The realm of plastic conservation remains, well, plastic. Sculptors and designers quickly embraced the synthetic material when it first appeared in the early 20th century, adoring its vivid colors and moldability, but restorers are still catching up to learn how it ages (from a way they have always known traditional media like wood and stone). How plastic cracks, yellows, warps, or degrades to dust has only been studied for about 30 years. A new project called German Democratic plastics in the 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 – takes a close look at how plastics of the era Soviet were made and used.
The research is focused on East Germany, as it was a place of plastics manufacturing in the middle of the century. The socialist country made and exported plastic watering cans, lawn chairs, televisions 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 more than 300 plastic household objects made between 1949 and 1990, from the permanent collections of partner museums (with the exception of the Getty, which has none).
Were Soviet-era plastics designed very differently from those in the West or made from different plastics? “This is one of the main research questions,” said Odile Madden, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “We suspect that there are differences in the types of plastics used, the sources of raw materials and how these raw materials have evolved over time. But it is likely that there are also a lot of similarities between the countries. “
Finding these everyday (and sometimes disposable) plastic items is a story in itself. “The Wende was founded to combat the neglect and widespread destruction of Cold War material culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,” said Christine Rank. , responsible for the collections of the Wende museum. “Much of our original collection, including many of the household items included in this study, comes from flea markets and other landfills.” The exhibition which is currently presented there, Transformations: Salon -> Flea market -> Museum -> Art, reflects this by showcasing what Eastern Europeans threw away once they had access to shiny and new items from the West.
This is not to say that plastic items made in East Germany lacked design value. The current study is full of elegant and remarkable objects, such as a watering can designed by Klaus Kunis that looks like a mid-century modern version of an Arabic lamp. A set of prismatic milk jugs is simple yet elegant, 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 of.
As the partner restaurateurs in this project study the composition of these plastic items – in an effort to prevent their erosion in the future – they will allow these vestiges of everyday life in East Germany to be enjoyed for years to come.