20 Years After the Fall, Nostalgia Builds for East German Design

Photo of the 'Purimix,' a combination floor waxer, vacuum cleaner and blender from magazine 'Frau von Heute,' 1957Nostalgia for the East — or ostalgie, a portmanteau combining the words ost (‘east’) and nostalgie (‘nostalgia’) — has taken hold in contemporary, unified Germany.

A symbol of the former East Germany, the Trabant used to be the German Democratic Republic’s most popular car. But production ceased in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, 20 years after the reunification, drivers will now ferry you around the city in one of the plastic-sheathed relics, in a kind of safari-style homage to pre-1989 culture.

Photo of the Trabant car from a 2007 repair manual Trabants — along with Spee laundry detergent, Vita Cola, and even the little figure on traffic lights known as the Ampelmann — have reappeared in recent years, hearkening back to an era that most agree flopped politically, but still resonates with a generation of Germans disenchanted with what they view as some of the failed promises of German reunification.

“Two years after the Wende, or the ‘turning point’ in 1989, these East Germans started to feel a bit of disillusionment with the effects of reunification,” explains historian and German consumer culture expert Prof. Katherine Pence. “They had had secure jobs under the socialist regime and now they had to struggle in a very competitive marketplace.”
A scholar at Baruch College at the City University of New York, Pence sat down with Art Beat to discuss the particularities of East German design and culture, and how the products of the past continue to play a role in contemporary Germany.