By Jana Scholze
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom

For 40 years, the GDR labored to develop a formal and independent design aesthetic, a task made particularly challenging given the overwhelming influence of the prior period’s stylistic traditions. The Deutscher Werkbund, New Objectivity, and, especially, the Bauhaus began in Germany and became the dominant international art and design movements of the 20th century. This heritage inspired modernist thinking in East Germany despite wavering by Party leaders and their periodic rejection of Bauhaus tenets. The immediate postwar period saw various former Bauhaus members, among them Dutch furniture designer Mart Stam, accepting positions in the GDR to help create a socialist design culture. However, many left the country as a result of political protests in the 1950s and the so-called Formalismusdebatte, a political campaign against a functionalist aesthetic that resulted in the prohibition of Bauhaus principles in design and architecture and the defamation of many of its practitioners for a number of years.
Modernism subsequently became the dominant formal language not only in architecture but also in designs for products, crafts, and fashion. Fashion magazines, like Sibylle, and runways during the Leipzig Spring and Autumn Fairs corroborated international standards in clothing design. The major difference was found in the materials used for garments where East German clothing could not match the quality of its western counterparts. Moreover, advertised fashion rarely reached shops and hence the consumer. A rather pragmatic approach in contrast to the short-lived seasonal practice in the West was demonstrated by the infrequent reference to the term “fashion” and an emphasis on usability and durability. Individual fashion and design studios were a rarity. True to the socialist ideal, working in a collective was common practice for designers. Hence, only a few designers’ names were known and appreciated within the GDR and even less outside the country.
Product design followed modern aesthetic tastes, but the products’ exorbitant prices, especially electronic goods, often made them unaffordable. Furthermore, the quality of radios, televisions and hi-fi systems was often poor in comparison with foreign products. An exception was Robotron, a Kombinat, or conglomerate, that focused on the development of computer technology and also produced radios, calculators, and typewriters. Robotron became one of the leading exporters to the West, where its inexpensive printers and televisions were popular. Meanwhile, East German citizens frequently bought imported televisions from the USSR and, beginning in the 1970s, from Japan.
An industry’s long history and success enabled a certain degree of freedom and flexibility for its associates. Manufacturers like Kahla (porcelain), Lausitzer Glas, and Jenaer Glas had been in existence since before World War II and continue to be successful today.

Excerpt from “Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts  from the GDR.” Copyright © 2014 and reprinted by permission of Taschen.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus