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Regular version of the site

Russia is Heaven for Designers: Here Everything Can Be Rebuilt

On March 21, the HSE’s Art and Design School held a Design Environment open doors day. HSE news service spoke to the curator, Alexander Dzhikia about what students will do, about why designers carry out psychological consultations, and how to unravel the meaning and philosophy of the ‘Black Square’.

From next academic year students at HSE Art and Design School will be able to choose a more narrow specialization from within their curriculum. Environmental Design, Fashion, Communication Design and Animation-Illustration are all on offer.

Universal designer

Everything is somehow linked with design, it is a truly universal area.

I know this from my own experience. In 1985 I graduated from the Moscow Architectural Institute, started curating exhibitions, worked as an artist with NTV, a magazine illustrator and graphic illustrator, and even worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

From this autumn, I’ll be giving my first BA class on Environmental Design. The main focus for my work here is what was known in Bauhaus as ‘vorkurs’: I will give them an overview of the main principles forming a basis for their further study and development as specialists in creative and commercial spheres. I will try, within the course parameters, to share with them the universal skills and knowledge that I have built up over the course of my life, and in particular – in my career.

Where can an environment designer work? Trust me, everywhere you can think of.

Say there is a house. We ‘dress’ it inside and out. And then there is the space around the house – garden, square, recreational areas. Environmental design also involves navigation systems – linked with communication and graphic design, and in that way we are sharing vital knowledge for these areas.

There are also creative working spaces that need a particular approach to décor and are directly related to design as used in theater and film. So an environmental designer can expand well beyond merely utilitarian tasks. It is a broad subject, and in the course of their studies, students can select key disciplines, learn skills, absorb the knowledge they need to arrive at work with the full skillset they will need to be a universal specialist.


Environmental design involves designing spaces that surround us every day – architecture excluded. Human interaction within a building is the designer’s sphere. It is the designer who ponders what the foyer should look like, the corridors, car park, and even surrounding landscape. Defining this space makes the designer more important than even the architect, as he views the complex network of human interactions within – and with –  a space, and seeks to bring that space to life.

If formerly architecture was considered the mother of all arts, that established stylistic developments in other areas, the building itself defines the style. In the postmodern era we have moved beyond style. One of the most important elements in studying design is studying various different styles and applying them to the modern reality. Even in the 21st century, you still have to deal with Baroque castles. Therefore an architectural stylist is another element in environmental design.


The western approach values gestalt – teachers are overly concerned by the physiology of perception when it comes to objects: the color black causes depression, red excites, etc. They believe that any structure triggers an emotional response. But the harmony that they try to attain through psychology is impossible without geometry: that is the basis of forming a comfortable environment. It is this fusion of gestalt and geometry that my course focuses on. Students will be able to combine their studies with practical work and computer modeling.

Yes, to an extent a designer is a psychotherapist. Sometimes you have to forget about your own preferences and listen to the client. A designer needs to be wise, calm, forgiving of other people’s weaknesses – especially when they don’t know what they want. My architect friends say that much of their work involves educational/psychological consultations.


Taste is a conceptual consensus about what beauty or ugliness is. And once there is this consensus, then you can go out and view the world as a complete whole – comprising harmonious interactions. In order to understand this cosmic harmony, you have to get to grips with the basic laws of morphogenesis. First you have to learn to look and to see, and this totality of accepted artistic examples is, in fact, taste. Then, as your understanding grows, you can recognize that the Black Square is not just a square, but a particular phase in the development of art.

Taste can be taught. If someone doesn’t have any taste, that is not genetic, because taste is rooted in the fundamental ability to observe. And beyond that there’s not much we can do. Taste is an understanding of what is good and what is bad. We see how that works, our applicants often don’t know anything beyond Shishkin and Aivazovsky. But visual research is built into all educational projects: before doing anything, the student prepares a mini-exhibition of objects that would be useful during that exercise. That helps them develop faster and within a year they are producing excellent work. This bias towards art practice is very important. For example, classical education in the nineteenth century included languages, dance, fencing – and we would like to include the basics of what people need if they’re going to have a successful life in the world of art, design, and visual communication. 

Arseniy Meshcheryakov
Head of the Art and Design School


As mentors, we should know how to teach students to feel the material. Graphic design makes it possible to transfer visual and verbal information onto paper and digital carriers. When we are dealing with environmental design, we work in a 3D space in which the materials used take the foreground. A designer needs to understand the system by which an image is transferred: to think up an object, create a 3D model on a computer, understand how to draw up the plans and working documents according to which the model will become reality, and to independently create a physical model made of plaster, paper, etc. Creating a real model makes you understand how the 3D model behaves in reality. This is good experience for a firs year student because this work creates a bridge between their perception and reality and teaches them how to speak in a new language.



In Europe it is difficult to imagine that things will change, modernize. Europe has already grown beyond the bounds of design, and we even find navigating the city difficult. In this respect Russia is a designer’s heaven. Here everything can be renovated, and that is a great source of joy because this means there is vast capacity for work that could be done. This is a really massive, long-term, and interesting area of activity, and aside from all that you get to make your mark and help shape the future. So a designer is above all someone who makes life better.

Darya Nurmukanova, HSE Art and Design School, 3rd year student, Specialisation – Environmental Design

At the start of this academic year I was accepted onto an internship with the English firm Vulcan Works, which is involved in environmental design. I spent three months as a second designer working remotely on designs, concepts and plans involved in the project, which was part of the state-run Luminasia festival in Monterrey Mexico. It was commissioned by the state Turismo Nuevo Leon in Mexico’s Monterrey, was produced by the company ISA, and designed by Vulcan Works.

In November 2014 I went to Mexico to help the project become a reality. I spent two weeks there and received invaluable practical experience.

With this grand festival of light dedicated to the upcoming Christmas, we had a short timeframe to implement the project. Our designs included polar bears, penguins in scarves, an ice city,  and Mexican piñatas, which were to be made into giant light sculptures. The central feature was a massive faery-tale castle on an island in a river. We, the designers from Vulcan Works, created all the features on show at Luminasia. I was the designer’s right hand, and took an active role in coordinating the project, seeing each phase become reality. It helped me understand how the design industry works.

During the process, I had to interact with people from various different countries, and I was often the only participant from Russia. Despite my age, I had 18 subordinates, and embraced the full responsibility of my role. It was difficult, but now I know I can rise to any professional challenge that may come my way.

I am currently preparing for a similar project, a festival due to take place in Los Angeles at the end of the year.

Video about the festival

See also:

‘The Form of a Building Plays a Supportive Role; the Main Thing is Its Content’

Environmental design shapes the reality around us. It is the appearance of spaces, buildings, and objects that surround us. What is happening in this field today? What awaits us in the future? And how do we prepare for it? The HSE News Service discussed these and many other topics with Boris Bernaskoni, Head of Environmental Design Studies at the HSE Art and Design School.