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“Cold, Clean, Meaningless”: Industrial Design and Cultural Politics in the GDR 1950−1965

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2023

Matthew Philpotts
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
Sabine Rolle
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
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Summary

THIS ESSAY WILL focus on a conflict between two competing visions of socialist design in the GDR, which drew on different aspects of the German cultural heritage and were based on diverging, untested assumptions about what was suitable for the socialist consumer. Ideologues of the ruling SED championed the doctrine of socialist realism as a suitable starting point, while members of the GDR design community supported a modernist approach to industrial design. In the first fifteen years of the state's existence this disagreement manifested itself in a considerable divergence between official rhetoric and design practice.

So far this conflict has not been satisfactorily investigated and explained, despite increased scholarly interest in recent years in the history of industrial design of the GDR. To be sure, the blocked official reception of Germany's most important modernist design institution, the Bauhaus, until its gradual rehabilitation beginning in the mid-1960s has generally been acknowledged, but it has been represented almost exclusively as a response to cold war foreign politics, and in disregard of the impact of domestic cultural-political considerations. Moreover, some scholars have assumed that the official vilification of the Bauhaus was effective in preventing the absorption and appropriation of its ideas by designers in the GDR and come to the conclusion that the undeniably modern quality of GDR design must be attributed to GDR designers seeking inspiration from concurrent West German or Scandinavian design developments, rather than considering a more direct, but unauthorized domestic appropriation of the Bauhaus heritage.

It has also been accepted that there was at least some explicit polemic against “formalist” industrial design during the early 1950s, when designers were urged to explore instead specific aspects of the national cultural heritage according to the doctrine of socialist realism. Yet the existence of modern designed objects dating from the second half of the 1950s has led dominant accounts to argue that, following the initial condemnations, industrial design was in some way exempted from cultural-political discourse on the most appropriate application of socialist realist principles, suggesting that the official position on modernist design was somehow reversed. This has led them to the conclusion that, in terms of design, modernist culture in the GDR was, for the most part, a relatively unproblematic and uncontested affair. Such a conception makes it very difficult to provide coherent explanations for later conflicts, which were fought over almost identical territory, such as the controversy that took place during the Fifth German Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1962, during which modern designed objects were publicly vilified as cold, clean, and meaningless.

Type
Chapter
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Edinburgh German Yearbook 3
Contested Legacies: Constructions of Cultural Heritage in the GDR
, pp. 106 - 123
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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