3 February 2017 -

Report: DHS Research Publication Grant by Katharina Pfuetzner

I would like to express my gratitude to the Design History Society for awarding me the Research Publication Grant. This funding will go towards covering the costs of clearing image rights for my forthcoming book Designing for Socialist Need: Industrial Design Practice in the German Democratic Republic (Routledge, 2017).

This book examines an episode of design history that has remained perplexingly obscure. Partly due to the widely held belief that design in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) was essentially derivative of Western design, it has received only scant scholarly attention in the quarter century since the country's demise. What little has been written about design in the GDR has tended to view it through the lens of its material culture and consequently failed to capture the aims and ideas of its industrial designers, which were not always realised in mass production. This, however, is one of the most instructive aspects of the design culture of the GDR, particularly in the context of today's renewed interest in socially responsible design – because GDR designers operated in a society where manufacturers did not compete for market share or pursue profits in the conventional sense.

Designing for Socialist Need thus offers a detailed examination of industrial design practice in the GDR, focusing not only on the designers' aims, ideas and strategies, but also on the social, political, economic and institutional contexts in which they were conceived and tested. It opens with a critical reconstruction of the fundamental aims and priorities of GDR designers, which demonstrates that they shared a profoundly socially responsible design approach, partly rooted in the Modernist heritage of the 1920s and partly a response to the particular ideological, social and economic conditions that emerged in the socialist GDR. The second section documents a range of compelling design practices that emerged from this approach and shaped design discourse and designed (although not always mass-produced) objects in the GDR. The final chapters provide a discussion of the various political and economic obstacles GDR designers encountered in their efforts to realise these ideas, thereby explaining why the work of GDR designers failed to have a more significant impact on everyday product culture.

This will be the first academic book entirely dedicated to GDR design in the English language. By thematising the ideas and practices of the country's industrial designers, it not only attends to some of the hitherto unacknowledged intellectual and practical richness of GDR design culture, but it also highlights an aspect that could provide pertinent insights for contemporary design practitioners, theorists and educators – particularly those with an interest in sustainability in design.

Katharina Pfuetzner
National College of Art & Design, Dublin

Headline image: Glass table service Europa, designed by Margarete Jahny and Erich Müller (1964), and manufactured by VEB Glaswerk Schwepnitz. Photo by Christel Lehmann /
Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Sammlung industrielle Gestaltung, Berlin.


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