Beyond the Wall: Typography from the German Democratic Republic

Carruthers, Grant and Yee, Joyce (2004) Beyond the Wall: Typography from the German Democratic Republic. In: Bad Type: Third Annual Friends of St Bride Conference, 18-20 October 2004, St Bride Library, London.

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1989: The German Democratic Republic (GDR) still existed and the Berlin Wall was still standing. Communism was alive in Europe. Hard to believe now, yet only fifteen years ago, a reality. By 1990 the GDR was gone, but it lingers on in the memory of many people now as a dull, repressive, unimaginative place full of cheap plastic, grey concrete, goosestepping soldiers, sports stars with mullets, the dreaded Stasi secret police and of course, the Wall.

These memories illustrate common Western stereotypes of the GDR. But in the real, existing East Germany, the reaction of designers to the Communist system was not as downbeat or sterile as you might expect. The graphical and typographical culture of the GDR is a fascinating glimpse into how graphics and typography might have developed and functioned in an integrated system not based solely on the economics of supply and demand.

The “workers and peasants state” was founded in 1949 on the premise of supporting humanism, anti-fascism, peace and security. East Germany occupied a unique position within Eastern Europe; not only did it define an outer edge of the Soviet bloc, it faced the difficulty of being umbilically connected to ‘the other (Western) Germany’. Questions of identity dogged it to the end, and stereotypical perceptions about Communism and Capitalism heightened the tensions between the split personality of east and west.

The history of East German typography is essentially, from a Western perspective, one of those “in spite of” stories. Inevitably constrained by inconsistent political ideologies in the arts, a lack of raw materials and outdated typesetting and printing equipment, GDR graphics and typography eventually flourished in a way which only occurs when designers are forced to come up with solutions in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles. Designers found innovative, critical and individual ways of coping with political and material shortcomings.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: W200 Design studies
Depositing User: Ellen Cole
Date Deposited: 21 Sep 2012 15:27
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2023 13:01

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