Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2012
Greg Castillo Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 312 pp.; 97 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780816646920 )

Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from its founding in 1949 to his eclipse from power in 1971, is hardly a household name in art history. He rarely appears in art-history texts as much more than a background figure. At most, he is referenced as the head of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands [SED]) and the man who built the East German state and its repressive bureaucratic apparatus. So it may come as some surprise for art historians, even those who specialize in postwar German art, to discover that Ulbricht played a fairly influential role in debates concerning domestic design and design education in the GDR. Greg Castillo, in his extremely satisfying book, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design, restores Ulbricht and other political agents on both sides of the wall to their rightful place in the history of postwar design. For Castillo, Ulbricht’s role is not by chance, given that he began his career as an apprentice to a furniture craftsman in Leipzig at roughly the same moment he was cutting his teeth on the burgeoning German Communist Party. Ulbricht spoke authoritatively about form throughout his career at numerous state-sponsored design trade fairs. Thus, at a 1954 Leipzig fair, Ulbricht cavalierly dismissed a prewar furniture set by Bruno Paul as showing “no continuity with the traditions of German furniture. Here, practice is detached from the history of German furniture making. In no epoch were there ever design elements such as these” (106). That such dramatic aesthetic value judgments came from the head of government at a high point of the Cold War means that the political history of the epoch needs to be taken into account more than previous art histories have assumed. Castillo incorporates that political history much more rigorously, and, as a result, exposes the broader significance of the production and reception of design.

While it is hard to imagine Dwight Eisenhower having any such opinions, Castillo points out that only a few years later in 1959 one of the quintessential Cold War ideological battles concerned design—the so-called Kitchen Debate about appliances and domestic interiors, which occurred between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Castillo’s book covers events like this in a historical overview of consumer and housing design, from the initial stages of postwar conflict through the early 1970s. The structure of the book emphasizes how interrelated this historical design trajectory and Cold War politics could be. Focusing mostly on the two Germanys, he also spends significant time on debates within the competing Super Powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, he begins with housing conditions in the two German states in the immediate postwar period and continues with an important chapter on how the seemingly separate cultural agendas on both sides of the wall were actually in close dialogue with each other, especially in terms of design exhibition strategies. He continues with a discussion in separate chapters of concepts of design created and distributed in each of the distinct Communist and Democratic systems, drawing on exhibitions and institutional debates in the Germanys but also in their respective allied states. Castillo’s final chapters highlight the various attempts to use design exhibitions to influence the other side’s population. Whether advancing the “People’s Capitalism” or “Consuming Socialism,” he effectively shows how conflicts over design were both regionally grounded and also subject to the international manipulation of Cold War politics, above all in the hot spot of Berlin. Throughout, Castillo argues that an attention to differences in the debates about form, the institutionalization of design in educational and market terms, as well as the public reception of specific aesthetic decisions can be effectively mobilized to analyze the contingent dynamics of Cold War cultural politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Castillo utilizes Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power” to explain the developing design decisions across the political divide (Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: PublicAffairs, 2004). Nye’s work has been much explored in the social sciences but relatively little used in the humanities. Unlike “hard power” that controls a population through force (e.g., military intervention), soft power describes persuasive techniques such as trade fairs used to influence populations who, in turn, are then meant to affirm desired results. At the same time, a crucial aspect of soft power describes not only top-down initiatives like government-sponsored trade fairs. While wielded from a central authority like the U.S. government, it is also transformed by local constituencies to fit sometimes competing agendas. Castillo argues that soft power clarifies precisely the interconnected but distinct dynamics of the political instrumentalization of domestic design, particularly in the decisive battleground of West and East Germany. In the process, he highlights how the dominant influence of the United States and the Soviet Union in their broader spheres of influence and in both Germanys did not always result in the intended effect. His book will be a model for how the complex and important political dynamic that soft power describes needs to be employed for both postwar art history and more specific fields such as Central European studies.

