For many, life behind the Iron Curtain brings certain words to mind.
Morbid. Dour. Bleak.
Those descriptions don’t tell the whole story.
Countless objects and products created under communist regimes during the Cold War could be described as optimistic, poppy and even amusing. They also had many similarities to those produced in the United States.
An experimental installation set to open later this month will showcase these Eastern Bloc creations and do so in a house designed by one of the West’s foremost modern architects.
“Competing Utopias” will run from July 13 to Sept. 13 at the Neutra VDL Research House in Los Angeles. Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design manages the former home of Richard Neutra, an Austrian-American architect.
The Wende Museum in Culver City has provided scores of historic artifacts from Eastern Bloc countries, especially East Germany, such as chairs, tables, lamps, books and more that will replace items typically situated in the VDL House.
Visitors will have their preconceived notions challenged and have to take a deeper look and reimagine architectural and material cultures of the Cold War era.
“We have all of these associations of what life was like in the East such as dark, old-fashioned and heavy, and then you see all of these artifacts and they tell a different story,” says Sarah Lorenzen, chair of the Department of Architecture and resident director of the Neutra VDL Research House.
The “Competing Utopias” promotional poster shows this sense idealism and excitement that one may not attribute to lifestyles in communist countries during the Cold War. A toy Russian cosmonaut with a boyish look and clad in a bright orange suit is positioned toward the bottom of the poster. The small plastic figure has piercing blue eyes that look upward at the text of the poster but also seemingly excited at what life may next provide.
“It’s the same kind of idealism, that utopian idealism, that we are very familiar with in terms of the 1950s and 1960s America,” Lorenzen says.
Countless objects shown at “Competing Utopias” such as appliances, furniture and toys will be compared to those that had been common in the United States.
Ceramics are almost indistinguishable from those that regular visitors to the Neutra House will recognize from the Western collection owned by Neutra’s wife.
“There were obviously huge ideological, political and economic differences, and we were essentially willing to annihilate each other over the differences. But, underneath all of that, people were still living their lives, and one of the things that surprises me is the similarities in terms of the material culture and the daily life and the daily objects that we use in design — how similar they are, so surprisingly so,” says Bill Ferehawk, a filmmaker and one of the curators of the installation.
Like the West, countries in the Eastern Bloc saw a transformation in the 1950s and 1960s from wood- and metal-based objects to plastics. An appreciation that East Germans had for the material is apparent as brightly-colored and beautifully-designed plastics pepper the installation.
Other objects will give attendees pause as they could be considered a tad bizarre. A traditional motorized blender sitting on a countertop can be transformed to handle household chores such as vacuuming. A single magazine includes children’s stories, recipes as well as an X-rated centerfold.
Peter Ghyczy’s infamous Garden Egg Chair that was developed in West Germany but mass produced in East Germany will also garner some attention. When closed, the bright plastic object looks like an egg, but once opened it becomes a chair, albeit one that is rather uncomfortable. Despite this, the chair was a presence in many East German households in the 1960s and became even more popular in the 1970s.
“It’s not really ‘Of the People’ but it’s a highly designed product that was meant to be mass produced, and it is of the idea of, ‘Of course you would want this strange artifact in your living room,’” Lorenzen says.
“Competing Utopias” will also include a fictional narrative detailing the lives of a family residing in the house. Post cards throughout the house will share the story of the inhabitants including children, a housewife and a father, who is described as a pilot for Interflug, the national airline of East Germany from 1963 to 1990.
“Those cards are going to be given to all visitors, and those will be prompts to allow them to say ‘Oh, OK, this isn’t about creating ‘A what-if history.’ It allows them to interpret or imagine what this could be,” Ferehawk says.
As was the case in everyday life in East Germany, the Ministry for State Security, more commonly known as the Stasi, will be a presence in the installation. The feared secret police agency spied on thousands of the country’s citizens and contributed to the bleak descriptions many have assigned to living in the country.
“When you come into the main room there is a camera watching you, not unlike when you come into a store today and you see video surveillance,” Ferehawk says.
“The payoff is that in the penthouse, there is a small room, and there is working equipment used by the Stasi or the army that the museum has, and you see a screen and you see the people coming in.”
Guides from Cal Poly Pomona will walk attendees through the house and answer questions. Supplemental information will be available on iPads in each of the rooms.
Visiting hours are from 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Admission is $10 on Saturdays when there are guided tours of the house. There is a suggested donation on other days of $10.
The installation was made possible through a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
The Neutra VDL Studio and Residences at 2300 Silver Lake Blvd. was designed by Neutra, one of the country’s most notable modernist architects and a former Cal Poly Pomona professor.
Richard Neutra’s widow, Dione Neutra, bequeathed the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences to the College of Environmental Design in 1990.