Imagine a parallel universe filled with products you've never seen before, brands you've never heard of. Where everything looks vaguely familiar, yet the logos and styling are just a bit... off. That's what it feels like in this home decked out with Cold War-era products.
The exhibition Competing Utopias, which closes this weekend, has filled acclaimed midcentury modern architect Richard Neutra's 1963 house in Los Angeles with objects one might have found in an East Berlin home during the same time period.
The result is a fascinating—and a bit jarring—journey into a world populated by anonymous designers, brands that obviously are riffing off their Western counterparts, and lots and lots and lots of plastic. "It's the era of The Graduate," Neutra VDL director Sarah Lorenzen agreed. "It shows the great future and early optimism of the period."
To create the exhibition, Lorenzen collaborated with the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War, the largest archive of Cold War artifacts in the world, which is based just across town in Culver City. Each room is a peek into the lives of a hypothetical family who lived in this East German-by-way-of-LA home. While not meant to be overtly political, Lorenzen says the goal was more to create these relatable vignettes of everyday life. "Let's set up a series of possible stories and let people read into it what they will."
At first glance, the furnishings seem torn from Mad Men-era catalogs—brightly colored floral housedresses, candy-red telephones, "Disco Club" hair spray. But a closer look reveals that these products are not the ones that would have found their way into Don Draper's apartment. The sleek, wood-veneer radios looked like the standard found in any living room—but they could only be tuned to cities behind the Iron Curtain.
Children's toys felt like they nodded directly at American references, but, in fact, they had a completely different narrative. The Cowboys and Indians playset, for example, seemed to have an awful lot more Indians than Cowboys. That's because for East German kids, the Indians were the good guys and the Cowboys were the bad guys. Makes total sense.
One room is filled with all sorts of era-appropriate surveillance equipment, which would probably not have been found in the typical East German home (well, maybe if dad worked for the KGB). But it almost fits in seamlessly when paired with the Neutra home's own ahead-of-its-time tech—an electric dumbwaiter, intercom systems, dimmable lights, mechanical shades for the windows.
You could almost see how families on both sides of the Wall would be interested in adapting the nascent computing technology which was invented to protect their countries for their own family's comfort and safety. Forget things like the space program and the internet; perhaps it was the Cold War which truly spurred the concept of the connected home.
Yet for all these innovations, there was one other huge difference in the products I saw: Most of the designers from East Germany remained anonymous, their contributions absorbed by the government-controlled companies which manufactured their goods. At the same time, their Western counterparts began to enjoy unprecedented fame as part of the industrial design revolution. Who knows how many great designers were forced to remain in the shadows of the Cold War, known only by their brands?
And that was the other thing I hadn't really considered about Cold War design: With the end of the Cold War, thousands of brand names were quickly abandoned because of their association with a no-longer-desirable regime. By far, my favorite artifacts were the various ephemera from an East German airline named Interflug, which flew only to Eastern Bloc cities. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, liquidated in 1991. Yet along with the Wall, this airline and its logo and quirky map and everything that went along with it, fell as well. To erase these decades of design equity was an almost tragic loss—everything had to be rebranded, redesigned, reimagined for the brave new world.
Competing Utopias is a fascinating look at the lost design of the era. And it's proof that even though East Germans tried their best to keep Los Angeles out of their homes, there was still a fair amount of cultural exchange that permeated the Iron Curtain. On one of the shelves in the library, I spied a bottle of lime green liqueur made in Germany during the period named "Kalifornia." Maybe we weren't really that different after all. [Neutra VDL House]
Photographs by Laure Joliet