Harf Zimmermann, from the photo series «Hufelandstrasse Berlin 1055».
Harf Zimmermann, from the photo series «Hufelandstrasse Berlin 1055». © Harf Zimmermann, 2016

Plastic hens and Snow White’s coffin

More than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vitra Design Museum is showcasing German design from 1949-89. Viewed through the prism of time, both the disuniting elements and the shared features become especially apparent.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here.

1989 was a turning point in many respects. For instance, that was the year Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum was opened in Weil am Rhein. As an exponent of jaw-dropping deconstructivist architecture, the Californian architect caused a sensation soon afterwards with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It was one of the first ‘signature buildings’, as attention-grabbing cultural edifices have been termed since then. Gehry’s bold toying with free volume not only is symbolic of the aesthetic and intellectual frolics of the post-modern, but also marks the departure from the rational, strictly functional design of late modernism. Gehry’s building currently forms the backdrop for a somewhat less glamorous design product which nonetheless also has, in its own way, a signature. We're talking about a petrol blue Trabant car. Unlike Gehry’s architecture, for this vehicle – a downright pitiful specimen from today’s perspective – 1989 was the final curtain call. The fall of the wall and the dissolution of the GDR also meant the end of the road for the unpretentious Trabant. The ‘Trabi’, as the nickname shows, had for years been the virtually unreachable object of the desires of many GDR citizens. It represented a little slice of individual freedom in a state that dominated every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
Advertising brochure Trabant 601 Universal, 1965.
Advertising brochure Trabant 601 Universal, 1965. © faksimile: Trabant Team Freital e.V. (www.trabantteamfreital.de) Freital, 2020
As if to highlight this collision of disparate design universes, the vehicles made in Stuttgart, Munich and Wolfsburg that are now common in Europe’s affluent suburbs flash by on the nearby motorway. Faster, chunkier, wider. There can scarcely be a better way to put yourself in the right frame of mind for a visit to the exhibition ‘German Design 1949–1989 – Two Countries, One History’. Incidentally, the exhibition will show you that the Trabant was by no means as primitive as it seems today: the car’s chassis was made entirely from a specially devised plastic, and was built using an innovative injection moulding process. Almost a forerunner of today’s 3D printing of shaped parts.

Von der «Formgestaltung» zum «Design»

The exhibition consists mainly in the juxtaposition of the numerous, carefully selected objects. Three perspectives are addressed: the development of ‘Formgestaltung’, as design was called at the time, in the two Germanies, and the perspective of today’s museum visitors. Some of the pieces on display, now being unearthed by the younger generation as ‘vintage designs’, may still be immediately recognisable to older German, and also Swiss, visitors.
Willy Fleckhaus, edition suhrkamp, 1963.
Willy Fleckhaus, edition suhrkamp, 1963. © Carsten Wolff, Willy Fleckhaus Archive c/o Fine German Design, Frankfurt am Main
It’s mostly the designs from the Federal Republic of Germany that have made the leap across the Swiss border, among them cars from Porsche to VW, household appliances, furniture and graphic design features. An iconic example of the latter is the cover design of Willy Fleckhaus’ Edition Suhrkamp book series. The graphic artist, who made a name for himself with the then trendy magazine Twen, created a rainbow of book spines on the bookshelves of avid Suhrkamp buyers. Electrical devices from the firm Braun, with the undeniably modern image bestowed by Dieter Rams’ linear design, are also well known in this country. His record player, known as ‘Snow White’s coffin’ owing to its plexiglass lid, is considered an icon of the times. Here and there the exhibition organisers also play with ‘(n)ost-algia’ effects, such as brightly coloured GDR plastic eggcups in the shape of hens, and Birkenstock eco-sandals dating from the 1970s. Both are cult items today.
Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot, StereoPhonosuper «SK 6» (called «Schneewittchensarg»), 1956/60.
Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot, StereoPhonosuper «SK 6» (called «Schneewittchensarg»), 1956/60. © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Andreas Sütterlin

