In the Mix

Ukraine: Design for Real Time

Anna Carnick

Design historian Larysa Tsybina on the state of Ukrainian design and the role that designers are playing in the ongoing crisis

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, two Ukrainians—design historian Larysa Tsybina and architect Mykola Kornilov—responded by curating Ukraine: Design for Real Time, an exhibition reflecting on the state of Ukrainian design prior to and since the beginning of the war. As the war intensifies, Ukrainian cultural heritage is being systematically targeted by Russian forces as part of Putin's larger attempt to subjugate the Ukrainian people and deny their right to sovereignty. In turn, as a form of resistance, Tsybina and Kornilovs ongoing research proudly, defiantly documents all that Ukraine’s rich design culture has to offer—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

We sat down with Tsybina to learn more.


Design historian and consultant Larysa Tsybina; Photo by Max Drobinenko, Courtesy of Tsybina

Tell us a bit about this summer’s exhibition, Ukraine: Design for Real Time.

Before the Russian invasion, the development of Ukrainian design kept pace with the world and harmoniously fit local messages into global agendas. But after February 24th, Ukrainian designers, using the experience of previous years, create functional objects that are necessary for our reality. These objects become tools for life, helping solve problems in bomb shelters, temporary shelters, dugouts, hospitals, or bombed-out houses.

The idea behind the Ukraine: Design for Real Time exhibition, which we presented at the Design Museum in Barcelona as part of Barcelona Design Week, was to show two periods of Ukrainian design: before and after February 24, and how the essence and principle of artistic design are changing in such a tense contrast to real time objects in a particular historical context.

Ukraine: Design for Real Time exhibition in Barcelona; Photo by Iryna Kalamurza

Ukrainian architect Mykola Kornilov and I were in Barcelona and quickly began to work on the format of the exhibition. Since it was impossible to bring physical objects, Mykola developed the concept of an interactive poster exhibition, where we decided to virtually present the work of Ukrainian designers, before and during the war. I contacted the designers—almost all of them were in Ukraine—and we quickly created printed and video material. As a result, just a month later, we were able to present a large (4x6 meters) poster with the work of 18 Ukrainian designers. The graphic design of the poster was created by Mykola Kornilov.

Design historian Larysa Tsybina and architect Mykola Kornilov in Barcelona; Photo by Iryna Kalamurza

But still, we were able not only to bring one physical object to Barcelona but also to manufacture it specifically for our exhibition. This is the Military Gropius Chair designed by Katerina Sokolova and produced by the Noom brand in collaboration with the VinnSolard volunteer center in Vinnytsia.

Noom’s existing Gropius Chair, which was designed in peacetime, was taken as the basis for the new work, and then covered with a camouflage netting, which Ukrainian volunteers weave for camouflage needs in the rear and front lines of the war.

The Military Gropius Chair by Katerina Sokolova, produced by the Noom brand in collaboration with the VinnSolard volunteer center in Vinnytsia. Photos © Katerina Sokolova

As documented through the show and your ongoing research, in the face of Russia’s invasion, many Ukrainian designers—some still on the ground in Ukraine and some now based abroad—are using the design skills they’ve honed over years to respond to urgent humanitarian needs. Can you share a few examples of the remarkable ways designers are responding to this moment for our readers?

Indeed, many designers are now working in Ukraine, many are doing volunteer work on the home front, and some serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukrainians have such a strong creative energy that they can create new progressive things, at the same time as rockets are raining down on our cities.

Ukrainian studio Hochu Rayu designed an adaptable, protective covering that protects passengers of unarmored civilian vehicles. Photo courtesy of Hochu Rayu

For example, designer Vitaliy Kiriliv serves in the ZSU (the Ukrainian Armed Forces), and at the same time he and his studio Hochu Rayu developed a kind of bulletproof vest for a car—an adaptable, protective mattress that protects the passengers of unarmored civilian vehicles.

Another example is the story of the Peremebli company, three designers who did not work together before the war, but during wartime came together to develop and make publicly available instructions for creating furniture for temporary housing, which a person can assemble himself, using improvised materials. The designer's mission was to provide the basic level of comfort to those displaced by war.

Peremebli has devised designs for simple furniture for temporary housing, which displaced persons can easily assemble using improvised materials. Image courtesy of Peremebli

What has impressed you most thus far?

To be honest, while collecting material for the exhibition, what struck me most was a disturbing foreboding expressed through the work of Ukrainian designers.

Even considering that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has been going on for 8 years, most Ukrainians that I know were shocked by such an invasion, because we did not believe that this could happen in the 21st century in Europe.

But some Ukrainian designers sensed something in the air—consciously or unconsciously—and that influenced the aesthetics of some of the designs created prior to the war. For example, Sergey Gotvyansky of Nott Design created the Dnipro Candlesticks collection, which pays homage to the studio’s hometown of Dnipro—one of the country’s most populous cities, which is now facing Russian missile attacks on civilian locations—and its industrial past. Denis Sokolov of Svoya Studio designed carpets that appear formally similar to anti-tank hedgehogs [static anti-tank obstacles made of metal beams designed to keep small to medium-size tanks and vehicles from penetrating a line of defense].

A skilled designer’s capacity to sense and communicate what is happening in the world around us should not be underestimated.

Top: The city of Dnipro and Nott Design's Dnipro Candlesticks | Bottom: Anti-tank hedgehogs pictured above furniture and carpet by Svoya Studio;  Collages courtesy of Larysa Tsybina

What would you most like people to understand or appreciate regarding Ukrainian design and the Ukrainian design community?

I really want the world to see the fortitude and creativity of Ukrainian designers. We continue to look to the future with hope; even in the most difficult time for Ukraine, we explore the real processes in which the designer solves the problem, not only to improve the conditions of human life, but to save life itself. I think that the global design community should pay special attention to Ukraine, as a new relationship between the designer, the object, and the user is being born here.

Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding the Ukrainian design community at this moment?

After our victory, we will definitely hold a big international design event in Ukraine, create a design museum and restore the design system. We will be very glad to help the global design community in carrying out research and to exchange experiences with international colleagues.

How can people best support the design community in Ukraine and the people of Ukraine more broadly?

We would like to continue to interact with the international design community in all possible ways: to explore the processes that occur with design in catastrophic periods, to present Ukrainian design at temporary exhibitions, at design festivals, in museums and urban spaces; to collaborate with designers, brands, and galleries from all over the world.

And, of course, information support and interviews such as this one are very important for us. Thank you for supporting Ukraine and Ukrainian design.⬥