Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movies like Bridge of Spies and The Man From
U.N.C.L.E. are placing the aesthetics of the former Eastern Bloc back into the
American consciousness, but in Germany, Soviet style has been big for awhile
now. 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.
With its clunky rotary phones and
heavy ashtrays, the Cold War drama "Bridge of Spies" revels in the
design details of the era.
Jaap Buitendijk 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.
A spread from "Beyond the
Wall," a book of Cold War artifacts from the Wende collection published
last year by Taschen.
Taschen 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." Movies like 'Bridge of Spies' and 'The Man From
U.N.C.L.E.' are placing the aesthetics of the former Eastern Bloc back into
the American consciousness, but in Germany, Soviet style has been big for
awhile now.

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