August 2, 2021

The design that came from the cold

By Véronique Lorelle

Posted today at 6:00 p.m.

To serve its cause, the communist regime of the former USSR created an official art, socialist realism. He has also had an impact on design, as evidenced by the exciting exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, near the Swiss border, more than three decades after the fall of the Wall. Under the title “German design from 1949 to 1989: two countries, one history”, it stages, through 350 pieces, what was happening in the two Germanies (to be seen until September 5).

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) founded in the Soviet occupation zone, the legendary Trabant (1958), the people’s car – a sort of soap with a recycled plastic body, affectionately known as “Trabi” – accelerates the motorization of the population . In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the pulpy Porsche 360, on the mechanical bases of the Volkswagen Beetle, although reserved for an elite, roars on the roads of the West. On the one hand, colorful and inexpensive plastic objects, such as this desirable two-tone watering can (1960) by Klaus Kunis, on the other a cold, elegant and efficient functionalism.

Advertisement for the Trabant 601 Universal (1965).

“From the birth of the two new states, design contributed to the creation of new identities which were reflected, in particular, in the various national coats of arms, coins, identity cards, and even in the famous symbolic figures on traffic lights ”, underlines the curator of the exhibition, Erika Pinner. Thus are designed in the GDR, by Karl Peglau (1927-2009), funny little men in hat, the Ampelmännchen (1961), comic book style, which allow the message to be understandable by children to the elderly, including those with difficulty perceiving colors …

At the start, the break between the two Germanies was tenuous. The two states meet and confront each other during the Leipzig fair in 1946, and the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. Each, anxious to promote design, the standard bearer of revolutionary utopia here, or of a liberal economy there, creates or revives schools, from which will emerge young talents for the industry of the booming reconstruction. However, teachers often studied together at the Bauhaus art school or other schools under the Weimar Republic, before World War II.

Signs of wealth

In both states, public housing programs are causing a rapid increase in the demand for consumer goods: furniture, dishes, cars or appliances. Some objects cross borders, such as the futuristic Garden Egg Chair by Peter Ghyczy (1968), produced with minor differences in East and West Germany. Difficult to know the origin of a model – except for those stamped “A stamp under the seat for products created in the East”, specifies the commissioner.

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