Designed by Peter Ghyczy in 1967 – 68, the Garden Egg Chair incorporates features typical of the period: a space age look, UFO-like form, brightly coloured plastic lacquer, portability and the informal lounging quality of the low seat. However, behind the story of the chair's mass production lies a fascinating tale of Germany's East/West relations.
Peter Ghyczy, a Hungarian émigré, started his career as chief designer for Gottfried Reuter's Polyurethane factory Elastogran GmbH in Lemförde, West Germany. He was responsible for setting up the Design department which developed model polyurethane products.
The Garden Egg Chair was one of the very first designs developed by Reuter's company. His intention was to inspire clients and stimulate ideas for the use of polyurethane, a new material with seemingly limitless applications. But the Elastogran factory only ever produced a couple of prototypes of the chair in testing this new material. The lacquering process required substantial manual labour, making mass production too expensive for West Germany. According to Ghyczy, the company then transferred mass production to East Germany because "production was much cheaper there". Although such a decision was not unique, industrial exchange between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany was not officially acknowledged.
The licence to produce the chair was sold to the VEB Synthesewerk Schwarzheide, close to the city of Senftenberg in East Germany. The location gives the chair its other name, the Senftenberg Egg Chair. Officially, one third of their production was for the West German market, with the rest for East Germany and for export. However, for the general consumer in East Germany, the chair was largely unaffordable.
The production of the chair stopped after only two or three years as the lacquering remained problematic, yet the chair became an iconic East German product, due to its popularity in trade shows and exhibitions.
The chair in our collection has an interesting provenance. It was acquired directly from the original designer, Peter Ghyczy, and, according to its official stamp, appeared to have been made East Germany, 'returning' to the West in the possession of Gottfried Reuter's family. Reuter's daughter used the chair beside a swimming pool.
Ghyczy himself knew very little about the East German history of the chair. He had never been in touch with the East German production company, VEB Synthesewerk-Schwarzheide, nor had the company contacted him, despite changing the design for its own production needs. In addition, Ghyczy never sold the rights for his design, nor was he ever paid any royalties from East Germany, and he only had a vague idea of how many chairs were ever produced.
The provenance of Garden Egg Chairs is confusing as some were marked as being manufactured in Lemförde (former West Germany), whereas others were marked as being made in Schwarzheide (former East Germany). Examination of the label on the V&A chair revealed a quality inspection label that read 'In Ordnung, Abt.Qk, 9.Juni 1971' (OK, Quality Control Section, June 9, 1971). Initially, it was assumed that this confirmation of quality referred to East German rather than West German production, but this proved to be incorrect. An interview with the former general director of the VEB Synthesewerk-Schwarzheide, Dr. Hans-Joachim Jeschke, together with documents in the company archive revealed the exact dates of production for the East German chairs, which began later than this label indicated. This meant that the V&A chair was actually one of the few prototypes made in Lemförde in West Germany, and the label marked the end of the brief testing process there.
Jeschke's story about the East German production of the Garden Egg Chair not only shed light on the V&A chair's provenance but also highlighted the depth of interaction between East and West Germany in the process. Jeschke explained that the GDR (German Democratic Republic or East Germany) was quite interested in producing polyurethane in the late 1960s but, like other Eastern Bloc countries, lacked expertise in the field. However, in the short period between the late 1960s and early 1970s, East Germany had begun to exchange expertise and technology with the West, establishing contacts with relevant West German companies.
In early 1970, the VEB Synthesewerk bought manufacturing technology from Elastogran, for which it was to manufacture 15,000 pieces of polyurethane furniture as part of the payment, including a substantial number of Garden Egg Chairs. In the autumn of 1973, Elastogran went bankrupt, so production continued solely for the East European market. But since Garden Egg Chairs were expensive both to make and sell, production was halted in 1975 after a total of about 14,000 chairs had been made. Reflecting on the production of the Garden Egg Chair, Jeschke concluded, "This furniture was just a fashion article and, as such, far too expensive with a sales price of 430 Deutsch Marks, comparable to a general salary…No one in the company knew the designer's name or was specifically interested in the chair".
While this last comment reflects the different, lower status of designers in the Eastern Bloc, where they mostly worked collectively (and anonymously) in bureaucratic design institutes, an interview with the production manager of the VEB Synthesewerk, Günter Dämmig, called Jeschke's assertion into question. Dämmig confirmed that he knew the designer's name, Peter Ghyczy, but had not been allowed any contact. In fact, he would have liked to contact him about production details when the design had to be slightly altered. Not only did Dämmig refute Jeschke's claim of the anonymity of the designer, but his perception of the chair and people's reactions to it was markedly different from Jeschke's. Far from being indifferent to the chair, most VEB workers, Dämmig said, were proud to be involved in its production because they regarded all production for the West as something special. Moreover, East German consumers, according to Dämmig, happily paid the high price for the chair as there was prestige and desirability associated with ownership of a Western product.
Over time, the desirability of the chair shifted in both East and West. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the first West German garden stores opened on Eastern territory and East Germans discarded a large number of original Garden Egg Chairs in favour of new, and cheaper, West German versions. Apparently, the chair they had previously associated with the West (but which had been produced in the East) was no longer Western enough in light of reunification. Yet, just a few years later, the original chairs became sought-after collector's items that fetched high prices at auctions and in antique shops.
The Garden Egg Chair has finally become what it aspired to at its outset: a design icon of its time. It's history provides a tangible marker of East/West economic exchanges and a rare instance of outsourcing manufacturing from capitalist West Germany to the socialist East. Although this sort of outsourcing did not 'officially' exist, the example of the Garden Egg Chair shows us that the 'official' history, a product of the simplistic master narratives on either side, is not the only history.
This article is an edited version of an essay by Jana Scholze in the German Historical Institute Bulletin Supplement 7 (2011) which was originally given as a presentation during the conference Germans' Things: Material Culture and Daily Life in East and West, 1949 – 2009, held at the Los Angeles based Wende Museum in October 2009.
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