June 20, 2024


Built General Tough

Design from the FRG and the GDR in the Vitra Design Museum

I.In the East plastic and cardboard, in the West strict functionalism, high-quality materials: this is a classic prejudice about East German and West German design. An exhibition in the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, which was created in collaboration with the Dresden Museum of Applied Arts.

“German design 1949–1989. Two countries, one story, ”it is called and, a good 30 years after reunification, it is not only an equal consideration of two different living environments, but also shows – often surprising – parallels, cross-references and similarities.

The two curators Erika Pinner (Vitra Design Museum) and Klara Nemeckova (Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden) gathers: dishes, furniture, posters, fashion. From Mitropa jugs to Porsches, from Dieter Rams’ Braun devices to chicken and egg cups, from the kissing mouth logo of the city of Bonn to the cover of the magazine “Kultur im Heim”.

The East German objects are particularly exciting, if only because they are much less well known, because, as the young curator duo put it, “West German design still exists in our everyday lives today, while East German design has disappeared”. There is not much more than traffic light men and chicken and egg cups left. At the same time, the exhibition clears up the misunderstanding that there was no innovative design in the GDR and that East German designers made no contribution to overall German design.

Rams' Braun pocket calculator ET33 meets “Rationell” jug by Margarete Jahny and Erich Müller

Rams’ Braun pocket calculator ET33 meets “Rationell” jug by Margarete Jahny and Erich Müller

Source: © Vitra Design Museum, illustration: Daniel Streat, Visual Fields

“Even if there was a shortage of individual resources in the GDR, there was no shortage of own ideas,” says Erika Pinner. Klara Nemeckova adds: “After the fall of the Wall, you only looked at the political system and denied the country any independent creativity and aesthetic culture. We would like to refute that with the exhibition. Of course, we don’t leave the political out of the equation. ”If you could make a wish, the two curators say, it is that you learn something about both countries through the exhibition – and also about your own country through the mirror of the other.


There is, for example, the stacking crockery, which has classic status in East and West: in the west the famous “TC 100” hotel stacking crockery by Hans (“Nick”) Roericht, which he wrote in 1958/59 as a thesis at the Ulm University of Design (HfG) had designed. And in the east the “Rationell” system service, often referred to as “Mitropa” crockery, a design by Margarete Jahny and Erich Müller from the late 1960s. Both are very similar. As early as 1950, as a student project, Jahny had designed a stacking jug, the forerunner of “Rationell”.

Outside only jugs: jug from the catering utensils

Outside only jugs: jug from the catering utensils »Rationell« (Mitropa version), 1970, by Margarete Jahny and Erich Müller

Source: © Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo: Gunter Binsack

Stacking dishes west: Hans (“Nick”) Roericht's hotel service “TC 100”, 1958/59

Stacking dishes west: Hans (“Nick”) Roericht’s hotel service “TC 100”, 1958/59

Source: © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm / Wolfgang Siol, 1961

“Thinking in systems is a very German phenomenon. It is a common building on pre-war modernism. It’s not about who did it first or who did it better, ”emphasizes Erika Pinner. Klara Nemeckova adds: “It is an absurd assumption that in 1950 it would ‘click!’ made, and then there was the GDR design. Sometimes the East and West German designers studied together at the Bauhaus. “

Incidentally, the West German porcelain manufacturer Bauscher copied the principle of the securely anchored lid developed by Jahny’s colleague Müller at the Leipzig trade fair in 1969 before the patent was registered.

Rudolf Horn’s club chair is often accused of being the cheap GDR copy of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona Chair (1929). In fact, as a young designer, Horn, who with his furniture system for the Deutsche Werkstätten has shaped East German living rooms like no other, was deeply disappointed with his idol and the comfort of the Barcelona Chair. So he tinkered with a new steel strip construction until he had made the chair swing. “Horn’s armchair also refutes the prejudice that modernism was not received in the GDR,” explains Nemeckova. Horns club chair, which was rarely found in the GDR because it was purely an export item, has been reissued since 2019.

Export article: Rudolf Horn's club chair (1964) was created out of disappointment with the comfort of Mies van der Rohes "Barcelona chair"

Export article: Rudolf Horn’s club chair (1964) was created out of disappointment with the comfort of Mies van der Rohe’s “Barcelona Chair”

Source: © Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Andreas Sütterlin

West-east-west cross-border commuters

A crossover in the other direction, which is shown in the exhibition, is Peter Ghyczy’s ufo-like folding garden armchair made of polyurethane, the so-called “Senftenberger Egg”, which is often wrongly classified as a typical GDR design. In fact, Ghyczy designed the space-inspired garden egg in 1967/68 as the chief designer of the West German plastics company Elastogran. Because the armchair had to be painted by hand, the production was not profitable. And so the owner sold the technology and design to VEB Synthesewerk Schwarzheide near Senftenberg in the early 1970s. Part of the deal was the delivery of 15,000 pieces to the FRG. The GDR was an important supplier of consumer goods to the FRG in the 1970s, and Ikea not only had production in the east – sometimes by prisoners – but also took on factory designs. Scandinavian design from the VEB metal handle hall.

Border crossers from west to east: Peter Ghyczy's folding garden armchair, called “Senftenberger Egg”, 1968

Border crossers from west to east: Peter Ghyczy’s folding garden armchair, called “Senftenberger Egg”, 1968

Source: © Vitra Design Museum / Jürgen Hans

Another German-German success story is the “Kangaroo Chair” or “Hockender Mann” called Z-Chair by the West German designer Ernst Moeckl. The polyurethane cantilever chair was created around the same time as Verner Panton’s famous Panton chair. Because the Z-chair was produced by the VEB Petrochemisches Kombinat Schwedt, it is often considered an East German design classic. Moeckl’s chair was just as popular in West Germany as it was in East Germany. The Z-chair has also been in production again since 2020: by a family business in Chemnitz.

“German design 1949–1989. Two countries, one story ”, March 20 to September 5 in the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein. From October 15th in the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Dresden

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