With constant shortages even of everyday items forcing people to improvise and make the most of what they did have, necessity was truly the mother of invention in socialist East Germany. The impetus to make up for the dearth of consumer goods available in the shops and to compensate for the gap in industrial and technological development between the GDR and its western neighbours gave rise to some ingenious innovations. Driven by the desire for economic self-sufficiency and a better standard of living, the willingness to experiment was reflected in the impressive number of patent applications filed with the East German Office of Inventions and Patents – around 130,000 by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, compared to only 70,000 in West-Germany, which had a much larger population.
Image source: mischkaarndti – photocase
While not quite a household name, Hellerau is certainly on every architecture graduate’s radar. Created in 1909 in a part of Dresden where founder Karl Schmidt-Hellerau had set up his furniture workshop, Germany’s first garden city was designed by Richard Riemerschmid. As a member of the German Association of Craftsmen (Deutscher Werkbund), Schmidt-Hellerau was committed to harnessing machine technology to manufacture high-quality pieces and offering a viable alternative to the mass reproduction of unoriginal designs.
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I remember the first time I saw one: it was in Leipzig, behind a restaurant that also owned a GDR airplane. The airplane was now an event location, but somewhere behind the buildings, covered knee-high in grass, was a forgotten piece of GDR history: a Barkas, the VW Transporter van of East-Germany. I instantly fell in love with it, but soon enough it became clear that this van was no longer drivable. Ever since, I’ve been dreaming about owning a Barkas van – because they might be even more charming than the Trabant.
The sweeper for Peter Niedziella’s iconic weekly radio show “Musikalische Luftfracht” was recorded by an actual air hostess in 1970. DJ Niedziella piloted his precious musical cargo through the East German airwaves for over 20 years, flying under the radar of censorship to bring Western pop music to his many listeners. His show was an exception in the state-controlled and ideology-driven environment of East German radio. Balancing the transmission of socialist values with audiences’ yearning for some light entertainment was never an easy job.
Image courtesy of katz23 – fotolia
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