The Packaging Design Industry After Saying Goodbye to the Soviet Union

The Rising Star of Baltic Packaging Design: From the Iron Curtain to Global Standards

By: Edvardas Kavarskas

Imagine living in a country where the government is the only brand manager of all products in the market. This is exactly what it used to be like working as a designer in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. To celebrate their 25th anniversary of independence, let’s dive into how Baltic countries managed to fight back and gain independence from the Soviet Union during 1990-1991—which resulted in packaging design that shaped a notable tradition and style that is still prevalent.

Quirky childhood objects

As Estonian designer Meelis Mikker tells it, he was introduced to Western packaging design in 1975-1980, when carton packs of milk, juice and household cleaners (coming from Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark) were regularly washing up on shore due to the storms. Meelis collected these packs and put them on display at home, having no idea he would become a packaging designer one day.

I was born in a Soviet (yet already rumbling) Lithuania, in 1982. My childhood memories are filled with tetrahedrons of молоко (milk) lying around, chewing the Estonian-made Kalev Apelsininäts (orange) bubblegum, a bottle of the Rīgas Melnais Balzams (Riga Black Balsam) resting on the grownups’ table next to Советское шампанское (Soviet champagne) which wasn’t actually champagne—it was sparkling wine.

When a state “agency” creates all the packaging

In those days, Baltic design operated inside economic limits, not market ones. No competition between brands meant no need to establish marketing strategies. Instead, ministries or other state institutions placed orders to create packaging for various products, the graphic design of which had to serve ideological and decorative functions. For instance, in Lithuania, the bureau called Experimental Package Design Bureau took care of these affairs, with around 30 designers at hand. They were referred to as “artists-constructors,” while their packaging designs were approved or dismissed by a special art council that assembled every two weeks!

Gediminas Lašas—who used to work at the bureau at the time—remembers this institution being part of a joint production association Vilnis, which included a whole printing house equipment that specialized in packaging production. The “artists-constructors” could observe the technological operations and be part of the production process, which actually resulted in some great designs. However, even though everything was designed relatively well, the technology couldn’t catch up with the one over the Iron Curtain. The packaging of products which went to international exhibitions were of better quality since such items had to show that Soviets weren’t behind westerners in terms of technology.

From planned activities and distinctive traditions to an independent uncertainty

As the Baltic countries all had solid art schools of higher education, different professionals from the fields of graphic arts, painting or art history worked on packaging design together. A distinctive Baltic packaging design aesthetics were different from the rest of the USSR—it was minimalistic at times, ascetic even, brutal and possessing hints of constructivism. And vice versa—highly decorative, with sometimes ethnographic elements added to it. These designs were arguably a reflection of the earlier days of Interwar independence (1918-1940). Also, almost every design relied on typography and aimed to create genuine artistic value as there was no competition.  

The lack of professional feedback from art critics posed a substantial problem during the Soviet days. Piia Poldmaa, an Estonian designer, says that every magazine or a piece of packaging brought from outside the Iron Curtain was very valuable: people used to sell or collect empty Western packs, even cans of drinks!

1985 had Mikhail Gorbachev steering the Soviet Union in a new direction; the processes of restructuring took over with the message of openness. The first advertising agency in Lithuania opened its doors in 1989: Astos dizainas (now McCann Vilnius).

1989 also witnessed two million Baltic residents achieving something quite unbelievable: a live chain of people holding hands named the Baltic Way, stretching over 600 km through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This symbolic gesture showed the world that these three countries weren’t part of the Soviet Union anymore. Lithuania and Latvia declared independence in 1990, Estonia in 1991. Grand systemic and philosophical shifts were about to take place.

Stay tuned for part 2 of The Rising Star of Baltic Packaging Design.

I’d like to thank Karolina Jakaitė, Meelis Mikker, Piia Põldmaa, Gediminas Lašas, Violeta Kasevičienė, Audrius Klimas, Dan Mikkin and Edmundas Jankauskas for their help in preparing this part.

Edvardas Kavarskas
Edvardas is the partner and design strategist of Étiquette, a strategic design agency focusing on packaging and branding. He’s also a speaker at various conferences and almost a PhD of neurodesign. Member of the Lithuanian Graphic Design Association (LGDA) and the Lithuanian Marketing Association (LiMA), Edvardas firmly believes that design is a lifestyle, an outlook rather than a job. It’s a way to understand the world and things that surround us. He sees packaging design and branding as commercial art—there’s no good or bad design. It’s either a successful or unsuccessful example of the implemented brief.