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THE PROMISE OF THE ALTERNATIVE: The development of critical design and consumer culture in West Germany’s 1970s

Martina Fineder


Time marched on, IKEA and wooden furniture also entered on their triumphal march; the first man on the Moon had long been a legend, and ecological problems increasingly dominated daily events. Wood, even when coated with a layer of plastic and impregnated with highly toxic media, was "in", plastic was "out". (1)

These words by the German furniture designer Günter Beltzig put in a nutshell a central complex of problems facing the Western design and consumer culture of the nineteen- seventies: the reciprocal effects arising from environmental crisis in combination with the quest for an environmentally friendly product culture. The main impulse behind this development is generally held to be a reawakened love of nature. Starting out from a new systemic understanding of the relationship between human being and nature, the blue planet was declared to be "Spaceship Earth" (as coined by Richard Buckminster Fuller) and subsequently conceived as a "boat", which threatened to sink with everyone in it. What developed against this background were new questions of lifestyle. This anxiety about the repercussions on the life and environmental conditions of human beings themselves ensuing from their social utilisation of nature (2) , was projected in consumerist-critical actions such as "Jute Not Plastic" and recycling initiatives. However, random, market-conformist innovations such as the IKEA principle were also based on it. The brown and raw-textured shopping bag bearing the words "Jute, not plastic!" (" Jute statt Plastik!" ), became probably the most significant object of the symbolic protest made by a critical consumer culture with affinities to the New Social Movements (NSMs). (3) Jute had always been the main vector in debates on issues of cultural right and ownership. Hence, during the nineteen-seventies and their constant supply of catastrophe scenarios, jute united the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, as well as the feminist and ecological critiques of the large-scale industry (first and foremost nuclear power) . (4)

In this charged field between the polarities of counter-culture and mainstream, design and anti-design, consumer society and its critique, this thesis pursues the question of how the complex set of values of the NSMs is negotiated through making and consuming things. However, the yearning for nature and the natural - so the key argument of this thesis - is simultaneously a driving force for avoiding and combating consumerism, and also the impetus for a new form of consumption and design.

(1) Günter Beltzig, "My Sixties," published at; no further details on place and date of publication (last viewed July 30 2013).

(2) See Karl-Werner Brand, "Die Umweltbewegung (inklusive Tierschutz)," in Roland Roth and Dieter Rucht, Die sozialen Bewegungen in Deutschland seit 1945: Ein Handbuch (Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2008); Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century . A History (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 1989), repr. in 1990.

(3) The new social movements include the ecology movement, the peace movement, women's liberation and hundreds of civil rights initiatives. As a phenomenon of the post-industrial society these movements and initiatives are seen the successors of the "old" social movement - the student movement. See for instance Sabine von Dirke, All Power to the Imagination: The West German Counterculture from the Student Movement to the Greens (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press,1997).

(4) Compare Susanne Küchler, "Materials and Design," in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, edited by Alison J. Clarke, (Vienna: Springer, 2011).