Why Cold War Design Is Back
A 3-year-old American boy I know recently proudly held out his toy car for me to admire. Was it a Chevy? No. A Volkswagen? Certainly not.
It was a lime green Trabant.
This child was brandishing a facsimile of the Edsel of Iron Curtain design, a noisy, fume-spewing plastic car produced in East Germany from 1957 until 1991. And he wasn’t alone in his affection for it.
Lately, the Cold War has been invading the American imagination, with movies like Bridge of Spies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the German TV import Deutschland 83 transporting us back to the square, brown, dismal furnishings and clunky technology of the Eastern Bloc. In Germany, however, fascination with the Cold War era is nothing new. The attitude even has a name: ostalgie, a portmanteau of the German words for “east” and “nostalgia.” Perhaps the most extreme example of ostalgie is the Bunker-Museum, opened in 2004 in Frauenwald, 200 miles southwest of Berlin, in a 1970s bunker built by the Stasi. For 109 euros, visitors can go on a 16-hour “reality experience”—dressing in East German army uniforms, eating rations, sleeping in a triple-decker bunk bed, and waking to early calisthenics followed by the task of cleaning their accommodations.
Design kitsch is central to Germany’s fascination with the bygone German Democratic Republic (GDR). At Ostel Hostel, a budget hotel opened in 2007 in a prefabricated concrete apartment block in the former East Berlin, the GDR-sourced décor includes hallucinatory patterned wallpaper in the colors of food stains; a lumpen radio preset to stations from Budapest, Kiev, and Moscow; cherubic blue-hatted statuettes of Young Pioneers, East Germany’s version of the Boy Scouts; and awkward furniture produced in Soviet-supervised factories.
These displays of ostalgie represent a notable shift from the German outlook after the fall of the Berlin Wall, according to Justinian Jampol, the founder of the Wende Museum in Culver City, California, which collects Cold War artifacts and archives. In 1990, the average East German threw away an astonishing 1.6 tons of trash, a reflection of how defeat contaminated East Germany’s cultural products in the eyes of its citizens. Their goods became “evidence of all the things that went wrong” with their vanquished country, Jampol explains. But in time the pendulum swung, and now the attitude is, “No, it wasn’t all that bad—look at all this cool stuff.”
Today’s “cool stuff” isn’t just what’s cool to a hipster too young to have tasted East German-produced Vita Cola when it was the only cola around. Last March, Central Berlin, a gallery selling vintage design produced behind the Iron Curtain, opened in a condominium complex in a restored building at Strausberger Platz in East Berlin. Items for sale include the Hungarian modernist Peter Ghyczy’s molded plastic folding “egg” chair from the 1970s, and a quartet of 1962 dining chairs from the Hotel Devin in Bratislava.
Nor is this rising interest in Cold War design confined to Germany. Since 2011, a gallery in Prague called Nanovo has been selling high-quality furnishings by neglected mid-to-late-20th Czech designers and their East European peers. Started by two men who came of age after Czechoslovakia broke with the Soviets in 1989, Nanovo seeks to honor the expressions of modernity that flourished despite Soviet-imposed ideological and material restrictions. Similarly, in Warsaw, a gallery named Refre renovates and sells Communist-era Polish design, some from the Lad furniture collective, which fulfilled the modernist ideal of supplying attractive goods at affordable prices.
In the U.S., we are still indulging in a cartoon of Cold War-era design. Ever since the 1959 Kitchen Debate in Moscow, at which Nixon and Khrushchev fought over cultural supremacy against a backdrop of American consumer goods, democracy has been touted as a system of better stuff. Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the sting of nuclear menace was offset by visions of the U.S.S.R. as a vast region populated by bumbling characters with bad taste. “Somehow, prop makers in the U.S. for films and TV shows always would have something a little off,” said Steven Heller, a visual arts historian, referring to the clothing, weapons, and signs in Mission: Impossible episodes and movies like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Could such quaintness and awkwardness really support the apparatus of so much presumed evil?
Even Bridge of Spies depicts a high-ranking East German official as someone who can’t tell which of the three clumsy rotary phones on his desk is ringing. When the Brooklyn lawyer played by Tom Hanks crosses into East Berlin, he loses his Saks Fifth Avenue cashmere coat to a gang of thugs. His replacement is a locally procured, oddly cut, fur-collar specimen.
It is not Hollywood’s responsibility to be nuanced about Cold War design. That job has been taken up by scholars like Jampol of the Wende Museum, whose holdings include Stasi documents, East German industrial and training films, Soviet and East German posters, and the personal papers of the GDR leader Erich Honecker. (A 900-page book based on the collection was released by Taschen in December 2014.) Last year, the museum co-organized the exhibition “Competing Utopias” in the Neutra House in Los Angeles. It consisted of decorative objects, appliances, and posters from both East and West, without their labels, allowing visitors to see how closely the two sides fulfilled their opposing philosophies using the same underlying design principles (notably Bauhaus) and materials (largely plastic).
Jampol refuses to vilify or valorize these Cold War artifacts because of the many shades of gray they represent. “History can’t be simple, because people aren’t simple,” he says. “And that’s what history consists of.”