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The Forgotten Artifacts Of Communist East Germany

A new book explores design behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1990, in the thick of the political and social upheaval that reunited East and West Germany, the citizens of East Germany were busy throwing out their things. Over the course of the year, East Germans tossed an average 1.2 tons of trash per person, as a new book on the design history of the German Democratic Republic describes. Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts from the GDR is an exhaustive, though not comprehensive, catalog of the country’s graphic and product design.

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Its author, Justinian Jampol, is the founder and executive director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, an institution dedicated to preserving Cold War artifacts and history. (The museum’s name comes from the German term for the reunification of East and West Germany, “Die Wende.”) He has been collecting surviving artifacts from East Germany since the mid-1990s. These objects, Jampol warns, are not some kind of “totalitarian kitsch,” but a viewfinder through which to understand and interpret recent history, nationalist commemorative plates and busts of Lenin and all.

TASCHEN

The book explores more than 2,500 items from the museum’s collections, including illustrated retail advertisements for preserves and canned sausage, restaurant menus, stuffed toys and action figures, cameras, flatware, tourist’s guides, street signs, and propaganda posters for workplace safety. “The objects presented in this book are luxurious and plebeian, ugly and beautiful, handmade and mass-produced, personal and official, and shades in between,” Jampol writes in his forward, observing that “Beneath the veneer of ‘propaganda’ lie the multiple realities of everyday life in the GDR—complex, indefinable, and dynamic, the gray area where cultural life and political considerations, personal expression and centralized authority, fused and clashed.”

Much of Soviet domestic design design from behind the Iron Curtain is derided as little more than copy-catting of foreign goods. But some of the designs are beautiful, like the slim, colorful plastic watering can that became ubiquitous in the GDR in the 1960s. Plastic and synthetic goods were especially pervasive in East Germany; scarce natural resources like wood, glass, and aluminum made polyurethane a default material.

This market imbalance helped usher in a wave of brightly colored modernist design, both in products and in furniture design, like the Garden Egg chair, a futuristic, weatherproof foldable plastic chair shaped vaguely like a makeup compact, or the popular Bauhaus-inspired Kangaroo chair.

Watering can, 1960s, Klaus Kunis (design), VEB Glasbijouterie Zittau (Plastic, 4 x 4 1/2 x 14 in.)

Through advertisements for state-operated Handelsorganisation or HO retail stores that rallied people around socialist shopping with slogans like “Modern People Buy the Modern Way” and “Whether It’s Cold or Hot, Seafood Is Always Delicious,” and the ubiquitous items found in every East German home–this watering can, that chair, an Intecta shelving unit in the living room–you begin to build a picture of everyday domestic life in the GDR, where fish and plastics were plentiful, but working televisions had to be imported from Japan.

Unfortunately, many East German products were thrown away in the aftermath of reunification, erasing a history of consumer design in the GDR, Jampol describes:

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Unification involved not only elimination of the old political structures in public life but erasing East German street names, tearing down buildings and monuments, and completing the process of disposal of consumer products that had begun with the East Germans themselves in 1989 and 1990. In some cases, cultural institutions, mostly under new management, de-accessioned large collections of East German artifacts or sent them to be stored in offsite warehouses where they were often rendered inaccessible. This movement was part of a wide and often silent process of excluding East Germany, and those who had lived in it, from belonging to the history of the ‘new’ Germany.

Get the book from Taschen for $150.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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