460 words on Books
I read about the photo-volume ‘SED - Schönes Einheitsdesign’ in a few places a while ago, found it’s published in one of Taschen Verlag’s cheap and cheerful series and decided to get a copy. The book is full of photos of GDR design, a part of German design history which has pretty much vanished from the public since reunification.
Whenever I see ‘historic’ stuff from the GDR, like when we did the Unterwelten tour, in the I wonder about the design they did there, what typefaces they used and so on. Somehow, the GDR (or possibly Eastern Bloc) design one saw always had this certain style to it which I find easy to recognise but hard to pin down formally. That style seems like their sense of design stopped at some stage between the 1950s and 1970s - which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So you have ‘modern’ design with sans serif typefaces - the book actually (surprisingly?) showing quite a bit of Helvetica on labels from the late 1980s - as well as simple layouts and colour schemes. My guess being that the latter come from full colour printing simply not being feasible or affordable and the two colour prints that seem quite common being of the somewhat imprecise kind which makes them look a bit ‘off’.
That said, I quite like the simple graphic style resulting from this. Add to that the lack of competition and advertising as we know it and the labels you get seem quite sane compared to the crap you are exposed to when shopping here and now. They simply describe - in what reads like stereotypically ‘socialist’ language - the product at hand. They even print the price right there on the label (abbreviating ‘Mark’ in a no-nonsense fashion with a single letter ‘M’ rather than having the western ‘DM’) and there you are: frill-less mostly no-nonsense labelling. I’d surely appreciate that in the supermarket at times.
This is a photo-book, so it’s devoid of information beyond the photos shown. And a superficial amazon search didn’t show books with a treatment of design (or even typography!) in the GDR going beyond that level. The existing books seem to focus on ‘proper’ art instead which probably is a much more attractive subject to write a book about as it’s more pompous and political on first sight than mundane things like food-labels are.
Finally: The bottle on the book’s cover. It’s a strange thing, those wider bottle shapes seemed to be common in Eastern Bloc countries. I wonder whether that’s simply a coincidence of how designs developed or whether it has to do with the way bottles were produced and the limitations of the technologies used. Are there technical benefits to either design style?
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