DDR Design

February 9, 2017

51gxywyzp2l-_ac_us218_I have a collection of books on art and some on design; I don’t read them, but every now and then, one will call to me for some reason, I will take it down and look through it and enjoy it. Today it was the turn of this small Taschen volume on consumer products of the former GDR. I have this book as a reminder of a now non-existent, but completely different way of looking at producing and selling everyday products.

Eastern Europe was in many ways a very difficult place to live on a day-to day level, with shortages of many things, and whole ranges of food and other products at times unobtainable. And the quality at times left a good deal to be desired, too. I went into a supermarket in Poland once where every shelf was full of pasta; there was nothing else on sale. And often there would only be one version of a product available, a box labelled ‘washing powder’ or ‘toothpaste’ for example: none of the dozens, if not hundreds of choices we are daily overwhelmed with.

But the most astonishing thing, on my several visits, was the total absence of advertising, which I found very refreshing. Newspapers and magazines were a lot thinner (and full of propaganda), billboards and hoardings were for political slogans, not selling me consumer products.

This books shows us a whole range of the food and household products which were on sale in GDR shops, both the items themselves and their packaging and labelling. To a Westerner, everything looks crude and old-fashioned; simplicity is the keynote. You are told what the product is, where it was made, the quantity, and the price is printed on the carton. And, to my mind, if I’m buying a tin of tomatoes or a packet of flour, then all I need to know is that basic information: the packaging will end up in the recycling. And white flour is white flour, rice is rice, oats are oats: how much does a choice really mean here, or am I being waylaid, deceived, manipulated?

There was little or no choice in Eastern Europe back in those days, and I’m not sure that mattered: what did matter and did hurt were the constant shortages of very basic items, and the need to queue up for almost everything. The regimes never did satisfy their consumers and when they fell, when Germany was reunited, everyone was initially seduced by the vast array of Western products immediately on sale: beautifully designed and packaged, and much more expensive, they made the old, homegrown products look cheap and nasty, inferior – which they sometimes were.

The pictures are good to look at, creating the same sense of nostalgia for the past as a wander around the shops at somewhere like the museum at Beamish, with all the packaging and goods from long ago. But being reminded of an alternative consumer model is also thought-provoking: our economy that depends on ever-increasing consumption, often of stuff that we don’t really need but are made to desire, is slowly wrecking our planet, and making many people unhappy because they can’t afford to keep up with it all. Quite honestly, I don’t need to choose between six hundred kinds of shampoo, and pay for the fancy packaging and expensive advertising of all of them. I just want there to be shampoo in the shop when I need to buy some.


One Response to “DDR Design”

  1. g2-3fc65a4f01d1887a1c77c00e6ccb95b2 Says:

    I had a similar experience when I visited the USSR as a student. Having toured the famous department store in Moscow, I found nothing I wanted of needed but a bottle of shampoo. Even that proved to be a waste of money, as the bottle was made of glass broke when I took it into the showers at the camp site.


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