Parallel universes of consumerism in the 20th century

Consistent reference back to contemporary history makes the juxtaposition of the two parallel universes of the 20th century especially fascinating. The two worlds differ in terms of the diametrically opposed attitudes to consumerism, based on the regimes’ disparate ideological foundations. Capitalism here, socialism there. The similarities are striking, and they become even more apparent in retrospect. Notably, the standards propagated by the Werkbund association, founded in 1907, and later by the Bauhaus movement, roam like ghosts through the various phases of both East and West German post-war modernism. These were the ideals to which people strove to reconnect after the Nazi era, especially in the western regions, in an attempt to give the nation’s morally dented reputation a makeover with products ‘Made in Germany’. But the benchmarks of modernity also continued to have an impact in the GDR. They belonged to a tradition that officially was chafed at and faced accusations of ‘formalism’, but which at the same time continued to play a role and was even privately cultivated. As a result, the historical distance allows both design worlds to appear as varieties of an epochal style that is, as a whole, modernistic. From the vantage point of the smartphone generation, ‘Snow White’s coffin’ has as great a claim to museum-piece status as the GDR Trabi. Both have their roots in a world of yesterday in which ‘design’ was instrumentalised not only for the imperative of utility but also for national, not to say nationalistic, purposes. These days, on the other hand, electronics, sport and luxury item corporations use their polished marketing machinery to establish global trends in no time at all.
Installation view «German Design 1949–1989: Two countries, one history».
Installation view «German Design 1949–1989: Two countries, one history». © Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Ludger Paffrath © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

Abundance and scarcity

Ultimately, the unhappy starting point for both East and West German post-war design was the same, to begin with: immense destruction and human suffering. In the exhibition, visitors are reminded of this with film clips from contemporary news broadcasts of the time. Particularly in the areas of what would later become the Federal Republic of Germany, which were occupied by the Western Allies – the United States, the United Kingdom and France – conditions changed rapidly. Those areas benefited from generous reconstruction assistance, the Marshall Plan. In the Soviet occupation zone from which the German Democratic Republic emerged, in contrast, a bitterer wind was blowing: the Soviet Union exacted compensation with reparations for the losses sustained in the war. This meant that many of the industrial systems, factories and facilities still remaining were stripped down and transported eastwards. Aid here – bloodletting there. This asymmetry was to intensify still further later on. Only where raw materials were concerned did the GDR have the advantage of direct oil supplies from the USSR, which gave the petrochemical industry and especially plastic production a boost. The bitter irony is that in the GDR industrial sector, which otherwise was characterised by shortages and ideological spoon-feeding, there was certainly cutting-edge design. Unfortunately, it rarely percolated down to the country’s own citizens. One example is the clever ‘Garden Egg Chair’ plastic outdoor folding seat, with its pop aesthetic. It was designed for export to the West, to bring in the much-needed foreign currency.
Peter Ghyczy, untitled (called «Garden Egg Chair» / «Senftenberger Egg»), 1968.
Peter Ghyczy, untitled (called «Garden Egg Chair» / «Senftenberger Egg»), 1968. © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Jürgen Hans

Designing a national identity

From the outset, the GDR’s economic development was hindered by allegations of illegitimacy. The West refused to recognise the East German state. Unsurprisingly, designing a national identity became a privileged arena for the rivalry between the competing systems during the Cold War. This is evidenced at the very start of the exhibition by two key elements of national affiliation: the identity card, and the money. While the Federal Republic of Germany adopted the Prussian eagle for its ID card, the GDR had to come up with something new. The ring of rye, hammer and compass (the latter symbolising the intelligentsia) in the nation’s coat of arms and on its coins represented the classes on whose shoulders the state rested, according to socialist doctrine. While the D-mark consisted of a relatively heavy copper-nickel alloy, the Ostmark was minted from the much lighter aluminium. Accordingly, it felt ‘cheaper’ and less inspiring of confidence. The most sparing use of materials, the use of alternative materials – this theme was to continue to dominate ‘design’ in the GDR, with necessity often making people inventive.
Fall of the Wall in Berlin, 12 November 1989.
Fall of the Wall in Berlin, 12 November 1989. © Tim Wegner / laif

Designers from the GDR in a new light

Theis wide-ranging, yet tightly arranged, overview has numerous surprises and discoveries in store. Devised in collaboration with the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden, the exhibition draws the visitor’s attention in particular to the ideological dimension in the design of even the most mundane everyday items. Quite a few objects from the GDR would at first glance be attributed to the supposedly more progressive West; modular furniture as well as lovingly designed therapeutic toys, especially the almost Italian-chic lamps from the (now destroyed) Palace of the Republic which, not for nothing, was popularly known as ‘Erich’s Lamp Shop’. The exhibition also pays homage to some prominent designers from the GDR who, in a way, had the misfortune of living in the wrong country. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, which is well worth a read, remind visitors that often enough, design is a story of winning. Objective criteria take a back seat.

German Design 1949 – 1989

20.03.2021 05.09.2021 / Vitra-Design-Museum, Weil am Rhein
Then at the Kunstgewerbemuseum / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and at other locations. The catalogue costs EUR 59.90 at the exhibition.

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