• 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
Bundesbank warns of ECB 'change of course'
Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann: Photo: DPA

Bundesbank warns of ECB 'change of course'

The head of Germany's powerful Bundesbank sharply criticised what he called a radical new approach by the European Central Bank of easy money, in an interview published Sunday. READ  

MH17 Crash
Families of German MH17 victims to sue
Australian and Dutch investigators examine a piece of debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane. Photo: EPA/DPA/ Igor Kovalenko

Families of German MH17 victims to sue

Relatives of German victims of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 plan to sue Ukraine and its president for criminal negligence for not closing the country's airspace, a lawyer said Sunday. READ  

Sport
Wonder goal puts new boys Paderborn on top
Paderborn players celebrate after defeating Hanover 2-0 to go top of the Bundesliga. Photo: DPA

Wonder goal puts new boys Paderborn on top

Promoted Paderborn went top of the Bundesliga helped by an extraordinary 80-metre goal at Hanover on Saturday as champions Bayern Munich were held to a goalless draw by struggling Hamburg. READ  

Oktoberfest 2014
Oktoberfest opens to toast millions
Celebrities Carolin Reiber and Marianne Sägebrecht raise their glasses at Oktoberfest 2014. Photo: DPA

Oktoberfest opens to toast millions

Germany's world-famous Oktoberfest kicked off Saturday with the traditional tapping of the first barrel of beer, as millions of revellers are set to soak up the frothy atmosphere in the 16-day annual extravaganza. READ  

Germany plan air lifts to help fight Ebola
A Liberian man holds his daughter as they wait for treatment for suspected Ebola symptoms in Monrovia. Photo: DPA

Germany plan air lifts to help fight Ebola

Germany and France will send military transport planes to West Africa to help efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, Chancellor Angela Merkel and military officials said on Friday. READ  

Germany beefs up asylum rules for Balkans

Germany beefs up asylum rules for Balkans

Germany made it harder Friday for people from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia to apply for asylum after lawmakers classified the three Balkan countries as safe, with respect for basic rights. READ  

German Muslims rally against extremism
Muslims pray in Kreuzberg, Berlin, on Friday outside a mosque which was damaged in an arson attack. Photo: DPA

German Muslims rally against extremism

Muslims across Germany held a day of prayers and rallies on Friday to condemn both Islamic extremism and a backlash against their faith that has seen arson attacks on mosques. READ  

German military flight to Iraq starts with a hiccup
The trainers on the air strip in Hohn, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: Bundeswehr.

German military flight to Iraq starts with a hiccup

Military trainers flew to northern Iraq from Germany on Friday, ahead of a huge delivery of weapons from the German military, but things didn’t initially go as planned. READ  

Munich gets four Euro 2020 matches
Photo: DPA

Munich gets four Euro 2020 matches

UPDATE: Munich will play host to four Euro 2020 games, European football’s governing body Uefa announced in Geneva on Friday, but London was the real winner. READ  

Driver, 18, ploughs into school pupils
The scene by the bus stop outside the school in Diepholz. Photo: DPA

Driver, 18, ploughs into school pupils

An 18-year-old drove into a group of students outside a school in western Germany on Friday morning, injuring several. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Culture
Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's tents
Photo: DPA
Hamburg
Drunk teachers ruin school trip to Hamburg
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Fashion Ladies of the Local: Win a New Autumn Look
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Oktoberfest 2014: The best and worst in dirndl fashion
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten German words you'll never want to hear again
Photo: DPA
Education
German universities tumble in global rankings
Photo: Shutterstock
Business & Money
The three types of firms hiring foreigners
Photo: DPA
Berlin
Frisky couple shock Berlin commuters
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
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

3,315
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd