made is becoming popular: old repainted stools, reupholstered sofas, a coffee table made of a pallet etc. In addition, a pallet found on the street is much more affordable than something at IKEA.
What we should borrow is the design approach. It should be more scientific rather than subjective. Creativity is a very chaotic thing and if one has no intention to organize it in any way, the chaos would absorb the creator. A scientific approach requires more attention to design research rather than assumptions and client’s whimsicalities. The deeper a designer goes with research, the more chances s/he has to create something truly innovative. It should be clear from the earliest stage: Who is the audience? What are their needs? What is the problem the designer is trying to solve? At this stage it is important to design the research process correctly: conduct interviews, do observations, role play some scenarios etc. There are many books written about design thinking and design research. Tim Brown from IDEO contributed a lot to this field.
In terms of aesthetics, I would not adopt anything. It is absolutely necessary nowadays to rely on your own creativity–do your own thing rather than look at others. London is London and Moscow is Moscow, the two cities have absolutely different personalities and their own unique vibes. My position is that each region should focus on their individuality. Really honing in on a region’s culture, history and identity would lead to a more diverse world. Look at the architecture–it’s already melted into one solid concrete-glass blob. If I’m looking at Moscow City, I can’t really say whether I am in Shanghai or Manhattan. Those sky-scraper would fit anywhere in the world. Another example, probably not the best one, is BMW. They made an effort to design their cars based on heritage and if you look at BMW, you see BMW not Kia or Bentley.
Are there any pieces of furniture that are only used in the post-Soviet space and are extremely rare in Europe or America? Is there something out of this in your London apartment?
LEONID: Furniture at its core is the same everywhere. The interesting thing is that post-soviet countries tend to hack furniture more. I see unusual ways to use furniture in Russia or Kazakhstan very often.
Actually, things that I have not seen much of exist in the UK. For instance, I haven’t seen its kitchen corner sofa or massive wall furniture.
Dotdotdot Furniture is considered modernism, right? It’s obviously become a huge trend in the last few years. What will follow minimalism? Will you catch the wave, if the fashion comes back to, let’s say, Art Deco?
LEONID: I think that… the frame belongs to the modernist’s universe. Clean geometry, stripped to its essentials. We pay a lot of attention to the function of the product, to the user experience, so I guess it puts us into the modernism area. The modernism movement developed in the beggining of the 20th century in Europe when one of the main mottos of that time was: form follows function. It was followed by post-modernism with lots of imitations and wild shapes. What’s happening now is very hard to say. It would be much easier to look back after 30 years to understand what it is. Generally speaking, the silhouette is shaping in this way: satisfying current needs while taking into an account interests of future generations. In other words, sustainable design might get into the scene.
In dotdotdot we design very simple products. The nature of the product does not allow the following of any particular styles. We aim to create shapes with versatile function that could be easily misused and customized. Surprisingly what I’ve found is that the simpler the shape, the more versatile it gets in terms of functionality. That’s why our design language is pretty straight forward – clear geometry, and simple proportions with soft edges. It borrows something from the metal constructor that I used to have in my childhood.
Our product is light and robust. Ash is used to create baseball bats by the way. I do not really think that functional and long-lasting products will be absolute in the near future.
Tell us about your production. You are based in London, right? Is the furniture manufacturing expensive there?
LEONID: We manufacture everything in East London. We launched our own online store in the summer of 2015. Development of the dotdotdot.frame took more than a year. There were many difficulties and challenges. The main difficulty was finding the right proportions so accessories could be fixed on both horizontally and vertically. This was vital in order to keep functionality fluid and allow the piece to be transformed according to the needs and whims of the owner. Moreover now you can overlap a mirror on top of the corkboard or vice versa. To produce anything in London is expensive, but at this early stage it is better to keep the manufacturing process closer the head office – it gives more control over quality. Nevertheless we are in negotiations with Italian and Polish manufacturers. Hopefully by this summer, the London office will be focusing only on product development and distribution.
Are there many orders coming from Russia?
LEONID: In spite of the interest from Russia we were able to ship only one set to Moscow. Due to design specifics dotdotdot.frame does not fit into the standard size chart of international forwarders. We are looking for local Moscow distributors in order to optimize logistics costs.
Now the concept of “sustainability” is spread out. Do you support this idea? Is it a part of your production? How do you personally feel about the boom in eco-friendly furniture?
LEONID: Historically the West is a one of the main reasons behind the world’s cluttering. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain and spread across continental Europe later on. Products were made without any thoughts about future utilization. Nobody really cared. There was no reason to think how a cast iron desk would be utilized tomorrow if a client is ready to pay for it today. The world flooded with the goods that were made to last ages, interests of future generations were completely ignored. Now that phase is over and the current generation of designers is more concerned about the environment. Think about it: if we will continue to consume in the same pace as now by 2030 we would need two earths to satisfy our needs.
We do take into account the needs of the current generation and we also think about future ones. In dotdotdot sustainability is being approached on several levels:
First is design itself. Dotdotdot.frame has a prolonged lifecycle. It’s achieved by what I call “fluid function” when the product could be used in many ways. One of many use scenarios is: user has bought dotdotdot.frame as an entryway organizer, after some time, when they moved flats or relocated to another country they found out that there is no entryway anymore. Instead of selling dotdotdot.frame they would add more shelves and repurpose it into a bookshelf for the living room. The frame comes with 96 holes and an expanding range of accessories, currently it is 16. If you make calculations on the number of configurations you’ll get an astronomic number. Therefore, the lifecycle is longer than that of usual furniture and has lesser input into waste creation.
Secondly, we aim to use fewer materials. dotdotdot.frame is made of four beams of American Ash with a thickness of only 40 by 40 mm and weighs only 7 kg. It significantly decreases carbon input in the process of transportation to a user.
And at last, we use only sustainable source materials. All our wood comes from FSC certified suppliers.
Can you give some basic tips for those who want to change their own apartment? Such universal “do’s” and “don’ts” in interior design.
LEONID: I would like to say that it is vital to focus on your apartment when it comes to refurbishment. Don’t rely on what has been done by neighbor or somebody else. Instead have a close honest look, accept all the flaws and try to find something among them. Even if it is a complete illogical architectural mess from 1950 there must be some bright parts that deserve some attention. It is important to know good sides and bad sides of your flat and to try to work around them. Fortify the good and hide the bad if it’s possible.
One more thing is to think about materials relationship. If you dress everything in wood then it would feel like it’s forester’s hut. Wood looks great when it’s cooled by metal. Metal should be enlivened by wood on the other hand. To play with contrasts is very important – it is very much like screenwriting, the story gets boring when everything goes smoothly, there should be a conflict. It could be a conflict between forms, colors, materials even styles. It just looks and feels better that way.