Designing through the Berlin Wall

East German design studio Cyan was forced into some pretty bold tactics to access the tools it needed in the late 80s, as a forthcoming show at the new museum Poster House in New York reveals

Cyan, Bauhaus Programme January/February, 1993

Designers who started out in the pre-digital age often don’t hold back when it comes to reminding people of the nuances of their craft in a world without Photoshop – the IRL layout boards, scalpel injuries, manual typesetting and so on. But these tales reach a new level with German studio Cyan, which was so keen to push its craft that before the fall of the Berlin wall, it smuggled its first computer over the east German border, disguised as a TV, in 1988.

Cyan was formally founded in east Germany by Detlef Fiedler and Daniela Haufe soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. The pair’s design career up to this point had seen them having to source tools and materials from the west, through friends and black market connections. Their longstanding interest in tech was nurtured when they finally got their hands on more computers after the wall fell, with a dealer in west Berlin furnishing them with a Macintosh Classic and Postscript laser printer.

The studio soon started using PageMaker and Photoshop; experimenting with type and layout in ways that had been impossible – or at the very least, expensive and time-consuming – up to that point. Their poster work was among the first to take advantage of early desktop publishing tools while heavily referencing concepts and ideas from the Bauhaus.

The school’s approach seems a natural fit for them, with Haufe having no formal arts training other than her work as a publishing house’s typesetter; while Fiedler trained as an architect before becoming one of the founders of Grappa, the first graphic design agency in east Germany.

Cyan still operates today, and its early work is soon to go on show as one of the inaugural exhibitions at Poster House, a new gallery in New York dedicated to the form, and the first of its kind in America, according to the institution. Work from 1992-1997 by Cyan will be displayed in their first US show, and while it’s certainly distinctive, there’s a touch of Vaughan Oliver and David Carson to it all.

The studio’s work is characterised by its use of layering and avoidance of the traditional grid systems. Using varying transparencies of lettering and contrasting colours, the idea was that the posters work on the viewer in two different ways: up close, they’re abstract and tiny lines of text become visible; from afar, it’s only possible to decipher the layering of bright colours and the snippets of visible photographic imagery. The Poster House suggests that the approach is deliberately one that “turns the idea of ‘good design’ on its head”.

Cycles Perfecta by Alphonse Mucha, 1902

Alongside the Cyan exhibition, the Poster House opens with a larger show of Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha. Born in 1860 in then-Bohemia (Czech Republic today), Mucha later moved to Paris and shot to fame when he created a poster for French actress Sarah Bernhardt.. He soon realised the appeal of using scantily clad, or at least, deliberately alluring women in his advertising poster work for products including biscuits, bicycles and booze.

Poster House will open on June 20, with an identity created by Paula Scher and her team at Pentagram New York. Scher is also one of the members of the advisory board, which includes designer and author Steven Heller; Cooper Hewitt’s Curator of Contemporary Design, Ellen Lupton; graphic designer, writer and educator Gail Anderson and, historian and journalist Eve Kahn.