East German Doll Houses: Miniature Interiors Showcase the History of Design in the GDR

Few people may be aware today just how popular East German doll houses and their furniture used to be in West Germany in the period between the 1950s and 1970s. Pick up any West German mail-order catalogue from that period, or look at photographs of children’s rooms and it seems quite obvious that toytown was never divided by a wall. There was a good reason for the popularity of these miniature interiors: they were sophisticated designs lovingly crafted in a style we would now refer to as mid-century and search out in vintage collections such as Gallery Central Berlin or on eBay.

Miniature Berlin; Source: Elena Noeva / Shutterstock

Toy Making as a Valuable Asset

Thuringia and the Ore Mountains had a proud tradition of toy making dating back to before the First World War, which they continued to build on in the aftermath of World War II. East German toy manufacturers were known for design innovations and high quality at lower prices than their competitors in the West. Toy making was a valuable asset to the East German economy as a source of western currency, and was deliberately targeted at western markets. In a sense, and perhaps somewhat ironically, the toys manufactured by companies such as Wichtelmarke, Ulrich und Hoffmann KG, VEB VERO, Olbernhau, and Herrmann Rülke were a reflection of the West German “economic miracle”.

Central Berlin - Logo Wichtelmarke
Logo Wichtlemarke; Source: diepuppenstubensammlerin.blogspot.de

Reliving the Fifties and Sixties – Authentic Miniature Interiors

Pieces of doll-house furniture made in the 1950s are every bit as airy and extravagant as their larger counterparts in the “real” world. Design trends are dominated by bold fabric patterns and curvy shapes: think kidney-shaped coffee tables, closets and chests of drawers resting on slim feet, windows filled with flowers and linoleum flooring. During the 1960s, more solid furniture became fashionable, with wall units making their first inroads into German living rooms and space-age references drawing inspiration from the first moon landing on 21 July 1969.

Central Berlin - Puppenstube 1950
Livingroom 1950s – Wichtlemarke; Source: diepuppenstubensammlerin.blogspot.de

“Shapes were still light and airy, though less playful or even extravagant than before and rather simple,” as collector Astrid Keusemann from Duisburg explains. Window boxes were replaced by tall vases, radios by televisions. New trends such as glass bricks and bungalow-style architecture, wall-to-wall carpeting and plastic, the all-purpose material beloved of contemporary designers, are all showcased in doll houses made during the 1960s.

Central Berlin - Puppenstube 1960er
Livingroom end of 1960s – Company Paul Hübsch; Source: diepuppenstubensammlerin.blogspot.de

Prefab Buildings on a Miniature Scale

East German toy makers even created miniature versions of prefab buildings. Of course, these had to be furnished with tiny replicas of the minimalistic and functional pieces developed by MDW (Montagemöbel Deutsche Werkstätten). Inspired by modular design concepts, VEB VERO in the Ore Mountains went so far as to make entire doll houses consisting of stackable rooms.

West German Competitors Start Catching Up

“While most doll-house furniture created before the 1970s was strikingly similar in design to Western counterparts, during the 1970s East German toy makers started to develop their own style, which at times seemed quite quirky to Western eyes,” the collector Jörg Bohn from Rheinberg says. This resulted in a rapid loss of popularity. It may be no accident that this downturn coincided with the nationalisation of private enterprises in 1972. Material shortages and generic manufacturing templates made it harder for toy makers to come up with innovate designs and their products lost much of their unique appeal.

Central Berlin - Puppenhaus Bodo Henning
Livingroom 1970s – Bodo Henning; Source: diepuppenstubensammlerin.blogspot.de

However, the East German toy makers’ legacy and expertise lived on west of the border. Anybody who is interested in historic doll houses will have heard of Bodo Hennig, who was apprenticed as a toy maker in the Ore Mountains before moving to Bavaria in the 1950s. His doll-house designs were inspired by the latest trends in furniture design, many of them detailed attempts to recreate pieces from contemporary catalogues.

Doll Houses as Perfectly Preserved Time Capsules

UToday, East German doll houses from the mid-20th century can serve as pure time capsules that bear witness to a historic design period. While lived-in interiors are constantly redecorated and updated to suit changing tastes and trends, the aesthetic sensibilities of another era are preserved perfectly in a doll house rediscovered in the attic. That’s what makes them so irresistibly charming. CENTRAL BERLIN apartments are a large-scale version of the same concept: an opportunity to own a unique piece of East German history preserved in the historic wedding-cake style buildings.