Bloc party: V&A's autumn show

The big autumn show at London's V&A museum takes a timely look at design during the Cold War. Here, the curator Jane Pavitt previews the highlights
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Recent speculation about the rise of a "new Cold War" has revived many of the old antagonisms between East and West. It may have seemed that these ghosts were laid to rest, but the legacy of conflict has lived on in film, fiction and the collective imagination. This volatile period, when the superpowers went head to head with aggressive displays of strength and superiority, is still absolutely fascinating.

And so, this month, the V&A opens Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70, an exhibition showing how politics shaped the development of modern art and design after the Second World War. Although it has uncanny contemporary relevance, the show is actually the result of four years of research by its curators, who have re-assessed "classic" designs of the period and included lesser-known pieces from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The central idea of Cold War Modern is that, alongside the arms and space race, the Cold War represented a contest between East and West to assert a superior vision of the future. Both sides launched ambitious space programmes, accelerated new technologies, and waged propaganda campaigns across the world. Art and design were quickly drawn into this competition. Some artists allied themselves with a sense of ideological purpose, eager to contribute to the creation of a new society. In Western Europe, the ideals of pre-war modernism (in schools such as Bauhaus) were pressed into service by new democracies.

In the Eastern Bloc, Stalin spent most of the late 1940s imposing his hardline aesthetic vision and shunning the decadence of modernism in favour of his more muscular (and monumental) style known as Socialist Realism. All forms of art could be used to deliver potent political messages. Even the peace dove derived from Picasso's designs was used on posters, prints and textiles, and was closely associated with the Communist peace groups of Europe.

Design was also a weapon in the cultural arsenal of the US, which employed the products of consumer culture to promote a free-market economy. In an act of "design propaganda", US government-organised exhibitions toured Europe in the early years of post-war reconstruction, offering ideas to nations rebuilding their war-damaged homes and cities. They emphasised the efficiency of modern building methods and the role that manufactured goods might play in establishing peaceable consumer societies. Furniture by designers such as Charles and Ray Eames toured France, Italy and West Germany. As if to illustrate US military capability, their fibreglass chair, produced in 1950, used a material that was prevalent in the design of fighter planes.

The Swiss designer and artist Max Bill produced a poster for one exhibition of American design touring Europe in 1945, entitled "America Builds". Several years later, Bill was to become the director of a new school of design education in West Germany – the Hochschule Fur Gestaltung in Ulm – which explicitly linked the creation of a democratic and progressive state with the production of well-designed, tasteful modern goods.

Although the world was divided along Cold War lines, some artistic developments did not reflect the obvious political divisions. Modernism flowered in unexpected places. In Communist Yugoslavia, a group of artists and designers known as Exat 51 revived the principles of interwar modernism in the service of the socialist state, declaring that free experimentation in the arts was entirely compatible with the principles of socialism.

Design assumed an even more central role in politics after the death of Stalin in 1953, as his successor Nikita Khrushchev declared that the Soviet Union needed to "catch up and overtake" the West. Although exciting new products had a virtually negligible impact on the daily lives of people, this shift in policy produced a surge of new design thinking in the late 1950s. The plastics industry, in particular, was transformed by this industrial drive. In East Germany, plastics were proclaimed to be a central part of the socialist economy, under such slogans as "Chemicals give Bread, Beauty and Prosperity!" A Soviet poster by Viktor Koretsky showed that oil flowing from the Urals to Soviet Bloc nations through the so-called "friendship pipeline", would produce an abundance of colourful and practical goods.

Innumerable designs for plastic chairs, homes and products were produced in both East and West. Plastics embodied a faith in science to shape future societies, giving designers the freedom to create products in completely new ways. It was also the perfect material with which to render the fluid forms of the space age; furniture such as Eero Aarnio's Globe Chair and Olivier Mourgue's famed Djinn furniture, used to great effect in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Peter Ghyczy's Garden Egg Chair (shown on page 33), was one of the few design products of the Cold War era sold in both East and West. It has a curious Cold War lineage: produced by a West German plastics manufacturer, the patent for both the chair's design and its plastics technology was sold (somewhat covertly) to an East German producer, who in return was to manufacture quantities to be sent back to the West. For some years, the Egg chair led a double life, distributed on both sides of the Cold War divide.

The technological drive of the Cold War period also produced many darker visions. The arms race, when the superpowers vied with each other to build nuclear weapons, brought the world to the edge of self-destruction. Fuelled by moments of brinkmanship, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, this sense of doom became more pronounced in the 1960s.

In their visionary schemes for alternative societies, this generation employed the materials of the Cold War for their own ends. Cold War Modern concludes with these visions: giant air-supported structures imagined as protecting cities from the environmental threats of the age; futuristic cities configured by electronics; space-age capsule communities which hover above the earth; Oasis 7 (1972), by the Austrian architects Haus-Rucker Co, is a full-scale reconstruction of a plastic inflatable environment, complete with palm trees and hammock. It was intended as a commentary on man's relationship to nature: a synthetic fantasy, encased in a bubble (liable to pop at any moment), offering temporary escape from modern life.

Cold War concerns of the 1960s can mirror those of our own time; none more so than the concern for the fragility of the planet. Forty years ago, experimental architects and designers were drawn to these questions – the designers of today may have to find the answers.

Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70, V&A, London SW7, 25 September to 11 January 2009,