The field of plastic conservation is still, well, plastic. Sculptors and designers quickly adopted the synthetic material when it emerged in the early 20th century, adoring its bright colors and moldability, but conservators are still catching up to learn how it ages (in a way that they’ve known forever about traditional media like wood and stone). How plastic cracks, yellows, warps, or degrades into dust has only been studied for about 30 years. A new project called German Democratic Plastics in Design — a partnership between the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), Die Neue Sammlung – the Design Museum in Munich, the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Los Angeles, and the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences — is looking closely at how Soviet-era plastics were made and used.
Klaus Kunis, “Flower watering cans” (1960). (VEB Glasbijouterie Zittau, © Die Neue Sammlung – the Design Museum, A. Laurenzo)
The research focuses on East Germany because it was a midcentury locus of plastic manufacturing. The socialist country made and exported plastic watering cans, garden chairs, television sets, and toys almost everywhere on its side of the Iron Curtain (and even to Western countries, through secret channels). The German Democratic Plastics in Design project is researching over 300 household plastic objects made between 1949 and 1990, from the permanent collections of the partnering museums (except the Getty, which has none).
Were Soviet-era plastics designed significantly differently than those in the West, or made of different plastic? “This is one driving question of the research,” said Odile Madden, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “We suspect there are differences in the kinds of plastics used, the sources of the raw materials, and how those raw materials shifted over time. But it’s likely there is a lot of similarity across countries too.”
Television set FS Alex, produced by VEB Stern Radio Berlin and designed by Horst Giehse, Jürgen Peters (circa 1957) (© Die Neue Sammlung – the Design Museum, A. Laurenzo)
Sourcing these everyday (and sometimes throwaway) plastic objects is a story in and of itself. “The Wende was founded to address the wholesale neglect and rampant destruction of Cold War material culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,” explained Christine Rank, head of collections at the Wende Museum. “Much of our original collection, including many of the household items that are part of this study, comes from flea markets and other dumping grounds.” The exhibition currently on view there, Transformations: Living Room -> Flea Market -> Museum -> Art, reflects this by showcasing the stuff that eastern Europeans tossed once they had access to shiny, new-to-them objects from the West.
This isn’t to say that the plastic items made in East Germany lacked design merit. The current study is full of sleek, standout objects like a Klaus Kunis-designed watering can that looks like a midcentury modern version of an Arabian lamp. A set of prismatic milk jugs is simple but stylish, given its intended function. And a mint green television with beveled corners, designed by Horst Giehse and Jürgen Peters in the 1950s, looks like something Steve Jobs would approve.
As the conservators partnering in this project study the makeup of these plastic items — in an effort to prevent their erosion some time in the future — they will enable the appreciation of these relics of daily life in East Germany for years to come.