One of the many surprises of a new exhibition on design in socialist East Germany, which has just started in Berlin and will remain open until March 2017, is the extent to which creativity was able to flourish in a planned economy.
Of course, the term “design” wasn’t used in official GDR parlance – it was known as “Formgestaltung” (form shaping) instead. Life under the socialist regime was full of these linguistic quirks: the small flags given to spectators to wave during parades and other large public events were called “Winkelemente” (waving elements) rather than simply “Fähnchen” (small flags). Christmas decorations, angels in particular, were known as “Jahresendzeitfiguren” (end-of-year figurines) to avoid any religious connotations. Perhaps most amusing of all, whenever the East German leader Erich Honecker was mentioned on the news, the newsreader had to refer to him by his full title, which was quite a tongue twister: “Generalsekretär des Zentralkomitees der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands und Vorsitzender des Staatsrats der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik” (General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic).
To return to the exhibition, form in the sense of formal requirements served as a kind of putty that would hold the crumbling regime together until its bitter end. Beautiful things grew wherever there were small cracks in the system that allowed for a limited measure of artistic freedom. Even state-sponsored artists like Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Bernhard Heisig created works of art that transcended the socialist dictatorship and continue to command respect and high prices. The art world has long discovered and re-assessed the creative spirit beyond the confines of ideology.
Design, however, is art’s poor cousin. Accordingly, the treasures that were created in the studios of East German designers have so far only been appreciated by very few insiders and experts. That’s a shame because from vacuum cleaners to living-room furniture, many of the everyday objects surrounding GDR citizens are well worth taking a closer look at. Again and again, western influences shine through any attempts to erase them and develop an autonomous design language. The iconoclastic Danish designer Verner Panton, for example, left an indelible mark on the East German “form shapers”. Above all, they were protected by a political regime that couldn’t have cared less about intellectual property and copyrights. This meant that Panton’s designs were marketed as GDR originals with very minimal amendments. From the vantage point of today, these pieces are more than just oddities – in both form and content, they bear material witness to a now-vanished period in history. You don’t even need to be an expert to recognise plagiarised versions of western models among the exhibits on show in the Kulturbrauerei in the Eastern part of the city. Of course, there are also plenty of authentic pieces, designed in a style that followed the aesthetic guidelines dictated by the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic have both been consigned to the scrap heap of history. However, many of their relicts are well worth preserving. There is a growing collectors’ market that recognises the cult value of designs such as the RFT radio, the Simson moped and Mitropa tableware. Objects that once changed hands for next to nothing at the “Polish market” immediately after the fall of the Wall have now become profitable investments.
Speaking of the “Polish market”: the no man’s land where it was held has long been transformed as well. Today, Potsdamer Platz is all shiny and new – a few fragments of the Wall, now a popular backdrop for selfies, are all that’s left of the site’s troubled history. The vision of designing a more humane, affordable, fair and sustainable way of life for everybody has failed once and for all.
What’s left are material objects: toys designed by Manfred Schindler, medical devices by Peter Rossa, decorative fabrics by Ursula Klepper, bistro furniture by Dieter von Amende. Obsolete yet unsurpassable, they meet the dictionary definition of cult status.
If pieces by Alvar Alto, Dieter Rams and Eero Saarinen dominate the stylish interiors of Strausberger Platz apartments, there’s nothing wrong with owning a piece of classic East German design. After all, bringing period pieces back to the apartments behind the impressive exteriors makes perfect sense. And for now, it’s still just about possible to snap them up for a fraction of what you’d have to shell out for a comparable piece of classic western design. Visit the exhibition for professionally curated inspiration and to shop around for designers whose work you particularly like.