in Profiles | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Virtues of Polyester

East German consumer culture of the 60s

in Profiles | 02 JAN 97

Despite Chancellor Kohl's ebullient promises in 1990 of 'blossoming landscapes', the process of German reunification has not been an easy one. Wessis complain about footing the bill for the rebuilding of the East; Ossis object that they are being colonised. Huge subsidies flow in from the West, but unemployment remains significantly higher and wages lower in the East. The transition to capitalism has been deeply traumatic, and besides, the point of reference has shifted. Many of those who are materially better off than they ever were in the German Democratic Republic are disappointed with the reunification if only because in comparison with their affluent western compatriots they continue to lag behind.

This climate has given rise in much of the former Eastern bloc to a certain nostalgia for aspects of life under dictatorship, a nostalgia which helps to explain the appeal of the recent exhibition at Berlin's Kulturbrauerei, 'Wunderwirtschaft: GDR Consumer Culture and Product Design in the 1960s'. Appearing completely removed from the context in which they were produced, these East German consumer goods were transformed into objects of a different kind of consumption, feeding a set of needs newly emerged in the wake of 1989 - needs at once historical, cultural, psychological. The exhibition recalled aspects of the past that many people who came of age in the GDR still miss: a smaller, more secure world in which everyone knew everyone else, and personal relationships were characterised by solidarity. Exactly how this perspective can be reconciled with the fact of almost ubiquitous Stasi co-operation among the population is hardly clear, but nevertheless, the sentiment exists. Meanwhile, for West Germans the exhibition offered an exceptionally detailed presentation of the 'exotic' texture of everyday life in what used to be called 'the other Germany'.

'Wunderwirtschaft' is not the first exhibition in Berlin to present the discarded objects of everyday life in the GDR. It is, however, unique in its focus on consumer culture and product design, and in the amount of scholarship that went into its production. In contrast to widespread stereotypes of East German consumer provisioning as having consisted solely of shortages, bottlenecks and other crises, the exhibition and catalogue sought to recover the colour and multi-faceted nature of consumer objects, revealing many of the social, gender and generational differences in the lifestyles of East German consumers.

In this regard, the project was a success. Colour abounded. There was the plastic dishware in mustard yellow, Halloween orange and tomato red. Also displayed was an avocado green soda fountain equipped with several sets of headphones so that one could listen to the East German hit parade while simultaneously admiring the collage of LP covers and vinyl mounted behind the counter, a shrine to the pop stars of a socialist culture industry. The visual stimuli continued with the projected slides of shop windows in which overtly political text often accompanied the food, clothing, or furniture on display: 'Our trust to the party of the working class', 'Vote National Front', '15 Years GDR'. When not overtly political, the text was simply consumer-educational: 'Do you know the virtues of polyester?' Around the corner the words 'Modehaus Chic' in blue neon heralded a ladies boutique display window in which mannequins posed in the height of 60s East German fashions. At their feet lay copies of the GDR fashion magazine, Sybille, opened to layouts offering tips on the virtues of polka dots and the best possible combinations of GDR apparel made from synthetic materials like Teled (a fusion of textile and artificial leather) and Folie (plastic). The chronic shortage of raw materials raised improvisation to a cardinal virtue, for both producers and consumers.

The exhibition included the usual status symbols of postwar modernity - washing machine, refrigerator, television, automobile. Objects of mass consumption in the West, these commodities entered only gradually into the households of East Germans. For in order to help subsidise artificially low prices for goods that satisfied the most basic needs, modern industrial durables were sold at extremely high prices. The moral line that was drawn between necessity and luxury ironically enhanced the social distinctions within this 'workers' and peasants' state'. The exhibition also pointed to the symbols of a youth culture seeking distinctive identity in relation to parents, teachers and state: blue jeans, real leather boots and jackets, motorcycles, rock'n'roll, collections of photos of western pop icons clipped from western magazines. And finally, it identified the ultimate symbols of distinction: western goods, hidden behind the black-curtained entrance to the illicit realm of abundance - the Intershop. Stores where western goods were sold to tourists for western currency, the Intershops were foreign territory for GDR citizens, for whom it was illegal to possess western currency until 1974. Nevertheless, starting in the mid-60s a limited number of East Germans (particularly those working in foreign trade business and travel) did gain access to their treasures, the symbolic value of which inhered as much in the packaging as in the product itself. Home bathroom displays of empty cosmetics and soap packages, for example, were not uncommon.

