Retro exhibition highlights communist-era lifestyle

Photo: Filip Jandourek

The Dancing House Gallery in Prague has just opened an exhibition called Retro of the 70s and 80s, depicting the way of life of the common people and the communist elite in the last two decades of communism. The exhibition is extremely realistic – giving visitors a powerful throwback as they walk into the typical 70’s living room, shop or holiday scene. I went along and was given a tour by one of the organizers, Nikola Lörinczová.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Creating a retro exhibition of the communist years has one advantage – given the drab uniformity of those days the organizers only needed to put together a typical living room or bathroom to show visitors how the vast majority of people lived and the objects of daily use they were surrounded by. The exhibition takes visitors through the typical communist-style living room, kitchen and bathroom. Nikola Lörinczová points out the main features of a small, oppressive-looking livingroom, dominated by truly atrocious wallpaper.

“The main feature in every 70s living room was the “stěna” or living room wall – a set of connected open cupboards that stretched from one end of the living room to the other and where people displayed everything they wanted to show off –glassware, porcelain sets, souvenirs, family photos, as well as a gramophone player or TV set. Here we see one of the first Czech-made TV sets Tesla. There is a sofa and coffee table and the whole room is dominated by the wallpaper. There were just a few patterns back then but unlike the classical brick and mortar homes where people used paint, flats were decorated with wallpaper and it was considered very “ïn” and part of the modern lifestyle.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Living rooms were the shop-window of people’s status back then and people spent the most money and effort on them. Kitchens received less attention and again kitchens in the communist era housing estates –the so called panelaks - were paradoxically considered superior to those in regular houses which were larger, warmer and usually equipped with old stoves and wooden utensils. However it was a panelak kitchen which people hankered for, ideally equipped with an electric stove, washing machine and loads of brightly coloured plastic utensils. Back then old stuff was considered trash and people valued new furnishings even if they were all one and the same.

“This was a time of uniform production not only in furnishings, but the simple electronics that were available and articles of daily use. People had little or no choice and so everyone had the same things – kitchen tables and chairs were almost identical, maybe only differing in colour, the kitchen shelves and electric stoves were similar models that people stood in line to buy and the linoleum and wall paper usually came with the flat. Even little things were identical like fruit syrup which was the most common non-alcoholic drink and the same brand of coffee – Standard – which you see over there.”

In sharp contrast to this standard communist-era flat is a section devoted to the lifestyle of the communist elite – which had money to burn and spent plenty on what they called “representation””. On show are items from luxury communist hotels of the time which served the top brass and foreign visitors. Nikola Lörinczová again:

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“Here we have a luxury table and armchair from Hotel Prague which no longer exists, and an armchair for the former Federal Assembly – the Czechoslovak Parliament – designed by architect Karel Prager – as well as several lights designed by leading architects. The party set aside funds for representation and surrounded itself by specially commissioned luxury articles made from the best leather, wood, and imported materials. These were made to order by the best designers and craftsmen that the country had to offer.“

On show are also the top export articles of the communist era – hand-made crystal glass which Czech glass makers excelled in and which was highly valued around the world, Jablonex Jewelry which had an excellent reputation and not least Pilsner beer in 70s and 80s packaging.

Other parts of the exhibition show children’s toys of the time – mostly wood carved or plastic toys and board games –and a model classroom with cheap-looking desks and chairs, the obligatory school bag and school uniforms – complete with the red scarf worn by children who joined the communist youth organization Pioneer – and a picture of then communist president Gustav Husak on the wall.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
There is also a shop sporting two salamis, some hard and soft cheese and a line of identical looking cans. The packaging is authentic and although the goods on display present a sorry picture many visitors old enough to remember them will feel a touch of nostalgia as they see the wrapper of a favourite chocolate bar or children’s treat. Although advertising would appear to have been a waste of money in those days, advertisements for products which people had no choice but to buy did exist, and a reel of these advertisements is also being shown at the exhibition.

Another section is devoted to trekking and camping – a popular way of spending holidays when travel abroad was severely restricted. This section is represented by a tent, trekking gear, a huge plastic ball and badminton set as well as a river paddle to document the popularity of canoeing.

Probably the biggest challenge for the organizers was furnishing the dissident’s room – because unlike the other uniform surroundings dissidents wanted nothing to do with ‘socialist culture” and went out of their way to be different and original. The dissident’s room is relatively bare furnished with only an old bookcase, a mattress, a coat hanger with a coveted jeans jacket, books and a typewriter. The wall décor is posters and a US paper flag.

“This is a model room of how dissidents lived, often sleeping over at friends’ houses to avoid the communist secret police. Many of these rooms were hideouts and people who came to sleep over slept on matrasses. The furnishings are bare essentials with an accent on books and items smuggled or brought from the West – such as jeans wear and tapes of Western music.”

The exhibition opened on June 15th and the organizers hope to attract a broad mix of visitors. Nikola Lörinczová says everyone should find something of interest.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“There is no doubt that the exhibition will be most interesting for older people and people who experienced this period and who will doubtless experience strong feelings of nostalgia over things that were once part of their life. On the other hand, young people should get something out of it as well because it will give them some insight into how people lived, how things worked and the environment that surrounded us.”