Published in 2010, Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design offers a meticulous and compelling study of how consumption and domesticity were interpreted and promulgated by both camps in the East-West confrontation after the Second World War. Selecting trade fairs and exhibitions as the main sites of his narrative, Castillo skillfully analyzes the ways in which divided Germany became the focal point of propagandist campaigns launched by the United States and the Soviet bloc, which sought to promote competing ideologies through the showcase of the household as a symbol of popular prosperity and well-being. As this battle of competing models for domestic consumption gradually played out, the Soviet state deliberately opened its door to the American version of consumer modernity. In this regard, contrary to what many suggest, it did not succumb to the Western adversary’s propagandist pressure to provide Soviet citizens with a higher standard of domestic consumption.
Castillo contends that the deployment of America’s middle-class model home as a benchmark of economic democracy in Marshall Plan Europe marked a major shift in the tone and substance of Washington’s Cold War strategy, one that favored democratic consumerism over military confrontation as a forum for East-West rivalry. For many of those involved in the Marshall Plan, modernist design and democracy were complementary ideologies, in that the former was construed not only as the ideological representation of but also as the physical embodiment of the latter. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., a prominent Marshal Plan curatorial commissioner, once proudly proclaimed: “Modern design is intended to implement the lives of free individuals,” who would be able to enjoy the freedom to want instead of despotism (p. 41). Such embodied democracy, they imagined, would permeate every part of people’s daily life reconstructing them as new postwar subjects who “would be affluent, cosmopolitan in taste, politically democratic, and culturally hegemonic” (Castillo, 59).
In response to Washington’s efforts to define West German and modern European design culture, the Soviet Bloc developed its own competing model for cultural internationalism – one that rejected the notion of a singular, transnational “modern” form of design. Produced exclusively by Party functionaries rather than their design consultants, Stalinism’s signature aesthetic theory (Socialist Realism) functioned mainly as an ideological proclamation. It prescribed socialist realism as a superior alternative to aesthetic modernism, which “expropriated bourgeois taste and aesthetic achievement in the name of the proletariat, supporting Lenin’s vision of proletarian culture” (Castillo, 49). The purpose of this peculiar Soviet creative method was, at least in theory, to create a new cultural aesthetic that combined a neoclassical patrimony with elements of locally specific national and fork art.
In the late 1950s, East Berliners began to witness the rehabilitation of modernism’s socialist credentials, in particular, the aspiration to achieve “world-class” standards in household design. The rapid comeback was made possible by the fact that the crackdown on East German modernism was never complete, as nonconformist designers found internal refuge in provincial academic ghettos such as Weimar’s Institute of Interior Design and Halle’s Burg-Giebichenstein Academy of Art and Design. The rehabilitation of modernism opened the door for a future socialist style of housing which was conceived to be international, featuring radically standardized building parts and furniture produced by a modular assembly system. This design discipline, one might assume, represented the shared modernism of divided Germany. However, underneath such stylistic unification still lay an ideological split distinguishing the “cultured” functionalism of the socialist East from the “decadent” capitalist modernism. For example, following Dresden’s Fifth German Art Exhibition in 1962, the use of the color gray in the home design was criticized by the Party as “a politically illegitimate, Western-oriented attitude” and “ongoing impoverishment of the applied arts” (p. 198). By the 1990s, this proclamation of cultural superiority could not, however, be sustained in the face of social discontent over the fact that despite the government’s promise, the socialist command economy had failed to eliminate goods scarcity while people’s demand for them continued to rise.
Castillo’s narrative challenges the tendency prevailing in the Cold War cultural scholarship to consider the dynamism of Americanization as heading solely in an outward direction. Instead, by analyzing how the Soviet bloc actively pursued an alternative route to modern living, it shows that any complete understanding of the history of Americanization needs to move beyond such American-centric approach to take into account the central roles played by its Eastern European rivals. In addition, Castillo presents the nature of Washington’s postwar expansion abroad as not only an enterprise of cultural hegemony but also as one of economic and political integration with Western Europe. Drawing on a wealth of beautiful imagery illustrations and an impressive number of archival materials, the book is a visualized and textualized exhibition of mid-century modern design itself. As an intellectual product combining its author’s architectural expertise and historical sensibility, this study could be a fascinating read for both historians and a broader spectrum of readers interested in subjects such as graphic and interior design, advertising, and exhibition space.
Cold War on the Home Front makes a convincing case that modernism, in particular modernist design, needs to be understood as a potent form of soft power advanced by both the United States and the Soviet bloc in their bid to win the ongoing Cold War. Such power manifests itself in the ability of modernist designed objects not only to physically transform everyday life but also to popularize and represent otherwise intangible political ideologies and their claims to superior moral authority. All of these components were imagined on both sides of the Iron Curtain as instruments for producing the new postwar citizens of Western Europe: the modern consumer.
PhD Student in History
Posted in December 2014