Almost independently of each other, distinct design languages emerged in both parts of Germany. While the Federal Republic produced superstars such as Dieter Rams, the East German style was driven by anonymous collectives that developed original ideas as well as imitations. For those who have never heard of Dieter Rams: he was a pioneer of the functionalist “less is more” approach to industrial design. From 1961 to 1995, he worked as Chief Design officer at Braun, once literally a household name in consumer electronics that has since disappeared off our radar.
East German designers never got to be household names in the first place. That’s not to say that they vanished without a trace – and it goes without saying that Strausberger Platz is a prime location to discover some of those traces: from simple manhole covers still bearing the inscription “VEB – Volkseigener Betrieb” (“nationally-owned company”) to the interior design of the apartments around the square. Irene Henselmann, whose husband was the lead architect responsible for the Strausberger Platz ensemble, designed everything from door handles to wall-mounted kitchen units.
Only a few of the apartments at Strausberger Platz have been preserved in their original East German state. After the Fall of the Wall, lot of effort went into restoring the square and its tree-lined boulevard to their former glory. Many buildings required extensive interior and exterior renovation work. Today, Strausberger Platz is protected by a preservation order. Along with its unique architectural style, the remarkable history of the square is a reason why many people choose to live here. And for anybody looking for remains of authentic East German design, Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee are a treasure trove.
DDR Limited Galerie contains some particularly noteworthy exhibits including chandeliers by Peter Rockel that once graced the ceiling of the East German Ministry of Construction and remnants of the metal ceiling in the late-night bar at Café Moskau. Most of these gems were made in nationally-owned companies with grandiose names, e.g. Kombinat NARVA “Rosa Luxemburg”.
Only a short while ago, any attempts to find out more about the designers and creative geniuses behind these styles were doomed to fail. Nowadays, many of the commodity items that were mass-produced for the working population have become cult objects, with dedicated online forums such as www.industrieform-ddr.de and www.stiftung-industrie-alltagskultur.de catering for collectors and aficionados. The sheer volume of information compiled here is impressive – conclusive evidence that East Germany did have its very own sophisticated design language.
Hedwig Bollhagen (1907–2001) is only one of many discoveries to be made here. Before the Fall of the Wall, the grande dame of ceramics ran one of the few privately owned companies in East Germany. Her designs, the best examples of which are on view in one of the Strausberger Platz apartments, are genuinely eye-catching. She used plates, teapots and cups to achieve similar effects that were similar to what Paul Smith did with stripes on textiles. Her trademark was the combination of white and blue. Even before World War II, she was awarded a gold medal for her designs at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. Today, ceramics bearing her HB mark are considered modern classics.
Whether the Trabant deserves the same epithet is debatable. East Germans had to wait for up to 15 years for their Trabi, as the cars made from a plastic-like material were affectionately known, and people used to joke that your safest bet was to order one for your child when registering the birth. Today, “Trabi Safaris” through Berlin and, needless to say, along Karl-Marx-Allee are extremely popular with tourists. For Strausberger Platz residents, many of whom experienced East German culture at first hand, watching a parade of “lunchboxes on wheels” clatter around Strausberger Platz is a strange sight.
Compared to the Trabi, its bigger brother, the Wartburg, was a “dream car”. The design by Professor Karl Clauss Dietel won the prestigious 2015 German Design Award – a recognition of his role as one of East Germany’s leading industrial designers. Dietel’s manifesto on the sustainable use of resources remains as relevant as ever. Back in the day, his advocacy for more ecological awareness and efficient production processes got him into trouble with the East German leadership. His vision of an “open design principle” was based on the idea of simplifying his designs in order to allow end users to carry out maintenance and repair tasks and technical upgrades without the help of an expert.
Today, we can only dream of being able to fix a splintered smartphone screen by ourselves. For Dietel, the be-all and end-all of contemporary design was to empower consumers to resolve even complex technical problems. His Mokick SR4-2 Star is another cult object that exemplifies East German design at its best. Many more potential design classics are still awaiting discovery. You don’t even have to be an Ostalgiker – a person who feels nostalgia for life under the communist regime – to appreciate their qualities.