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VM inspiration: Germany, History of a Nation exhibition

The British Museum’s new temporary exhibition opened last week to slightly mixed reviews. As design professionals, let’s consider this from a visual merchandising perspective.

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of excellent talks by The British Museum’s Neil MacGregor on Radio 4. To limit the history of a nation to just 600 objects must be an impossible task, but it makes clear how complex the history of Germany is. The country we know as Germany today is both smaller and larger than Germany has been in the past. Modeling itself on the Roman Empire, it traded from early times, dominating the world supply of amber, which was richly carved and exported, as well as pewter, linen, wool, timber, furs, honey, wheat, rye, and even German silk.

A league of Hanseatic ports promoted and protected trade and provided freedom from tolls. More recently, the export of the design aesthetic developed in the Bauhaus and spread globally in the 1930s has given us Modernism and its successors Minimalism, and Brutalism. Our current preoccupation with ‘Skandi-style’ or ‘modernism in wood,’ wouldn’t exist without its origins in Germany.

Equally the black-face type, so called because it makes the page more black than white, and which we associate with the Gothic today, has its origin in Germany, site of the world’s earliest printing presses. These allowed ordinary people to read books and broadsheet newspapers without a knowledge of Latin. Where would today’s fashion brands, such as Gareth Pugh, be without black-face fonts?

Much of the exhibition is paper-based, including locally printed notes from the inflationary Weimar period, which expressed jokes, political statements, and regional identities, sometimes to be exchanged only at a particular store. Aside from their enormous numbers of zeros, these seem rather similar to today’s retail store gift cards.

It would have been wonderful to include a few more items: my vote would go to the Frankfurt kitchen of the 1930s, the precursor of modular fitted-unit furniture, of which today’s retail fixture systems are a development.

Lastly, outside the exhibition is the much-loved Volkswagen Beetle, the people’s car (1938 - 2011). One of the world’s first air-cooled, rear engined, rear-wheel drive cars, it was designed by Porsche to be driven on the world’s first motorways. This example, from 1953, is one of more than 21m manufactured. The most-manufactured car of a single design platform, it gave rise to the stylish Karman Ghia and the iconic Volkswagen Type 2 bus, much-loved in VM windows.