PRINT April 1992


Design for Turning Workers into Burghers

Gelsenkirchener baroque—colloquially known as GE-baroque—is not well known outside Germany. Here, however, everyone instantly knows what is meant: a style of furniture design characterized by sweeping and overladen forms, respectable, stuffy, and shabby. Which doesn’t mean that the pièce de résistance of this style—a weighty kitchen hutch over six feet wide, five feet high, and two feet deep—was a bargain. Quite the contrary, it cost a worker two or three months’ wages, a price that, at first, only the well-paid miners of this Ruhr-district city could afford.

Yet the design criteria that made these hutches, wardrobes, kitchen tables, and the like seem valuable, and their owners feel well-to-do, were a sheer facade. Machine made of flexible veneers with glued-on appliqués, GE-baroque furniture was neither of solid wood nor handcrafted. In Germany, such imposture, as we all learned from the credo of Bauhaus design, could only stand for inferior ideology and esthetics. Accordingly, the name became synonymous with a collective notion of bad taste, with tokens of super-respectable philistinism.

It’s only now that the city of Gelsenkirchen has reclaimed the term “Baroque” as its own. Last fall, in a city festival, the residents celebrated the Baroque in design, music, and theater, elevating the well-known kitchen hutches to the level that opera has enjoyed over the years. And in a lavishly illustrated catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of furniture and objects in the municipal museum, the history of a local style that became the social imprimatur for an age was traced in all its sociohistorical detail.

Historically, the style dates back to the 1920s, when Gelsenkirchen, the epitome of the Ruhr district, was economically prosperous. Germany’s industrial center, the site of the coal and steel industries, Gelsenkirchen had the district’s first boulevard for strolling and shopping—for pieces of GE design. Now the ’20s may have been the era of the Bauhaus and the debates on Functionalism, a time when the rectangle was the norm for successful and ideologically correct design, reduced and ostensibly free of any hierarchy or class structure. But such features were meaningless in the Ruhr, where culture was marked by class consciousness and petit-bourgeois “family” values. With the hutch for the eat-in kitchen, the family gathering place par excellence, a central artifact of middle-class culture entered the working-class household. Such objects mimicked the grand-bourgeois taste for the so-called “steamer style,” itself modeled after that of the ocean giants of the Hamburg-America line, the embodiment of wealth during the period. Indeed, the style was not merely done over but overdone: all the flaunting details, usually distributed over an entire room, were here concentrated in a single object—with its curved glass doors, plastic-padded back walls, filigree brass handles, and countless teensy-weensy drawers for sugar, flour, etc. The deluxe model even had a black tiled bar shelf and a fridge.

This was design for the upwardly mobile proletariat. By purchasing an object of GE-baroque, the wealthy miner or small-businessman’s wife was deliberately buying into a hierarchy that helped to situate him or her socially. The style in its original inception was not, however, based on any overriding or overt ideology. The epithet “baroque” was a simple recognition of the formal affinities between the 20th- and 17th-century styles, and initially it was meant in a positive sense. Only ten years later was this academically endorsed view infiltrated by a nationalistic ideological conception that saw the historical Baroque as a cultural achievement of the “Nordic German cultural will.” And, in fact, the style of imposing and splendid interior decoration favored by the Nazis strongly resembled GE-baroque. Interestingly, however, the recommendations of the Amt für Schonheit der Arbeit (Agency for the beauty of work), which regularly selected examples of lamps, flatware, and furniture as “models of beauty of work,” with the goal of contributing to the esthetic education of the people, suggested simple designs for domestic interiors. For the Nazis, the kitchen was no longer to be the center of domestic life; instead, the model home began to steer the family into the parlor.

Despite ideological interference on the part of the National Socialists, the popularity of GE-baroque persisted into the postwar era, as the Cologne furniture fair, a good barometer of German taste, continued to reveal. In a period of increasing prosperity, with the sudden appearance of a wide variety of furnishings, the GE-baroque kitchen hutch or clock came to symbolize the tried and true.

The decline of the style began only in the 1960s, when modern apartment and home floor plans led to the victory of the kitchenette and to the necessity for smaller design elements that could be freely combined. Perhaps more decisive was the invention of the phonograph and the television set, which absorbed the energies of a new generation of designers. Decked out with doors, lids, and consoles, these were turned into highly polished centerpieces—of the living room now, not the kitchen. When central heating became a standard feature of the German home, the centrality of the kitchen in German domestic life was finally defeated.

Perhaps no other German style of design has been as enduring, as uninflected, as unspectacular as the Gelsenkirchener baroque. Even today, we can find its vestiges in such items as brocade telephone cozies, crocheted table doilies, and oil paintings of bellowing stags over sofas, all of them indices of German Gemütlichkeit, or “coziness.” As for the real thing—those elaborately kitschy kitchen hutches or the obligatory kitchen tables covered with linoleum slabs—they can now be found most often in student pads, throwaway items that have been accidentally preserved and can be picked up for free.

Sabine B. Vogel is a writer who lives in Düsseldorf.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.