How long should things last? Design in the GDR

Oropallo, Gabriele (2017) How long should things last? Design in the GDR. Form, 40 (270). pp. 105-112. ISSN 0015-7678


By the time Giles Slade’s book “Made to Break” appeared a decade ago to recount the story of planned obsolescence in the United States in the twentieth century, the consolidated narration saw it as an industrial practice that spontaneously emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, first as an adaptation to the purchasing needs of the newly urbanised masses, and then as a method of industrial competition. The logical consequence of the consolidated narrative on planned obsolescence would want the design of short-lasting products to be intrinsic to free-market economies and laissez-faire economic policies. Yet, the very assumption that planned obsolescence is a strategy integral to product development in capitalism offers an interesting paradox. If products manufactured in a free-market environment are designed to be short-living, the logical consequence would be that products manufactured in collectivist or planned economies should be longer- lasting, because they were free from the strictures of for-profit-only modes of production and marketing. Or were they? The twentieth century has accidentally provided several laboratories that grant us the opportunity to look for an answer to this paradox. The one perspective presented here is offered by the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where during the 1970s a lively debate on lifespan and patina took place among designers, theorists, and readers around the question how long things should last.

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