Vitra museum’s exhibition of design during 40 years of a divided Germany challenges lazy stereotypes to unveil a complex story of unlikely connections
The Vitra Design Museum was founded in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down ahead of German reunification in 1990. How appropriate then that it should host the first exhibition to look at German design in both the East (German Democratic Republic) and the West (Federal Republic of Germany) during the four decades of separation.
The resulting show, German design 1949-1989 – Two Countries, One History, challenges the popular but lazy stereotypes that have prevailed – that of the sleek, functionalist and sophisticated designs of West Germany and the cheap, tacky and generally all round inferior output of the GDR, perhaps best personified by the Trabant car, the butt of so many jokes. However the reality, says VDM director Mateo Kries, was ‘much more complicated and interesting’.
Rather than highlight just the well-covered differences, this new show is more interested in the parallels and crossovers that existed despite the very different political regimes and economic conditions. Perhaps some of the similarities should be of no surprise – after all, some of the leading designers of the time had studied together at Bauhaus, and maintained contact despite the divide.
But even more than 30 years after the wall came down, perceptions of the GDR are hard to shift. As Philip Kurz, director of exhibition co-producer the Wüstenrot Foundation, says, the walls of divisions were immaterial as well as material, and ‘if we are completely honest, have not completely vanished’.
As a non-German, Vitra Design Museum curator Erika Pinner says she perhaps benefited from an outsider’s perspective. With no set agenda at the onset, research for the exhibition started with an exploration of the differences, before identifying a more nuanced design narrative than the received binary stereotypes of East and West.
‘There are a lot of misconceptions about East German design and we want to rectify some of that. At the same time, we do not want to romanticise what was happening in GDR,’ she says.
Designed by Konstantin Grcic, the exhibition introduces the division of Germany and then explores parallels, similarities and differences in the following decades up to reunification.
In both Germanys, it is clear that design played an important part in the construction of a new national identity, with the FRG keen to eradicate the fascist past of the Nazi regime, and both countries embarking on major reconstruction – from passports, currency and emblems, to household consumer goods. Another focus was creating designs to exhibit at international trade shows, which were important to both for economic recovery.
‘Both states understood the importance of design in reconstructing and developing the national identity. It had a crucial role to play and was taken very seriously,’ says Pinner.
However the designers of the East and West were of course working in very different political contexts, even more so after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cold War that followed. In the beginning of the GDR in the 50s, Pinner says debates on Formalism suggested that modernism was Western and capitalist, and so shouldn’t be used. Instead, design should be inspired by the Soviet model while incorporating traditional German heritage. There was no doubt that the standard of materials, and budgets, available to designers was lower in the East than the West. Nor that designers were working with very different objectives, with those in the centrally-controlled East prioritising longevity and mendability over the capitalist consumerism of the West, which could sustain changing styles. The work of Dieter Rams and others helped further the reputation of West Germany for high quality design of consumer goods. Rather than status symbols such as Porsche luxury cars for the few, the GDR’s Office for Industrial Design, we learn, aimed to produce affordable products for broad sections of the population.
Nonetheless there are still striking parallels. Designers on both side of the wall were experimenting with materials and in particular plastics – Rams’ record player for Braun was known as ‘snow white’s coffin’ because of its innovative Plexiglas lid. Designers in both countries were influenced by the space age, and this is reflected in the aesthetic of some designs of that time. Peter Ghyczy’s groovy polyurethane Garden Egg Chair of 1968, for example, was designed in the West but mass produced in the East, although it would have been unaffordable to residents there. In the same year, Rudolf Horn designed the more sober MDW-Einbauwand modular storage system that proved popular all over the GDR.
The last section covers the period from the oil crisis of 1973 to 1989. By this time, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik approach of rapprochement with East Germany was a prelude of the changes to come. This time also saw the completion of a major design project for the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, which served as the parliament of the GDR, and lighting from this important project is included in the exhibition.
This section takes in the DIY movement, ecology, and the anti-functionalism of the 70s, as well as moves towards the digital – one of the first Apple computers was designed by the German agency frogdesign. Meanwhile, the GDR’s state-owned company Robotron developed the PC 1715 computer in 1985 for government authorities, state-owned companies, and universities.
While the work of Dieter Rams for Braun and Otl Aicher’s pictograms for the Munich Olympics are familiar, there’s plenty from what Pinner describes as GDR’s ‘rich design culture’ that will be fresh to exhibition visitors. And today, more than 30 years on from the GDR’s demise, there are some aspects of the East German approach to design that resonate strongly with the challenges of sustainability – that of frugality and the idea of creating longer lasting products that are capable of repair, rather than disposal. Fittingly, after its opening presentation at VDM, the exhibition is travelling to the former East Germany for a stint in Dresden, before touring internationally.
German Design: 1949 – 1989 Two Countries, One History, until 5 September 2021 at the Vitra Design Museum and from October 15 to February 20 2022 at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden