Clauss Dietel: an Iconic East German Designer

One of the biggest names in the world of German design, Clauss Dietel shaped the look of a number of products that remain inextricably linked to many people’s memories of socialist East Germany. He was also one of the pioneers of sustainable design solutions explicitly opposed to the rise of the consumerist society and its “throwaway” culture.

The Man Who Created the Wartburg 353

Clauss Dietel grew up in Saxony. His father‘s car-rental business shaped his early career choices – he qualified as a mechanic and went on to study automotive engineering in Zwickau, where he laid the design foundations for what was to become one of the GDR’s best-known products. The design for the Wartburg 353 was based on Dietel’s degree project.

Return to Academia

After graduation, Dietel got a job at the Centre for Automotive Development and Design Centre in Karl-Marx Stadt. In 1963, he started working as a freelance designer.
1967 saw him going back to university – though to a different one and in a different role. He taught at the Academy of Industrial Design in Halle for eight years and coined the term “Offenes Prinzip” during this time. A precursor to contemporary concepts of open source and open access, “Offenes Prinzip” design was based on the simple idea that products should be easy for buyers to maintain, repair and retrofit without expert help. Dietel later taught at the Technical School for Applied Arts in Schneeberg, and between 1986 and 1990 served as the school’s director.

Beyond Vehicular Design

While the Wartburg remains Dietel’s lasting claim to fame, his design for the compact Simson Mokick SR4-2 motorcycle with a top speed of 60km/40mi per hour is very popular with fans of historic bikes.

Beyond vehicular design, one of Dietel’s most commercially successful designs was a typewriter. Approximately 80,000 units of the Erika 110/120 and a whopping 500,000 units of the Erika 50/60 model were made in East German factories. All of these products were created with the user in mind and small problems were easy to fix – a world away from the cutting edge of today’s design environment, which requires guests to use an iPad to control the lighting in a posh boutique hotel!
If it hadn’t been for the Wall, Clauss Dietel’s design ideas might well have made him at least as famous as his West-German counterpart Dieter Rams, whose 1960s designs for radios and sound systems manufactured by the Braun brand were way ahead of their time. Both Dieter Rams and Karl Clauss Dietel were trailblazers for the timelessly minimalistic aesthetic that was to become the hallmark of Apple.

Better Late Than Never

After many, many years of creating iconic designs, Dietel received the Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany in honour of his lifetime achievement in 2014, the year he turned 80. In his acceptance speech, he drew attention to the work of many East German colleagues, whose contributions to the world of design also deserve recognition and appreciation.