Industrial Design in the GDR (Product Design)

This morning, before heading into the office, I decided to stop by the Kulturbrauerei in Berlin. I pass by it every day on the M10 but I don’t usually stop there; which is a pity because it’s quite an interesting place. The Kulturbrauerei is a centennial brewery in Berlin that was transformed into an important cultural centre for the city in 1991. It was renovated in 2000 by arch. Stefan Weiss and Matthias Faus.
The Centre houses many institutions, businesses, cultural initiatives, etc., and amongst them is the “Everyday Life in the GDR” museum that is currently exhibiting an interesting temporary exhibition on GDR industrial design (product design for those in the US). This section of the museum has free entry.
The temporary exhibit is called “Alles nach Plan?” and roughly translates to Everything according to Plan. The name has an obvious interpretation of how a drawing plan should guide a production line but I suspect that it’s also hinting at a deeper political reality. The GDR was obsessed with the control of their population and the industrial designers of the era had to live and design in these circumstances; they were forced to become a tool of the GDR propaganda.
The GDR and SED party considered foreign designs and products as symbols of Western decadence. In sight of these views, a so-called “Formalism Campaign” was set in motion and it aimed at creating divisions between Eastern and Western design. To action the campaign, the “Amt für industrielle Formgestaltung” (Office for Industrial Design) was created.
The office’s objectives were to promote an aesthetic style that was driven by political ideology, coherent social stability and the socialist planned economy. To a certain extent, these objectives were achieved as they created the designs that are now in the exhibit at the museum, but it also backfired as it highlighted one of the most important drivers of the style.
Design is a neutral and pragmatic discipline. Although there is no clear singular definition of design, it’s generally accepted that Form follows Function. Design sets itself out to find solutions to functional problems within certain boundaries and constraints.
One of the characterizing features of DDR furniture design was the use of particleboard as an alternative to wood. The decision of DDR designers to use this material was not based on any particular quality that made it superior to wood; it was based on the short supply of wood in the GDR. In other words, design form did not follow function, it followed trade barriers.
In the aftermath of the reunification, there was a public rush to replace GDR products with products from the West. Why this rush? Surely they did not all suddenly become outdated? There are many factors that could have influenced it: it could have been an attempt to eradicate the old political and social structures, or simply the desire and ability to buy something new, who knows? What I ask is: is it possible that the collective conscious understood that the core principle of design had been tampered with?
Maybe I’m holding the design pedestal too high but in a world of divisions, is it possible that the collective conscious understands the underlying neutrality of design? And if that were true, would we not be able to use design as a tool to bring us together, a sort of safe place or topic where diversity can join to openly discuss, debate and design? I think so and discussing, no matter what the topic, is always the starting point of any solution.