Where design is a modern riff on Soviet themes

Where design is a modern riff on Soviet themes

Where design is a modern riff on Soviet themes

Midway through the restoration of a stately old top-floor apartment in one of St Petersburg’s fashionable neighbourhoods, the owner swiveled to adopt an entirely new plan. It was more than a shift in the colour scheme.

“I decided I wanted to design the apartment in the style of a senior bureaucrat of the early Stalin period,” said the owner, Sergei Bobovnikov, 47. And so began a renovation that was unusual even by Russian standards. Sleek and flashy is common here today. A meditation on the country’s design history, with its leftist language of agricultural and working-class decorative elements, is less common, but not unheard-of. Even so, the space in question was hardly evocative of Politburo luxury when Bobovnikov bought it in 2002 for the equivalent of about $220,000.

Originally designed as a single residence, it had become a decrepit communal space occupied by eight families in a row of small rooms along a lightless corridor. Bobovnikov, who had recently divorced and needed a new home, intended to refurbish it in a modern, comfortable style. But the history of the early 20th-century building, which had been home to a number of influential Stalinist-era officials and served as a backdrop for the Great Purge of the late 1930s, seemed to call for some kind of commentary, he thought: a grander, more artistic statement that would not attempt to conceal this defining moment in the country’s history.

The idea of creating a Stalinist-era interior gradually took shape as he knocked down the walls that divided the apartment into small, dark rooms, revealing its original generous proportions, a hallmark of 1930s Russian art deco. It was, to be sure, not entirely a bolt from the blue. Bobovnikov is an antiques dealer specialising in the ideological art of the early Soviet period. “The concept was clearly forming in my mind,” he said. “I had a lot of items I really liked but hadn’t sold, and they fit here like a mosaic.”

As it happens, Stalin Empire style, which draws on art deco and the clean lines of Mussolini-era Italian design, is enjoying something of a mini-revival in Russia, said Xenia Adjoubei, a lecturer in architectural history and theory at the British Higher School of Art and Design who also has a design practice in Moscow. Stalinist-era interiors are now widely appreciated for their beautiful and minimalist look, she said. But recreating one of those interiors from scratch, she acknowledged, might strike some as odd — even a little creepy.

Conversational art

Bobovnikov’s interest in the style, however, wasn’t purely aesthetic: He wanted to provoke conversations about this episode in the country’s history with anyone who visited, he said, by highlighting the contrast of the exuberance and optimism of the art and decorative accessories with “the understanding of how it all ended for these people.” So he decorated the apartment to look as if it belonged to a member of the 1930s Leningrad Soviet, or city council, with baubles and art to match.Various Stalin-era officials did, in fact, call this building home, if not for long. One was Sergei Kirov, the prominent Bolshevik leader whose 1934 assassination marked the beginning of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which more than 1 million people were imprisoned or executed.

Many other residents died during another wave of mass arrests known as the Leningrad Case of 1949.

But even in a building with such a dramatic history, achieving the look of that period was not easy more than a half-century later. Bobovnikov spent four years and the equivalent of about $75,000 renovating the apartment, not including the cost of the antiques and art, some of which are now built into the property.Creating the appropriate atmosphere, he discovered, was all in the details. One closet, for example, is made from tractor-themed bas-relief oak paneling that was originally in the library of the director of the Kirov Tractor Factory.Another rare and valuable ensemble, an oak chair and desk set, has a “Bread of Communism” agricultural theme carved by one of the designers of the Order of Lenin lapel pin. And period Socialist realist paintings adorn the walls, among them an eerie depiction of a group of schoolchildren admiring a statue of Josef Stalin.

Take on Soviet themes

Other design details are modern riffs on Soviet themes. In the kitchen, a new Italian stove is festooned with period design elements, including a stamped bronze sheet from the cafeteria of a Soviet electrical utility that depicts a hammer and sickle pierced by a lightning bolt; the handle on the oven door is a samovar spigot.The bathroom is done in the style of a shower room at a Soviet sports hall; industrial lights from a tugboat were repurposed to illuminate the mirror.The apartment’s long hallway is tiled in the style of a Soviet-era institution, in a bone-and-green colour scheme that is no longer available; Bobovnikov had the tiles custom-made.He said he gets several calls a week from interior designers asking how to replicate various aspects of the interior.

And as for his antiques clients? Most of them are older businessmen or government employees, he said, who were raised on Soviet movies depicting similar settings for the elite and powerful of an earlier generation.Seeing one of those interiors brought to life, he said, they become almost giddy. “People like the atmosphere,” he said.“They wouldn’t like to live here,” he added, “but they like to visit.”