Design in the GDR

Taschen’s East German Handbook provides a fascinating overview of life in the former East Germany via the design of everyday objects, brands, artworks and artefacts

Ostalgie – a German term referring to nostalgia for aspects of life in the former East Germany.

One of the more peculiar phenomena resulting from the fall of the Iron Curtain has been a rise in affection for life in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. This nostalgia – aspects of which can be found in most Eastern European countries – is most often expressed via aspects of visual culture. Packaging, magazines, posters and record sleeves encapsulate a complex set of emotions that mix some sense of regret at failed experiments in utopia with the more superficial appeal of kitsch.

9th Party Congress. We will be the Party poster, 1976

Nowhere has this idea taken hold more strongly than in Germany. A veritable industry has grown up around aspects of GDR culture, from the Trabant Tours that visitors can take around Berlin to the Ost-Ampelmännchen – the loveable behatted icon used on pedestrian crossing lights in East Berlin whose image now adorns a variety of merchandise.

Taschen’s East German Handbook (now reissued as a softback after its initial, limited run £100 edition) brings together an impressive showcase of GDR vernacular design. Drawn from the Wende Museum’s collection (the LA-based institution dedicated to preserving Cold War art culture and history from the Soviet Bloc) it’s a fascinating survey of the visual manifestation of life in the German Democratic Republic. Ostalgie drips from its pages – whether for forgotten brands, much-coveted consumer goods or propaganda posters rendered harmless in retrospect.

Menu, Milk Bar Penguin, Leipzig, 1960s

The nature of Ostalgie has been much debated. Does it spring from Ossies, former citizens of the East who now perhaps feel disillusioned with the promises of reunification? Or is it really a Western invention – a patronising dismissal of a failed state’s attempts to keep up?

East German Army Officer doll

Whatever your view, there is much to enjoy in this book – whether you come to laugh (or sneer) at such delights as the GDR’s clumsy attempts a pop culture, or even a homegrown porn industry, or for insight into what the creatively-minded were able and willing to produce under the restrictions of the regime.

Amiga Express 75 record sleeve
Poster of Othello designed by Dietrich Kaufmann for the Komische Oper Berlin, 1960s

Where the latter is concerned, it will be no surprise to learn that, as in, for example, Poland, theatre and the arts provided an outlet for graphic designers and imagemakers to produce vibrant and beautiful posters. The packaged branded goods reproduced convey the conflicted nature of the GDR’s attitude toward consumerism and the effects of the porous border with the West.

Advertisement for soda, “Drink Margon,” December 1960

The book is organised into chapters on different aspects of life in the GDR, from Vacations, to Technology to Erotica. Each is introduced by a short but well-informed text on the context of the images that follow. The Domestic Products intro, for example, discusses the communist state’s struggles to provide “the little things that matter” to citizens who were well aware of the abundance available to family members across the border. In this way, the book proves to be rewardingly informative rather than just a flick-through collection of amusing ephemera.

The East German Handbook is published by Taschen, £30. All images copyright The Wende Museum/Taschen 


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