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Merging Communist Values + Commercial Need, Cyan is the Most Fascinating East Berlin Studio You’ve Never Heard of

The designers began their careers on a computer smuggled across the Berlin Wall disguised as a TV

Most designers didn’t begin their careers using a computer smuggled across the Berlin Wall disguised as a TV. But Detlef Fiedler and Daniela Haufe, founders of design studio Cyan, did.

Cyan’s work from the 1990s, created just after the fall of the wall, was strongly affected by the dichotomy between East and West: they retained some of communism’s social values via their work with cultural institutions, but they also had to deal with the reality of becoming commercial designers as the economy pivoted towards capitalism. Cyan’s process and style also sits somewhere between tradition and innovation: It was the first design studio in East Berlin to use computer software like Photoshop, but at the same time, Cyan’s founders dedicated themselves to the precision of their lithography, obsessing over each detail like medieval German printmakers.

Cyan exhibition installation shots

Wildly vibrant, illusionistic designs were the result of Cyan’s material and conceptual methodology. Several strata deep, their posters require a careful eye to decode every layer. “Cyan’s whole philosophy is that they want you to spend time with their posters,” says Angelina Lippert, curator of Designing Through the Wall, a new show of Cyan’s work—a big ask for audiences used to decades of clean-cut Swiss advertising.

“Cyan’s whole philosophy is that they want you to spend time with their posters.”

Designing Through the Wall is Cyan’s first show in the United States, and little had been written on the collective prior to the exhibition. In fact, most of the primary research was conducted by Lippert through interviews with Fiedler and Haufe, who are still working as graphic designers in Berlin today. These interviews will be published in a small catalogue accompanying the exhibition, along with essays by Rick Poynor and Paul Stirton which will contextualize Cyan’s work, revealing how the studio pioneered digital graphic technologies while still honoring the history of German design.

We caught up with Lippert to discuss Cyan’s distinctive style, process, and how they pushed the field of design forward while still looking to the past, just before the opening of Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s, opening June 20 at Poster House, a new museum in New York City solely dedicated to posters.

1
Magmec Berlin, 1991

“How do you make the Bauhaus contemporary when it’s already such an icon of modern design?” says Lippert in front of Cyan’s poster Magmec Berlin, their first design for the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. The poster was submitted as an entry into a competition to rebrand the Bauhaus, and was actually created when Fiedler and Haufe were still working for Grappa, the first advertising agency in East Berlin under communism.

After winning the competition, Fiedler and Haufe formed Cyan, and the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation became their main client. Cyan designed for the foundation’s various programs, including posters for concerts, exhibitions, classes, and performances. The majority of the posters in Designing Through the Wall are advertisements for these events at the Bauhaus, but you probably wouldn’t guess so from the aesthetics or the imagery. Cyan layered photography and graphics in vibrant hues to create compositions that were visually arresting and intentionally vague, distinguishing their work from that of their client. However, though the airplanes and line work have little to do with the Bauhaus per se, Cyan’s use of photography and an asymmetrical grid strongly reference graphic design from the famous school, which had pioneered the use of these techniques 80 years earlier.

2
Bauhaus Program July/August, 1993

Like the Bauhaus, Cyan was dedicated to using its materials in a way that was both economic and experimental. All its posters were printed in only two colors (occasionally on toned paper) and it stuck to the use of classic, modernist typefaces like Futura, believing they could create innovative designs using what they already had on hand. Cyan also tried out different printing formats using the same design, maintaining a high degree of precision and registration in the process.

This “poster” for the Bauhaus’ 1993 July/August programming is actually two smaller pieces of paper, one being the reverse side of the other. These half-sheets could be folded and mailed out to potential attendees or hung around the city, revealing how Cyan modified printed material to reach their audience intimately at home and publicly in the street.

3
Bauhaus Program, October 1997

The image in the background of this poster is likely familiar, resembling Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s 1926 photo of the Bauhaus’ exterior, but in fact it was taken by the members of Cyan themselves. With a photo studio of their own, Cyan created almost all the images used in its designs, shooting everything from self-portraits to their dog. The pictures were then scanned into Photoshop, turned into single-channel images, and printed onto high-contrast films. The type was laid out and printed separately, and then all of the films were collaged together and exposed onto lithoplates. Luckily, down the hall was Movimento, Cyan’s printer, with whom they worked closely to achieve the perfect balance of color and composition. 

4
Bobeobi, 1994 / Bobeobi, 1996

The only two works in Designing Through the Wall that were not created for the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation are Cyan’s Bobeobi posters, which advertise a sound poetry festival. “Bobeobi” is the name of a Russian sound poem, a rather obscure reference for those not already in the know (although there’s a clue in the illustration of a mouth at the top of the poster, which was scanned from a German dictionary).

Cyan sought to challenge viewers with both imagery and language that was unfamiliar, operating on the principle that “Our audience will find us—it’s supposed to be a little higher level,” says Lippert. In light of the prevailing Golden Rule of Simplicity in graphic design, what Cyan was doing amounted to anarchy. Creating public-facing poster design for viewers that were already keyed-in was an unusual tactic, but it asserted Cyan as a studio that designed on its own terms, breaking standards in both their technical and conceptual approach. “I come from 15 years of posters and I’ve never seen designs with this much richness,” claims Lippert. “Every day I keep coming back and seeing new things.”

Cyan Bobeobi 1996

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Design History 101