Cultural Disobedience: early 80s German subculture and its impact on design

History / Publishing

German music of the 80s – a time that is usually associated with the likes of Nena and her „99 Red Balloons“. But the „Neue Deutsche Welle“ („New German Wave“) is only the commercially exploited end of a subculture that emerged in the end of the 70s and lastet about seven or eight years into a decade that is mostly remembered for shoulder pads and big hair.

„Geniale Dilletanten” (Brilliant Dilletantes) was the intentionally misspelled title of a festival that took place on 4 September 1981 in Berlin and has since become the synonym for a brief period of artistic upheaval in Germany. It also lends its name to an exhibition that is on display at the MKG Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Museum of Arts and Crafts) until April 30, 2016.

For Hamburg, the travelling exhibition was curated by Dennis Conrad who is in charge of cooperations at the MKG. He sums up the spirit of the time as „cultural disobedience“, which basically means, that you don’t necessarily need to know how to play the guitar to be able to play in a band.

Although artistic views were predominantly expressed by means of music, most bands are (at least today) perceived as “Gesamtkunstwerke” (total works of art), expressing their views in art or design – obviously also fashion.


Often, the German subculture of the time is falsely labeled as punk but the two movements are totally different cups of tea. However, there is one thing that punk and the „Geniale Dilletanten“ have in common: the understanding that you don’t have to know anything to do anything.

Dennis Conrad: ”In my opinion, the exhibition is held together by two aspects: unbridled trial and no fear of error, and the utter disrespect to societal codes. This starts with the fundamental agreement that you don’t need to know how to play an instrument to found a band and that it is okay to self teach to be a guitar or drum player. The same accounts for design – and fashion, for that matter. If you can’t find the clothes you want to wear, just make them yourself. I call that cultural disobedience.

It’s about making, about not caring whether it is important to know how to play the guitar. It is about using your energy and passion. If you want to be a band then be a band – regardless of the fact that you only know how to play three chords.“


A question that is still relevant today: What is the role of design – to simply make things work for the user or to make a statement?

Dennis Conrad: ”There was a lot going on from the mid 70s to the mid 80s. Look at the Red Army Fraction for example, the terrorist organisation that had a significant impact on German history and society of the time. Something was brewing and things were political. Artists tried to be political too, mostly by turning against the establishment.

This is especially interesting when it comes to design. The predominant dictum – functionalism – stemmed from the schools of Bauhaus and Ulm. At the time, Dieter Rams was a defining teacher at the HFBK (Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, University of Fine Arts Hamburg). He can be regarded as a representative for minimalist and functionalist design principles: clean lines, no frills, form follows function.

And then there were people like Florian Borkenhagen – student then, teacher at the AMD Akademie Mode & Design (Academy of Fashion and Design) in Hamburg today – who wanted just the opposite: to make a statement with the objects they designed, to be political, to challenge the existing codes and standards, to provoke and to polarise – to then see what happens and how they are received by the audience.

I think that was the case for many other forms of artistic expression at the time. Take the band Einstürzende Neubauten for example who virtually invent a new kind of music: sound sculptures that happen under Autobahn bridges, where jack-hammers function as drums. This can also be seen as a discourse about the artistic medium that is music. In many fields there were attempts to undermine the existing codes and norms.“


Today, it has almost become impossible to shock with a hairstyle. However, in 80s Germany a shaved neck was a rather radical statement.

Dennis Conrad: ”Many of the groups we feature in the exhibition saw themselves as counter culture, also in regard to what it means to be German. The members of the band Palais Schaumburg take a critical look at the image of Germans by shaving their necks and wearing jackets of traditional German costume – both symbols associated with the 30s.

I think, there was a conscious attempt to examine the image Germans have of themselves and also to create a new such image. For a long time, singing in German was simply not done and was disdained as folkloristic. These bands started singing in German again, partly with controversial or confronting lyrics.

DAF were accused of right-wing tendencies for their song „Der Mussolini“ which contains the line „Tanz den Adolf Hitler“ („Dance the Adolf Hitler“). But just the opposite was the case. It was the deconstruction of anything Nazi and the attempt of an ironic take on it. Same with the shaved necks and folkloristic jackets: they have nothing to do with a right-wing political attitude, for me they are critical commentary.“


There have been so many 80s revivals to date that we’ve gotten so used to remixed versions of the decade. It is hard to image how extreme certain outfits back then may have seemed. Just remember, this was at a time when most girls and women still tried to look like Farrah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels.

Dennis Conrad: ”There was practically no ready made fashion for the scene. Just the way you would make your own music instruments or re-think the way you’d compose, you would go and make the clothes yourself: the existing was being deconstructed and you would use motifs that were not fashionable at that point.

Take a look at the girls from band and art project Mania D (later Malaria!). The way they experiment with fashion, the way they put things together that don’t really belong together is their attempt to create their own fashion out of nothing – a perfect reflection of the spirit of the time.“

(NOTE: The exhibition took place in 2016)

The Author

Bjoern Luedtke is a freelance journalist, editor and writer specialising in fashion and marketing