Pop stars and propaganda, the mercurial fashion cycle and ever-scarce raw materials, the moral censure of luxury and articulated modes of distinction... 60s East German consumer culture was evidently rich in contradictions, the sources of which can be traced to the context of the cold war. The late 50s had brought the end of nearly 20 years of rationing as well as the emergence of a post-war generation with a certain amount of spending money, free time, a desire to shop and a sense for pleasure, all of which were in part influenced by the example of western abundance. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 could not erase these aspirations. To satisfy them, the paternalist state encouraged the expansion of self-service shopping ('Modern people buy modern'), the introduction of mail order catalogues, a campaign to improve packaging, the development of new forms of advertising, and the marketing of youth-specific commodities (Youth Radio DT64, Boxer Jeans, and Studio B, a TV music show hosted by 'the man of the 60s', Heinrich Pumpernickel).

Ever present, however, were important economic, political and ideological factors that limited the success of many of these modernising efforts and prevented the emergence of a version of modernity that might have been deemed too similar to that on the other side of the Wall. The myriad failures of the planned economy (unrealistic production goals, lack of materials, technical failures) alone provided serious obstacles to success. Meanwhile, the ideological fetishisation of production and aversion to luxury prevented the political leadership from coming to terms with a mental transition in values from durability to fashionable change, from hoarding economy to spontaneous consumption. As a result, the efforts of those working in advertising, packaging, and market research could bear few fruits. Moreover, the very guiding principles of the modernisation drive - standardisation, rationalisation of assortment, guidance and education of needs - embodied an imperative of planning unknown in the West and ultimately unrealisable anywhere. The outcome, according to Ina Merkel in her catalogue essay, was 'a modernity of the little people, characterised throughout by petty bourgeois features' (kleinebuergerliche Zuegen).

The story of East German product design in the 60s turned out to have been equally conflicted. The small section of the exhibition devoted to product design centred around the industrial design objects presented at the V. Deutsche Kunstausstellung which opened on September 22, 1962 in the Dresdener Albertinum. Among those present at the opening was Walter Ulbricht, leader of the East German Communist Party (SED). While the painting, architecture and graphics sections elicited praise from Ulbricht, the industrial design section, which included ceramics, glassware, tea and coffee services, furniture and other household goods, gave rise to 'heated discussion'. Within days a harshly critical article appeared in Neues Deutschland, hurling accusations of cold functionalism and 'Formalism', which at the time was closely associated with western avant-garde 'decadence'. A week later the Cultural Commission of the Central Committee of the SED met in Dresden to discuss the matter. Ulbricht explained at some length his negative reaction, and his remarks were later printed in the press. In part, he took exception to the simple 'primitive' forms of many of the objects. 'Some of the vases were simple cylinders,' he complained. 'For that one doesn't need an art institute with state financial support. A specialist in a porcelain factory could design that.' He also objected to the preponderance of dark colours, most notably the smoked-grey glassware and black coffee service. He pointed out the need for brilliant colours to facilitate export and thus the acquisition of foreign currency. Evidently the drab grey of everyday domestic life did not disturb him.

Why the uproar over vases and coffee cups? Presumably a head of state has more pressing things to think about. On one level, it was a simple question of taste. Attempts to reclaim avant-garde or modernist traditions, whether in literature, the fine arts, architecture or design, constituted aesthetic, if not political, opposition, and invariably ran up against the deeply entrenched prejudices of East German Spiessigkeit - a word connoting philistinism, kitsch, kleinbuergerliche aesthetic proclivities. We are back to 'the modernity of the little people'. But the question of taste is rarely simple, least of all in the context of a socialist state where it was also a question of power. 'Formalism' was anathema not only because its practitioners aspired to a realm of artistic activity autonomous from (and thus potentially critical of) the political sphere, but also because it belonged to the camp of western taste and was therefore beyond any hope of control or education. For the GDR's political leadership it was imperative to minimise as much as possible the influence of the West on domestic taste. What greater nightmare scenario for the planned economy than to have to respond to a western-driven, ever-changing structure of needs and desires?

The product design section of 'Wunderwirtschaft' is not without its problems. Displayed along with the industrial design products of 1962 are some of those from the VI. Deutsche Kunstausstellung of 1967, but space constraints at the Kulturbrauerei meant that objects from both were placed in the same vitrines, making it difficult to get a clear impression of the differences between the two. The later sets of glassware, tea services and ceramics, though, did seem to distinguish themselves from the earlier ones primarily by an avoidance of dark colours and a greater use of curved forms - apparently Comrade Ulbricht's remarks were taken to heart.

While 'Wunderwirtschaft' presented a valuable view of GDR history not dominated by the tropes of Stasi, dictatorship and planned economy, it would have benefited from a clearer delineation of the ways in which the regime left its stamp on everyday consumer practices, attitudes and assumptions. The seriousness of the project is not in question. But one fears that the experience at the Kulturbrauerei could be too easily reduced to either an exercise in nostalgia for one audience or an amusing trip to theme park Ost for another. In both instances, one's wonder at the objects precludes a genuine confrontation with the second German dictatorship.