In discussing eastern German design, the aim is not to find a distinct identity or to apply a uniform label, but rather to consider the contemporary situation in a region that, for some 40 years, was officially known as the GDR but has now been part of the Federal Republic of Germany for almost 30 years. The system change and subsequent economic upheaval and collapse impacted on design too. As entire industrial sectors crumbled, in-house design studios lost their sources of work. Only a handful of businesses succeeded in repositioning themselves after reunification – these included the eminent Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in Dresden and toymakers Kösener Spielzeug Manufaktur, a firm originally founded by Käthe Kruse, though isolated attempts were made to relaunch certain East German brands, such as Zeha sneakers. The design firms operating today were thus all established after reunification and their progress since then corresponds to the region’s overall economic performance, which still remains below western levels even 30 years after the Wall came down.
Internationally famous names and larger agencies are mostly few and far between. Those that have broken through include Barbara Schmidt, winner of over 40 design awards, who helped Thuringian porcelain manufacturer Kahla to reach new heights by shaking up the traditional dinner service; Atelier Papenfuss, a practice founded in Weimar in 1990 that now boasts more than 20 employees and a wide-ranging portfolio; and, among communications agencies, the Zebra Group, which employs over 100 people in Chemnitz and Dresden. As the region’s epicentre, the design scene in Berlin alone would fill numerous magazines, but will for once go unmentioned here.
With their new-found interest in the cultural and creative industries, politicians have now documented the sector in facts and figures. According to the statistics, design is, in western and eastern states, among the most important creative industries in terms of turnover and employment and, overall, represents a growth market. Due to variations in when studies were conducted and differences in how the various federal states capture the data, it’s impossible to say exactly how many design firms there are in eastern Germany, but a best estimate puts their number at over 4,000, with at least 12,000 people working in the sector. The majority of businesses are sole traders or firms with one of two employees, while there is also a high concentration of small businesses and freelancers plus numerous individuals in marginal employment. Communication design in the broadest sense is by far the biggest subsector. Another notable characteristic is that growth among design firms is mostly achieved without venture capital or loans. Traditional urban centres such as Leipzig and Dresden, along with Halle and Chemnitz, still offer comparatively low rents and living costs, a clear advantage when it comes to locating your business and one that means Germany’s east remains an attractive place for young creatives. Not everyone wants to live in the big city though, and the possibilities offered by digitisation and glocalisation (globalisation and localisation) allow those that don’t to base themselves elsewhere, at least where the requisite infrastructure is in place.
In rural areas, the challenges of demographic change are particularly acute so that here, too, there are important issues for designers to consider and new spheres of activity to explore. Existing examples of how design can contribute include Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s project “Kreative Pioniere in ländlichen Räumen” [Creative Pioneers in Rural Areas], the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s programme “TRAFO – Modelle für Kultur im Wandel” [Models for Culture in Times of Change] and Wendlandlabor, a project established in a rural area immediately to the west of the old border. The structural change necessitated by the planned withdrawal from coal-fired power generation is another area in which new pathways to social cohesion need to be developed (coal mining being a major regional employer), a topic explored earlier this year at the Competence Centre for Social Innovation’s Spring School at Ferropolis.
The region also boasts an array of venerable and reputable higher-education institutions that are producing high-quality design graduates, more of whom should be persuaded to stay after graduating. To that end, Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle, one of the largest and best-equipped art and design colleges in Germany, has had its own start-up centre since 2010. Another local facility encouraging young selfemployed people to stay in the area is Designhaus Halle, which provides an ideal set-up for those just starting out, offering advice, further training, mentoring, networking and workshops. It has already helped design practices such as Büro für Sinn und Unsinn (educational and game design), Prefrontal Cortex (VR, AR) and Loeserbettels (interior and fashion) to develop their business models, while former tenants such as Julica Design and fashion label Luxaa have also since remained in the region. Over in Weimar, the Bauhaus University’s start-up hub Neudeli has also been successfully supporting those looking to set up their own business.
The region’s colleges, some of which are highly specialised and long established, are also helping to keep craft traditions alive – the faculty of applied arts in Schneeberg, for instance, produces musical instrument makers with excellent design skills. The trend towards greater sustainability, individuality and uniqueness, on the other hand, means creative small businesses are thriving again, with numerous high-quality ceramics and porcelain studios, jewellery makers and book designers flourishing in Germany’s east.
Some have also drawn on regional folk art for their blend of tradition and innovation. Jewellery designer Nicole Bauer thus takes her cue from traditional Plauen lace, design label Lumenqi harnesses the woodworking traditions of the Ore Mountains to produce timeless one-offs and Sarah Gwiszcz combines Sorbian costumes and modern fashion.
What else would help to further exploit the existing potential? When it comes to experimenting with new materials and techniques, the diverse research landscape with its many extra-university research communities offers excellent opportunities for design practitioners to ensure they are even better prepared for the future. In this context, there needs to be much more collaboration between design and science, a need already recognised by the creation of the SYN Foundation. Given the prevalence of smaller-scale businesses, designers need to adapt their market positioning if they want to work for regional as well as national and international clients. Often, SMEs need to be persuaded of the competitive edge good design can provide. Properly promoting their own work and tailoring that messaging to regional manufacturers is thus one of the most urgent tasks facing designers today – only by tackling it will appropriate levels of remuneration be achieved.
If design is to gain greater appreciation, the dialogue between business and politics also needs to be intensified. Support structures, further training courses and incentives for creative spaces need to be maintained and even better tailored to the needs of their users; achieving that requires new networks in order to create a more effective lobby. A greater sense of community and better transregional visibility would both be helpful. The Designers’ Open, probably the region’s largest design fair, needs a clearer positioning and the individual states’ design awards deserve more attention, as do other design competitions such as the Marianne Brandt Award.
For the most part, contemporary design in eastern Germany cannot be properly understood without knowledge of the aforementioned historic associations and this heritage, in combination with the region’s creative expertise, is both a unique selling point and an opportunity, a means of ensuring the sector has a viable future.
Ingo Müller (born in Rheinfelden/Baden in 1972) is a cultural scientist, Americanist and PR consultant. He has been head of the careers service at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle, since 2008 and has been blogging at berlindesignblog.de since 2007. He lives in Berlin and Halle (Saale).