One of the most iconic products of late 20th century German design is Otl Aicher’s set of stick-figure pictograms created for the 1972 Munich Olympics, to help visitors find their way around the athletes’ village. Based on a diagonal grid system, Aicher’s signage was a masterpiece of post-Constructivist art and post-verbal communication, alluding to the legacy of the Bauhaus and Theo Van Doesburg’s Concrete Art – whilst also utilising ideas from the new discipline of semiotics. Almost all public signage in use today bears traces of its influence.
One of the less-noted facts about Aicher’s biography is that, in 1952, he married Inge Scholl, a left-wing activist whose siblings, Hans and Sophie Scholl, were executed in 1943 as members of the anti-Nazi White Rose Movement. After WWII, Inge and Otl, along with the artist Max Bill, co-founded the Ulm School of Design, devised as a successor institute to the Bauhaus, which had closed under Nazi pressure in 1933. The Ulm School’s principles of simple, efficient, aesthetically pleasing construction – mirrored across the whole of German creative culture at this time – were not only rooted in Northern-European artistic traditions, then, but reflected the transnational humanism of the anti-Nazi resistance: an attempt to use design to build bridges between states and societies. This is the sentiment at the heart of Vitra Design Museum’s latest exhibition, which threads together the similarities and differences between the design cultures of East and West Germany, from 1949–1989.
By the time the school was founded, of course, Germany had been split in two, and the internationalism of post-war artists and intellectuals was being tested to breaking point by the Cold War. Over the next few decades, as the curators of German Design note, stereotypes of “cheap plastic and shrill colours in the East, cool functionalism in the West” gained currency, so that a conscious effort is required today to piece together a unifying narrative of post-war German design.
That is the aim of the exhibition, whose story begins in 1949 with the formation of the two rival states. From that point onwards, design was to play a separate role in the economic recovery of each state, powering a consumerist boom in the West and socialist state planning in the East. Both countries also set about creating distinct visual identities for themselves, from coats of arms to currencies, passports and pedestrian crossing signals. But they shared a common heritage in the practical, anti-ornamental aesthetics of the Bauhaus, where many designers across both states had trained. The epoch known as mid-century modernism made its presence felt across both East and West.
Indeed, many of the quintessential consumer objects of the era, such as Peter Ghyczy’s Garden Egg Chair, were manufactured almost identically on both sides of the border, whilst across the Soviet and Capitalist states rapid expansions in the urban housing sector – state-funded in an attempt to inject economic dynamism into the major cities – led to a rising demand for domestic products. This was an era when fine art and functional production overlapped, with concrete artist Max Bill producing well-known and affordable furnishings such as his lozenge-shaped kitchen wall clock, and Dieter Rams’s creations for Braun achieving the sort of hallowed status normally reserved for oil painting or sculpture. As for architecture, new principles of modular and system-based building were pioneered in the East, while the communist authorities also lavished creative attention on public spaces, commissioning a number of large-scale murals and artworks, such as Joseph Renau’s recently restored Die Beziehung des Menschen zu Natur und Kunst (“The Relationship between Humans, Nature and Art”), created in Erfurt in 1980-82.
The construction of the Berlin Wall from 1961 onwards heralded the start of a period of increased isolationism, and the financial fortunes of East Germany dipped sharply across the 1970s, as the country’s centralised economy began to seem a more stultifying presence. It was perhaps during this period that knee-jerk truisms about East German art and culture began to cement themselves in the consciousness of the capitalist west, although creations such as the Trabant car achieved a lasting social legacy.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the German state, a large numbers of firms, particularly in East Germany, simply folded, and receded from popular imagination. This large-scale exhibition offers a chance to revisit an intriguing and politically resonant era in recent cultural history.
German Design 1949–1989: Two Countries, One History is running until 5 September at the Vitra Design Museum. Find out more here.
Words: Greg Thomas
1. Foyer of the »Palast der Republik«, Berlin, 7 July 1977 (Architecture: Heinz Graffander) © ddrbildarchiv.de / Manfred Uhlenhu
2. Karl-Heinz Adler and Friedrich Kracht, cinder-block wall, Berlin, Hohenschönhausen, 1979/1981, Friedrich Kracht Archive, courtesy of Karin Kracht
3. Rudolf Horn and Eberhardt Wüstner, MDW shelving system, 1967, Archive Rudolf Horn, photo: Friedrich Weimer, Dresden