by Jerry ElengicalMay 20, 2021
The Vitra Design Museum in conjunction with the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, and the Wüstenrot Foundation, is presenting German Design 1949–1989, Two Countries, One History - an exhibition exploring the development of design in the East and West German states after the Cold War divide, from March 20 till September 5 this year. As the first such comprehensive overview set during the postwar period, the exhibition being held at the Frank Gehry-designed museum in Weil am Rhein shuns oversimplified stereotypes commonly held about design on both sides of the border - like cheap plastic and shrill colours in the East and cool functionalism in the West. It instead explores common threads, ideological and aesthetic differences, as well as defining moments that shaped the two nations’ identities and eventually led them towards the path of reconciliation, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Funded by the country’s Federal Foreign Office, the exhibition showcases iconic automobiles such as the East German Trabant (1958) and products such as 'Snow White's Coffin' - a revolutionary radio-phono device from 1956, alongside rare, new findings like industrial designer Luigi Colani's 'PolyCOR' chair from 1968. In covering a broad range of developments within the field during this oft-overlooked period in German history, it attempts to depict the closely interwoven relationships between politics, popular culture, and design within the country.
Installations highlight the contributions of the era’s leading designers such as Dieter Rams, Egon Eiermann, Rudolf Horn, and Margarete Jahny while acknowledging influences from the Bauhaus and other German design schools. Providing snapshots of life in both German states, the exhibits include iconic pieces of furniture and lamps, examples of graphic design, industrial design, and interior design along with fashion, textiles, and personal ornaments.
Prior to the Second World War, German design gained worldwide prominence through the Bauhaus school and the Werkbund Association but set off on diverging paths after the country's division in 1949, which marks the start date of the narrative presented by the exhibition. In the East, design was regulated by the socialist planned economy of the German Democratic Republic in the Soviet sector, while it drove the economic miracle or the 'Wirtschaftswunder', seen in the Federal Republic of Germany on the Allied-occupied western side.
As both German states sought to speed up reconstruction in the wake of the war, large-scale housing programs were implemented, fuelling a growth in demand for consumer goods. Several design schools revived alongside newer ones that cropped up on either side of the border, to train young designers and cater to expanding markets ranging from automobiles and electronic appliances to tableware and furniture. Moreover, design presented a useful means of projecting an accepting, modern outlook. It also played a part in the young nations establishing their own identities as new coats of arms, emblems, currencies, passports, and pedestrian crossing symbols were developed.
A hard border was enforced by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 - as rivalries between the two political systems obtained a stronger hold in design, and cross-border collaborations declined. West Germany's consumer-driven society viewed trendy furniture and automobiles as status symbols, whereas the socialist regime in the East centrally regulated design. Conversely, products like the Garden Egg Chair, designed by Peter Ghyczy in 1968, were manufactured nearly identically on both sides of the divide.
Early signals towards reconciliation emerged in the 1970s with initiatives to stabilise relations between the two states implemented by Willy Brandt - the West German Chancellor at the time. This decade's design was characterised by heightened critical awareness, stemming from events such as the 1973 oil crisis and global economic recessions. Innovative designers in the East Berlin scene combined design and subculture to forge a new aesthetic that went beyond industrialised planning, despite the country's declining economy.
On the other side, West Germany retained its position at the forefront of global industrial design during the period's economic upheavals. The year 1974 saw the launch of the iconic Volkswagen Golf, reflecting a collective public desire for more compact, efficient automobiles. Twin exhibitions were held in East Berlin in 1984/85 and Stuttgart, featuring the other state, in the midst of political détente and growing collaboration. Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, much of East Germany's industrial production declined and many of its household names disappeared.
This neglected era of German design displays an intriguing diversity that necessitates more nuanced interpretations than the stereotypes and political divides currently associated with it. The exhibition strives to depict these changes and events through the lens of a shared German design history that gives the contributions of both sides an equal footing on which to tell their stories. In doing so, it shows that the Cold War divide was marked by more than just dissimilarities and conflict instead, featuring many common threads that transcended geographical and ideological barriers.
German Design 1949–1989, Two Countries, One History is on view from March 20- September 5, 2021, at the Vitra Design Museum, with online opening days from March 19-April 8.