• 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)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Olympic visions compete in Berlin and Hamburg
Berlin and Hamburg mayors Klaus Wowereit and Olaf Scholz on Monday. Photos: DPA

Olympic visions compete in Berlin and Hamburg

Germany's capital and its gateway to the North Sea each released details of their Olympic bids on Monday as the race for the 2024 or 2028 summer games nominations picks up momentum. READ  

Merkel details Iraq arms shipment to MPs
Angela Merkel addressing the Bundestag on Monday as her ministers look on. Photo: DPA

Merkel details Iraq arms shipment to MPs

UPDATE: Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Bundestag on Monday to explain her government's decision to send weapons to Iraqi Kurds fighting terrorist group Isis. READ  

UN applauds Germany's help to refugees
DPA

UN applauds Germany's help to refugees

UNHCR Commissioner Antonio Guterres is lauding Germany's role in accommodating the influx of refugees in Europe, while pointing at the imbalance of effort within the EU. The federal government has pledged to do more. READ  

Energy-sucking vacuums no longer welcome
Photo: DPA

Energy-sucking vacuums no longer welcome

Starting on Monday, vacuum cleaners drawing more than 1600 watts can no longer be brought into Germany. The ban is part of a an EU-wide environmental protection measure. READ  

Coalition horsetrading starts after Saxony vote
CDU leader Stanislav Tillich with SPD Martig Dulig. Photo: DPA

Coalition horsetrading starts after Saxony vote

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic (CDU) party is in search of a new partner after the expulsion of its former allies the Free Democrats (FDP) from the Saxon state parliament. READ  

Presented by Phorms Education
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation
Photo: Phorms Education

Bilingual education from nursery to graduation

A network of German based schools is changing how students learn languages by introducing English and Deutsch from day one, with the method yielding impressive academic results. The Local finds out more about Phorms Education. READ  

JobTalk Germany
'German bosses need to praise more'
More of this? Photo: Shutterstock

'German bosses need to praise more'

What do German bosses need to do to get more out of their staff? Frankfurt-based business consultant Justin Bariso has this advice. READ  

Train drivers take their turn to strike
A banner announcing a previous rail strike in June is displayed in a station. Photo: DPA

Train drivers take their turn to strike

A train drivers' union has warned of a nationwide strike to take place on Monday evening as it seeks leverage in negotiations with Deutsche Bahn. READ  

State budget in surplus despite weak exports
Germany isn't sending as many goods abroad as at the beginning of the year. Photo: DPA

State budget in surplus despite weak exports

GDP fell by 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2014 but state coffers are doing well, the Federal Office of Statistics Destatis announced on Monday. READ  

Anti-euro breakthrough
Anti-euro AfD nears 10 percent in state election
AfD politicians Hans-Olaf Henkel MEP and leader Bernd Lucke, celebrate the party's success in Saxony on Sunday. Photo: Daniel Naupold/DPA

Anti-euro AfD nears 10 percent in state election

UPDATED: Germany's anti-euro party, AfD, won its first seats in a state parliament on Sunday after elections in Saxony, according to preliminary results. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten of the oddest things found by German border control
Photo: Gerkan, Marg and Partners/Tegel Projekt GmbH/J. Mayer
Berlin
How will Berlin look in five years' time?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? 10 reasons why you should
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The best of Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit in 14 pictures
Photo: DPA
Politics
Germany sends burgers and sausages to Kurds
Photo: Matthias Kock
National
Tribes, ties and a movie: A German's Afghan life
Photo: DPA
Gallery
10 things to do before summer in Germany is really over
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The mysteries of Berlin's abandoned theme park
Photo: Europeana.de 1914 - 1918
Gallery
A German soldier's life behind WWI lines
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

3,418
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd