• Germany edition
 
The Local Interviews
'Ampelmann is a positive symbol of the GDR'
Photo: DPA, Markus Heckhausen.

'Ampelmann is a positive symbol of the GDR'

Published: 23 Aug 2013 17:45 GMT+02:00
Updated: 23 Aug 2013 17:45 GMT+02:00

It was 1996 when designer Markus Heckhausen arrived on the Berlin art scene from his native Tübingen in south west Germany. In the former communist east of the city, “everything was still so grey and brown and at night, it was complete darkness,” he told The Local.

“I walked around the streets keeping an eye out for things from the old East, as the new government was replacing everything,” he said. This meant there were plenty of old pedestrian crossing lights - the Ampelmann - lying around, no longer guiding East Berliners across the streets.

“I was speechless that such a characterful, recognisable figure could be so easily replaced,” he said. “I don't think the West thought about them being a part of the country's identity,” the 52-year-old explained.

Driving an old East German Trabant car, he set off to collect as many discarded pedestrian crossing lights as possible from around the old GDR and brought them back to the re-united capital in his boot.

He then set to work making new lamps out of the old lights. “I made the first 200 lamps myself,” said Heckhausen. It was these lamps that kicked off the business. He sold all of them between the summer and winter of 1996. “They became a cult favourite really quickly,” he said, although he was surprised at how quickly it happened.

Nearly two decades later, Heckhausen holds the copyright to the iconic Ampelmann design alongside its original creator, Karl Peglau, who was sceptical of Heckhausen’s project at first. But after getting to know the artist he was soon on-board, becoming not only a shareholder, but also a father figure in the company until his death in 2009.

Together they turned the design firm into a €7-million business and in doing so made the Ampelmann into something East Germans could be proud of.

Ossi, a term for people living in the GDR, “was such an insult. But the Ampelmann started to change that as it was something more positive,” the father-of-three said. As interest grew, Heckhausen said that he began to realize the green man was “a symbol that the GDR was more than just the Stasi.”

It was when the initial cult hype died down, that Heckhausen realised he had to move the company forward. “We thought about making a film or a song, but then decided to make a whole range of products surrounding the Ampelmann,” he said.

Now the walking man image has been stamped onto everything from tea towels to pasta. “It's important for me, as a designer, that we keep the up the standard of quality,” he said.

Next on the agenda for Ampelmann, now that the company has four shops, a restaurant and a cafe, is setting up a foundation to help educate children about road safety. “It's okay that it's a popular souvenir,” said Heckhausen. “But it's important that we can use it to give something back to the city.”

Jessica Ware

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Second Ebola patient to arrive in Germany
Medical personnel practice containment procedures in Stuttgart. Photo: DPA

Second Ebola patient to arrive in Germany

A second Ebola patient is set to arrive in Germany from western Africa on Thursday night in Frankfurt. The city's University Clinic hopes to treat the NGO worker on its isolation ward. READ  

Germany ranks third in world university list
Students at Munich's LMU. Photo: DPA

Germany ranks third in world university list

German universities have shot up the world's leading higher education rankings, with Germany now having more institutions among the world's best than any other country after the US and UK. READ  

Expats in Berlin walk Wall for refugees
David Gordon Smith by a stretch of the Wall. Photo: Submitted

Expats in Berlin walk Wall for refugees

A group of expats will walk part of the route of the Berlin Wall on German Unity Day this Friday, almost 25 years after it fell, to raise money for refugees exactly a year after the Lampedusa tragedy. READ  

Rocket Internet shares disappoint on first day
It was more of a bear than a bull market for Rocket Internet co-founder Oliver Samwer (centre). Photo: DPA

Rocket Internet shares disappoint on first day

Start-up platform Rocket Internet entered the Frankfurt stock market on Thursday, in what was hailed as a milestone for German online firms, but the company's share price immediately fell by more than ten percent. READ  

How good is Germany for the elderly?
Photo: DPA

How good is Germany for the elderly?

A study comparing quality of life for older people around the world has ranked Germany 5th out of 96 countries. How good a place is Germany for the elderly? READ  

Cars set on fire across Berlin overnight
A burnt out car on Alten Jakobstraße, Kreuzberg, on Thursday morning.

Cars set on fire across Berlin overnight

Ten cars were set on fire across Berlin on Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the second night of disturbances in the city. READ  

Organized crime on the rise in Germany
Police escort a motorcycle gang in Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: DPA

Organized crime on the rise in Germany

Organized criminals are increasingly active in Germany, with the mafia as well as biker and international gangs making headway in the country, according to a government report. READ  

Nazi hunters find 80 living 'war criminals'
Jerusalem's Simon Wiesenthal Centre director Efraim Zuroff at the launch of a campaign to find remaining war criminals last year. Photo: DPA

Nazi hunters find 80 living 'war criminals'

The Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre on Wednesday urged Germany to prosecute alleged members of Nazi death squads during World War II, giving it a list of 80 suspects. READ  

The Local List
Eight expat groups to save you in Germany
Photo: Jan Perlich/Munich RFC

Eight expat groups to save you in Germany

Think you're the only English speaker in your town or region? Think again! The Local List this week runs through eight of the best expat groups and clubs in Germany. READ  

Victims of GDR regime get benefit boost
Former GDR political prisoners Hartmut (l) and Gerda Stachowitz in a East Berlin prison which has stood empty for 20 years. Photo: DPA

Victims of GDR regime get benefit boost

Benefit payments to former political prisoners of ex-communist East Germany (GDR) will be raised to send an "important message" 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the government said on Wednesday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Eight expat groups to save you in Germany
Munich
Bavarian independence becomes a reality... (online)
Photo: DPA/Police
National
'Criminals are at work in refugee homes'
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
Immigrants have created how many German jobs?
Photo: DPA
National
Revealed: Germany's military feet of clay
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Marks and Spencer: Win €300 toward your new autumn wardrobe
Photo: Shutterstock
Society
Quiz: How good is your German?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Thousands take to Berlin's streets for marathon
Photo: DPA
Society
'Incest should be legal,' says ethics board
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Ten noises that sound very different in German
Photo: DPA
Society
QUIZ: Can you pass the German citizenship test?
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten German words you'll never want to hear again
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,163
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd