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Design Exhibit Gives the Curious Soviets Glimpse of U.S. Life Style

Times Staff Writer

An exhibit of American-designed products, including a Hawaiian windsurfing board, 10-speed bicycles and models of luxury apartment buildings, opened here Tuesday, tantalizing thousands of Soviet consumers who crowded around the displays and, perhaps more importantly, giving them a rare chance to question Americans about their daily lives.

A sleek red 1989 Chevrolet Corvette, spinning slowly on a platform, was a show-stopper. The kitchen display, complete with color-coordinated microwave, dishwasher and food processor, also drew crowds four and five deep.

“Do you have to stand in line to buy this in the U.S.A.?” one man asked, gesturing to a double oven. He and his wife exchanged bemused smiles when they were told no, and again when they were told the price, about $1,000.

Thirty years after the first such American exhibit was shown in this city, sparking the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Communist Party leader Nikita S. Khrushchev and Vice President Richard M. Nixon over which country produced the best products, Design USA has come to Moscow.

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Times have changed dramatically. None of the Soviets who attended Tuesday’s exhibition wanted to argue that consumers in this superpower have it better.

But most wanted to do more than look at the gourmet wines, included in the show because of the design of their labels.

Design USA, the result of a cultural agreement signed by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1985, is intended to demonstrate the important role that design plays in everyday American life: housing, transportation, industry, advertising, mass communications and leisure.

It is sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, which budgeted $18 million for the project. All the products on display were either bought from or donated by American firms. Design USA will travel to eight other cities after Moscow, including Leningrad, Kishinev, Baku and Vladivostok.

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The exhibit, viewed by about 10,000 Soviet citizens Tuesday, is free of charge and open to the general public, a change from the past when special tickets for similar shows were distributed to a select audience.

Thus, it offered a rare chance for the curious among average Soviet citizens, who still have little contact with foreigners even in this period of relative openness, to grill 24 Russian-speaking Americans about their homes, their jobs, their families.

“They wanted to know why my parents need a three-bedroom home if all the kids have now moved out, and they were shocked to learn it cost $65,000,” said Diane M. Reinsch, a 30-year-old Russian language teacher from Iowa City, Iowa.

Janine Valentine of Reading, Mass., fielded questions about the kitchen display and learned quickly that food preparation was not the only thing on the minds of the Soviets who crowded around.

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“How much money do you make, and how much does it cost for you to travel? We hear all Americans take vacations every year in Europe,” said one man, who identified himself only as Vladimir.

Queries on Education

Valentine laughed and said she loved to travel but could not afford to do it as much as she would like.

Adam Strochak, from Philadelphia, was answering questions about products for children when he slipped into a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the relative value of education in the United States and the philosophical pros and cons of using video in the classroom.

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One man in his mid-50s broke into the discussion. “I have a question,” he said, smiling politely but speaking firmly, like someone with a point to make. “I want to know what exactly is the purpose of this exhibit? You must understand this all makes us a little uncomfortable. Is this intended to show your way is better?”

Basic Conveniences

Strochak, apparently prepared for such questions, didn’t miss a beat.

“It’s not that we want to brag, or that we want to sell our products. We simply want to show the importance of design in everyday American life,” he said, sounding slightly rehearsed.

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The questioner seemed less than satisfied, but did not ask again.

“I’ve got to admit, I feel a little funny about things like that red Corvette,” one of the guides, 22-year-old Karen R. Olson, said later. “That car will never play a part in most of these peoples’ lives--or in most of our lives, for that matter.”

“You can tell from the look in their eyes that many people don’t care about design, they just wish they could have some of the basic conveniences,” she said.

But even though the people walking through the exhibit Tuesday cannot buy most of the items on display, and probably will not be able to for some time to come, Olson concluded, Design USA serves another purpose simply as a cultural exchange.

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“The exhibition as a whole demonstrates more than just products and design,” she said. “It shows how Americans feel about their jobs and their free time and, maybe, it shows what success means to us.”


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