August 1, 2021

“There is not an East or West German style, but a myriad of styles”

By Véronique Lorelle

Posted today at 6:00 p.m.

Erika Pinner, curator of the exhibition “German design from 1949 to 1989: two countries, one history”, to be seen until September 5 at the Vitra Design Museum, looks back on what brought the two Germans together in terms of design, despite the iron Curtain.

Your exhibition tends to emphasize the parallels between the designs of the GDR and the FRG, hence the title of the exhibition. Why ?

Erika Pinner, in February.

Most people associate West Germany with sophisticated functionalism and East Germany with cheap, cheap plastic products. We wanted to demystify these stereotypes by showing the breadth of creations and craftsmanship on both sides of the Wall. Of course, the design in each country is different. Designers from the East have attempted to break the rigidity of standardization through beautiful, colorful public art projects such as the flamboyant mural in Erfurt by Spanish-born artist Josep Renau, an immigrant to Germany from the Is in 1958, which is shown in the exhibition.

West German designers also sought to break with the dominant principle of “Form follows function” in the 1980s, creating unique experimental pieces. In general, there is no such thing as an “East” or “West” German style, but a myriad of styles on both sides.

In both states, the public has been educated on “die gute form”. What was it all about?

After the Second World War, the FRG had the duty to conceive of itself as a democratic country following National Socialism, the regime of 1933-1945. Designers and architects – since much of Germany was destroyed during the war – saw in this clean slate the opportunity to see society differently. They tackled injustices and major problems in society, according to modernist ideals born in the 1920s before the Nazi seizure of power. These design practitioners denounced kitsch and “bad design” as the avatar of a problematic society.

Various attempts have been made to educate the public on “good form” (the good shape): courses for students and adults (for example at the Volkshochschule Ulm, a predecessor of the Higher School of the Shape of Ulm, or HfG), magazines (including Form, 1957) as well as exhibitions (“Interbau”, 1957). The 1950s were a decade in which a lot of energy and money was spent on these strategies.

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All these efforts, as well as the “economic miracle” (Economic miracle) of the 1950s paid off in the 1960s: the world began to see West Germany as an open-minded and well-designed country, separate from its Nazi past. Large international companies such as Lufthansa (whose identity was created by graphic designer Otl Aicher) have put Germany “on the map” and exporting, for example of the Volkswagen Beetle, has become a priority for the country. “Made in Germany” was no longer a taboo.

LWas kitsch also frowned upon in the GDR?

Yes, in the 1950s kitsch, or “bad taste”, was also frowned upon in the GDR. Some former Bauhaus students were staunch socialists and as such stayed in the East because they believed that Modernist ideals could be better realized there. They tried to eliminate kitsch because it was not seen as necessary or useful for productive socialism. Courses, magazines and exhibitions have also been offered there, to educate the population. The parallels between the two Germanies are therefore much more numerous than they appear.