Urban Palimpsest: Color in Berlin

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Session Title:

  • Political Discourse on the New Media

Presentation Title:

  • Urban Palimpsest: Color in Berlin

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Abstract:

  • During the 2010-11 academic year, the DAAD gave me a research grant to investigate the importance of color in the manufacturing of consumer desire and political ideology in Cold War Berlin. At the heart of this research were concerns about consumer excess, unsustainable patterns, and resulting class divides. Many of these patterns were set after World War II and exported to Europe through the Marshall Plan. I studied art and design in divided Berlin because it was ground zero for related ideological debates. This paper documents discoveries made during my year in Germany.

    Clever use of color has always been inextricably linked to commerce and politics. These connections are especially clear in the postwar West German discourse around Heiterkeit; literally “cheerful,” also “light” and “bright” as in color. In West Germany in the 1950s, the postwar victory over despair used the trope of Heiterkeit constantly as a way to design interiors and manufactured objects that lightened the country’s mood. Heiterkeit as a soft power strategy in the Cold War reached a fevered pitch during the 1959 Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev at the American Home exhibition in Moscow. In front of brightly colored, American-made kitchen appliances, Nixon endlessly listed his country’s consumer objects to be admired while Khrushchev emphasized the Soviets’ focus on essential rather than bourgeois luxury items.

    With the U.S. economy causing Americans to reevaluate their relationship to design and consumerism, now is an ideal time to study the psychological impact of color, especially as it is streamlined and easily indexed with digital technology. In the spirit of the Bauhaus, both my research in Germany and contemporary artworks about color, including my own, considers the complicated relationship between design and identity during tough economic times.

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