Much like Serge Guilbaut’s groundbreaking work on the politicization of the postwar U.S. art market (Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), this history of design has been hiding in plain sight, overlooked by art historians merely concerned with the trajectory of the Bauhaus personnel or seemingly more elevated aesthetic subjects than tables and cabinets. Certainly, Castillo’s project includes important interactions of designers with the Bauhaus tradition, Socialist Realism, and other better-known art-historical subjects. But he extends the terms of the debate to include a much broader and more materialist analysis of government sponsorship and the ideological effect on audiences on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He shows that any analysis that takes the Cold War as its study benefits from attention to how debates across the divide influenced each other. In other words, his is an integrated history. So, for example, he begins with a subtle investigation of design exhibitions in the immediate postwar period within the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) amid the developing assertion of U.S. interests. At the time, the reconstituted Werkbund argued for an allegiance to Weimar-era modernist traditions, a position meant to signal an ideological break with the intervening Nazi era but which also began to morph with the U.S. influence of the Marshall Plan, announced in 1947. The Marshall Plan not only included a huge influx of capital for rebuilding the FRG, but also mounted the largest propaganda effort in peacetime history. The conflated interests of both fighting communism and asserting the U.S. model of the citizen-consumer found expression at the Marshall Plan-sponsored American at Home exhibition in West Berlin. Coming in 1950, the exhibition featured the latest advertising technique: an actual home with guides consisting of German women taking American Studies at the Free University. This “demonstration effect” had proven to be more convincing than a mere display of goods, and would culminate in the 1952 We’re Building a Better Life exhibition in West Berlin. This display not only reconstructed a home furnished with mid-century modern Knoll International but came complete with a “family” of model actors displaying the use of the devices and products. The U.S. suburban home thus became a weapon aimed at multiple audiences. It meant, for example, to persuade East Germans who crossed the border to see the exhibition (a relatively easy passage until the construction of the wall in 1961) of the better Western way of life. In addition, it could show West Germans that consumption of goods was within reach of all workers, and emphasized the importance of a producer/consumer capitalist economy in general. U.S. firms would prosper with increased exports, and, at the same time, the display of consumer abundance was a soft-power critique fulfilling the State Department’s desire to persuade East German citizens of the better system.

Subsequent government-sponsored exhibition plans included shows involving Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., from the Museum of Modern Art as well as the founding of schools through Marshall Plan funds, such as the Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung that connected postwar FRG design pedagogy directly with the Bauhaus precedent. Countering these efforts in East Germany, Hermann Henselmann led efforts to define Socialist Realism in architecture and design through the massive housing project of the Stalinallee along with pedagogic initiatives such as the founding of the Bauakademie. The latter institution unveiled a new official stylistic direction that went beyond “formalism” in a two-day conference in 1952, at which Ulbricht gave the keynote. Formalism at this moment meant an adherence to modernism, and East German designers demanded instead products that related to culturally local traditions. Castillo argues that these events across the porous border were interrelated developments that have to be analyzed in local and international terms, simultaneously.

The book continues with important trade fairs and design innovations on both sides of the wall through the 1950s. In the Eastern bloc, the death of Stalin in 1953 set the stage for a criticism of the historicism of Socialist Realism, and a concomitant shift in fortunes for modernist-inspired GDR designers such as Franz Ehrlich and Selman Selmanagiĉ, Bauhaus-trained chief designers of the Hellerau Werkstätte. Castillo includes some harrowing moments, such as when the Ministry of Light Industry and Bauakademie leaders called them up for repeated questioning in 1954–55. In these sessions, Ehrlich and Selmanagiĉ aggressively defended their mid-century modern designs, and criticized explicitly the authoritarianism of the East German design bureaucracy and the vacuousness of postwar Socialist Realist furnishings. Such a risky move was apparently a gamble that paid off, as the thaw after Stalin’s death had already begun and new trends were emerging in the Soviet Union. While GDR officials prepared to purge Ehrlich and Selmanagiĉ, the wind from the east began to change, and Soviet architectural journals started to criticize the slavish devotion to historicist form characteristic of the Socialist Realist agenda. In the end, it was the Hellerau workshops, not the Bauakademie, that in 1956 hosted a major delegation from the Soviet Academy of Architecture’s Institute of Interior Design.

The West had its own share of drama as well. The U.S. foreign initiative in promoting the suburban lifestyle and U.S. design faced two significant problems in the late 1950s: first, Congress repeatedly pulled back from funding soft-power cultural initiatives, even though both houses were dominated by the president’s own Republican Party; and second, the surprising technological success of the Soviet Union in space and other advanced technologies threatened the superiority of innovation central to U.S. military and industrial economies. In 1956, a voluntary industry group called the Advertising Council organized an exhibition called the People’s Capitalism to respond to the Soviet threat. The show had a dry run in Washington, DC, before being sent abroad to South America and South Asia before its final stop in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. The show did horribly, and Kremlin cultural critics made mince-meat of its claims for worker equality, particularly pointing out huge divides between rich and poor as well as the overt racism in the United States. The United States then responded with a series of increasingly successful shows that countered Soviet technology with consumer technology, culminating in the “Trojan House” (Castillo’s term) displayed at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. Castillo shows in the penultimate chapter and with fascinating detail the planning of the exhibition, including the pre-fab house provided by All-State Properties which was split down the middle and expanded to allow for larger crowds. It was here that Khrushchev and Nixon engaged in their famous debate, which Castillo rightly argues was the end of a decade-long use of domestic design as a poker chip in the Cold War.

In a surprising turn, Castillo shows how the availability of U.S. consumer goods and their design displayed at this exhibition played out well not only for the U.S. press (which saw Khrushchev as crushed by the quality and quantity of the U.S. products) but may also have helped the Soviet leader’s internal politicking. Khrushchev had promised to out-produce the United States as the Soviet bloc moved in the late 1950s to an emphasis on the need to provide consumer goods rather than merely develop production. By allowing the U.S. exhibition and thus highlighting U.S. productivity in this area, he set the bar high for recalcitrant industrial managers and others in the Soviet Union who stymied his plans to “beat the United States at its own game of consumer affluence” (169). For art history, Castillo’s attention to such significant political personalities and events showcases a need to analyze aesthetic developments in a more subtle relationship to postwar political and economic debates, local and international.

Castillo’s analysis relies heavily on reconstructing the patronage of and response to exhibitions of domestic design, especially although not exclusively those staged in the two Germanys. His sources are on the whole impressive, particularly his investigation of State Department files and the private papers of U.S. diplomats, the records of the East German Bauakademie, newspaper accounts, and other important archival holdings. Still, there are a few gaps that are in need of further work. Russian sources are noticeably absent from his account, so the Soviet political perspective is presented either from secondary sources or as translated through East German bureaucrats. Also, while Castillo provides excellent information on U.S. government sponsorship, many of the U.S. exhibitions were done with the help of private industry. Thus, corporate archives might have helped inflect the interests of U.S. involvement in eastern European design shows, including ones in East Germany but also Poland and elsewhere. For example, General Food’s Bird’s Eye division supplied and staffed the demonstration kitchen in the 1957 Made in U.S.A. exhibition in Poznań. In addition, his argument is intentionally focused on exhibition design and the general aesthetic strategies of an installation, so a further study on individual design objects could be helpful. On the whole, though, Castillo acknowledges such absences like the need for an additional study that takes on the Russian archival sources, and these do not get in the way of the compelling information that he does present and analyze. Above all, he models how an integrated understanding of local and international conditions during the Cold War is essential for interrogating domestic design, a lesson that could also be extended easily to other areas of postwar European art history.

Castillo’s book has much to say about postwar German and European design debates, following important work such as that of Paul Betts’s The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), among others. But it also speaks to a broader defense of the integration of political history and art. Too often in postwar studies, the ideological debates and political structures that artists engaged with and experienced on a day-to-day level get short shrift as mere background. The banalities of party politics and institutional patronage lack the glamour of ever-more sophisticated interpretations of avant-garde production. Attention to the latter is not a problem, but precluding a serious discussion of the former limits the critical potential of art history as well as its relevance to debates of significant import during the Cold War. It is high time for a postwar art history that includes Eisenhower and Khrushchev, capitalists and communists, left and right. Castillo’s integrated history of both sides of the war and emphasis on soft power provides an important standard for any subsequent study.

Paul B. Jaskot
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University

Please send comments about this review to